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February 25, 2008 8:26 AM   Subscribe

How do I convert all-crabgrass and sand to grass, on a low budget?

I live in central New England. Our back yard was filled in by the previous owner (post-septic installation) with cruddy, sandy soil. Or really, just sand. After years of neglect by me, it is now a lovely crabgrass haven. It's almost all crabgrass, plus a few assorted weeds. I've thought about just leaving it, but this year I'd like to put a little work into it and not end up with nicer crabgrass. I particularly hate the few bare patches. I don't have very much money to spend on it -- can't resod or cover with all new topsoil or hire landscapers, unfortunately. I know it will cost a little to buy the seed at a minimum, and perhaps some soil to improve what's there. It's a relatively small yard -- this part is perhaps 1/4 to 1/3 acre.

The yard is mostly sunny, with about 1/3 in shade toward the back that is less sandy, mostly moss-covered. I'm willing to ignore this part for now. I have one sprinkler but could get another. I'd like to avoid heavy chemical treatments if possible, but would resort to them if that's all that can be done.

So my questions are:

-- What's the cheapest best way to fix this? That is, should I kill the crabgrass with something like corn gluten meal (which will leave me with an even more horrendous and naked back yard) and then seed, or should I just lay down grass seed and rake and water? Or should I invest heavily in martinis and pretend that the crabgrass is regular grass like that of our neighbors? Or what would you do?

-- What kind of grass seed do you recommend? Ideally, there's something that grows in sandy soil and will eventually shade out the crabgrass, yet doesn't hurt my feet or eyes.
posted by theredpen to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You can kill grasses by covering them with a plastic tarp or several layers of newspaper. They need light to survive. Weight the groundcover with rocks and leave for a few weeks.
posted by Sara Anne at 8:46 AM on February 25, 2008

crabgrass is an annual; get out there and treat it early with some crabgrass preventative before the seeds have a chance to germinate. Covering it won't necessarily help, as the seeds may wait to germinate until after you remove the cover.

There's a decent video describing how to kill off a small amount of crabgrass on Ask This Old House.
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:22 AM on February 25, 2008

I'd use roundup, which works well on grasses, but Sara Anne's suggestion is better if you have time and don't mind looking at black plastic for a couple of months. Iirc it's known as 'solarizing' and does a good job of killing everything without leaving any residual poisons. But Roundup breaks down in the soil so doesn't leave residue either, and is quick.
posted by anadem at 9:33 AM on February 25, 2008

I've been fighting crabgrass in my yard for a couple of years and, at least the California variety, it does die off when covered up. I had my tent in the yard for a couple of weeks in July/August and it killed off a lovely 9 by 12 foot patch that is still bare but is slowly being reseeded with grass.

Of course, in the ensuing months the infestation has taken over another portion of the lawn.

I've been considering buying some of the lawn plugs advertised in the back of Pop Science, I think the grass is called something with a Z. It is advertised as being able to choke out crabgrass by just outgrowing it for space. And is supposed by very drought tolerant so it might work in your sandy soil.

Good luck in your battles!
posted by fenriq at 9:41 AM on February 25, 2008

On Preview: I'd be wary of using RoundUp based on this article.
posted by fenriq at 9:44 AM on February 25, 2008

Boy, good luck. It's tough to get rid of and it probably won't happen all in one year, but jenkinsEar has the right approach, get to it early before it germinates and at the same time seed like mad with grass. Covering with plastic works but it's impractical for large areas (it's more of a spot treatment). If you just try and seed grass without some sort of crabgrass herbicide you probably won't outcompete it. The corn gluten is supposed to work well, but again, don't expect a one-year miracle.
posted by Camofrog at 9:46 AM on February 25, 2008

Response by poster: But I want a one-year miracle. (kidding)

This is all good. I like the idea of covering it up, Sara Anne and anadem, but I think I have too much yard, even though it's small. I'm going to research the timing of corn gluten and reseeding -- good info on the germination of crabgrass, jenkinsEar and Camofrog. I think spring lasts approximately 5 minutes here but I will try to get a jump on it as you suggest.

fenriq, let me know if you try the Z grass. Good to hear the anecdotal evidence. I do have a large tent I could strategically leave out around the yard!

Additional suggestions very welcome! I don't mind if there's some crabgrass mixed in there, I guess. Just want it to look kind of normal, as opposed to how it looks now (idiotic).
posted by theredpen at 10:04 AM on February 25, 2008

If a big chunk of yard needs to be renovated...

.5 Get soil tested by local country extension.
1. Spray with Roundup in spring when stuff starts to get green again.
2. Give it two weeks to work.
3. Rent a roto tiller and till up the yard.
4. Apply additional topsoil if needed.
5. Apply fertilizer etc per the recommendation from the county extension analysis of your soil.
6. Plant an improved fescue variety that will survive the harsh New England winter. The county extension office can help with this two.
7. Water lightly twice a day until grass sprouts.
8. Water once per day until established, then as necessary after that.

You ought to be able to so all of this for a few hundred bucks worst case.
posted by COD at 11:18 AM on February 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've been considering buying some of the lawn plugs advertised in the back of Pop Science, I think the grass is called something with a Z.

It's Zoysia grass, and we've got it in parts of our yard. The previous owners relandscaped the front of our yard with the plugs, and it's amazing. It's a thick carpet of grass that your feet almost sink into. My only complaint is that the variety that we have dies out completely in the winter, so we've got a brown front yard right now (we're in PA). So far, the only weeds that have made it through are a few bulbs of onion grass, otherwise it's a spotless front yard.

Our back yard is a mix of different grass varieties and slowly is being overcome with weeds and clover. I plan on putting the plugs in (by manufacturer's instruction) and letting it take over the back too. It's apparently a slow process, but it will spread on it's own and take over. I don't mind the brown in the winter as much as the weeds annoy me.
posted by librarianamy at 12:16 PM on February 25, 2008

I never use poison in my garden, and just do it all by hand. (well with latex gloves to be more precise). And I'm pretty patient too :) It's free... (Apart from the gloves - though I do recommend them, they are endlessly efficient.)

Firstly fight weeds with weeds! There's a patch I'm reclaiming, it's infested with this horrible thing that in a mere blink is up shading and choking everything while it sends out these massive runners in all directions. Ugh!! Around it's borders is some rough nasty grass (Buffalo??) It has runners and is invasive too BUT not even anywhere near as hard to pull out! The other thing has these irksome little clusters of roots... so lame.

I rake it hard to get rid of the runners and the height advantage it has. (Luckily the grass isn't phased by this but it thrashes the other crap.) Then I go around the edge pulling it back (Getting as much root as possible!!)

So when that's done, the easy weeds will then come out in the same manner and I will be declared the winner! Champion of the lawn!

Just spend a little time observing things out there and know your enemy.

Alternatively... grass is for chumps. Plough it all in and plant a nice ground cover. I'm picturing some nice Pennyroyal. Would be very pleasant and pleasing together with the Moss and no mowing! (Just occured to me when I think 'Winter' it's not what you mean by Winter... so maybe not the Pennyroyal then?)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 2:57 PM on February 25, 2008

Let me start by saying that you don't want to use Zoysiagrass. It's a warm weather creeping grass. It will live, but it'll be the last to green up and the first to brown off. And since it's creeping, it will invade the rest of your grass, making it all look brown except during the hight of summer.

You've told us that you're in central NE. What you don't say is whether or not this is full sun, part sun, or shade. I suspect full sun since crab grass does best there. Since your main objective is to minimize dirt patches, I recommend applying a post-emerge crab grass killer just when things start growing again in the fall. Wait two weeks, then seed those areas. What seed you choose will depend.

You also didn't tell us if this is a trafficed area. High traffic lawns in the north will do best with either creeping red fescue in the shade, or tall fescue in the sun. If this isn't a high traffic area, and full sun you can use a kentucky blue, which is considered the most luxurious of turf lawns. Know that kentucky blue takes a bit more maintenance that the others - you have to deal with heavy feeding and thatch busting.

You also don't tell us what kind the rest of your lawn is. You'll want to match the rest to the best that circumstances allow. If the area is very small, or you have very small areas, you can mix some compost with seeds and use that as a patch. Keep it such that a palmfull of compost contains about 10 seeds.

Lastly, grass cut longer (2.5 - 3 inch min) is much more healthy and drought tolerant. Make sure you don't routinely cut more than 1/3 of the plant off when mowing.
posted by kc0dxh at 4:39 PM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

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