How do I fix my yard?
July 5, 2008 6:15 PM   Subscribe

How to remove and prepare our yard/lawn. Is a "sod cutter" overkill, what about a mattock? Once the crabgrass is gone, what next? I have a lot of questions ;)

Our backyard is roughly 30' x 30' and in fairly bad shape. It's entirely crabgrass and the ground is very uneven, twisted ankle uneven. There are lots of rocks and debris just under the surface in some places.
I'd like to start over but I don't know how. I've seen gas powered "sod cutters", but they seem to be used for a more tame (i.e. flat) situation? How about hand tools? Is a "mattock" (it sounds so D&D to me) the right tool?
After the crabgrass is gone, do I "rototill" the ground, rake out the ugly stuff and then re-sod? I want the ground cover to be fairly durable, is there something other than grass I could use as a ground cover? Are there more durable kinds of grass? We're in Northern California and want to do this ASAP, is it the wrong time of year?
Am I in over my head? Have I asked to many questions? Help?
posted by Echidna882003 to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You can either:
- Spray your entire lawn with a product such as Roundup. A week later, water it to germinate any remaining seeds. Wait a week or two, and spray those.
- Mulch your entire yard with black plastic, newspaper, etc. Anything to smother out the grass. This is best done over the winter and then you have dead grass and a clean slate to work with in the spring.
(Note: Roundup is generally pretty safe; however, it seems to have adverse effects on frogs, toads, etc. So if you live near a pond or stream you may want to use the mulching method.)

Aerate with a core-aerator, not a spike one. Around here someone will do it for around $50, or you can rent one and do it yourself. If you have a sprinkler system be careful not to run over the sprinkler heads. A core aerator takes out little plugs of soil. This helps with compacted soil and brings air to the roots.

You'll probably be removing the rocks and debris as you aerate. Get the big chunks.

Then, bring in a load of topsoil. You will probably need more than you think, so the little bags from the store won't cut it. Use this to level out your yard. You want the entire area to be covered with a couple of inches or topsoil.

At this point, you can bring in sod. If you are looking to do this in the next 6-7 weeks, sod would fare better than seed. If you can wait until late August, you can save some money and do seed.

Keep your sod/seed watered! This is VERY important! It needs to establish nice, deep roots.

Once your new lawn is established, it needs about 1" of water per week. You should lay down fertilizer a few times a year. This will cost $30-$40/treatment from a lawn service, or about half that if you do it yourself.

(You could rent the sod cutter, but then you have the problem of what to do with the sod you cut up. There are sod cutters you kick with your feet, and ones that are gas-powered. For an area that size you'd probably want a gas-powered one.)
posted by Ostara at 6:35 PM on July 5, 2008

Best answer: That is a lot of questions, but also a laudable goal!

It sounds like you're sort of a novice gardener. You might want to consult with a local landscape expert for ideas and alternatives that work well in your area, and that might be less hassle to keep up than a new lawn! Some designers will work up a plan that you can implement yourself...ask around at good garden centers (i.e., NOT big box stores, real nurseries) and find someone you like.

That said:

Digging out 900 square feet of rocky compacted yard is going to be backbreaking, regardless of how you do it. Also, crabgrass is really persistant and it would suck so, so much to do all that work and have it come back. You might want to investigate alternatives that involve layering--laying down cardboard or heavy kraft paper, then putting compost or soil on top of that, and planting or laying sod on top of the soil. This is sometimes called "lasagna gardening"...give it a google. The idea is that the existing turf and weeds are smothered underneath the cardboard and all, which will eventually break down under the compost/soil layer. It sounds like your soil is pretty lousy, so it'd benefit from a lot of amendments mixed in anyhow. Save your back and layer!

I've successfully reclaimed sod this way--the biggest patch so far was probably 10 feet by 20 feet. Costco is a great place to find big sheets of cardboard that don't have staples or glue, the way big boxes do...look in the dairy aisle, they use them to separate layers of milk gallons. My local store is happy to let me take some.

Good luck! Less lawn is better!
posted by Sublimity at 6:46 PM on July 5, 2008

Mulching to kill the grass is a bit dicey, in that grass seeds live a long time, and can never be exposed to sunlight, and every tiny piece of root will grow if left behind.

You have to either put thick plastic down, and vow to never disturb it, or you can mulch with at LEAST 9 inches (a foot would be better) of something like wood chips (NOT cedar or hemlock chips). I've had the best luck with the heavy thick mulch approach. If you put it down now, you can add soil or sod next spring. If you mulch that heavily, and then put down sod or soil, you've no need to aerate.

Mattocks are great tools, if you're used to heavy physical labour, but every time you dig, you'll be exposing new seeds and root bits and giving them a chance to grow.
posted by reflecked at 6:52 PM on July 5, 2008

The best time to plant in Northern California is the fall, when temperatures begin to cool and just before the rain starts. It's much less stressful for the plants, and a much better strategy in a water rationing year.

You do kind of sound like you are in over your head. There's no need to rush re-doing your yard. It's much better to tske the time to consider your options, figure out what you want and how to get it using minimal resources, properly prepare your soil and plant the appropriate plants.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:09 PM on July 5, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks folks. This really helps a lot!
posted by Echidna882003 at 7:28 PM on July 5, 2008

If you are interested in alternatives to grass there are quite a few agencys in CA offering money for people to rip up their grass and replace with drought tolerant vegetation right now. This would buy you a pro landscaper probably. Try your Water Agecny or County/ City govt to see if it's an option.

Thyme makes an nice alternative to grass and does well in the climate.
posted by fshgrl at 7:30 PM on July 5, 2008

I killed my front yard by going around the neighborhood on recycling morning and taking piles of the New York Times and Wall St. Journal (no colored inks in those papers, at least back then). I put the papers in thick layers on the grass, soaked them, and then added 2-3 in of free wood chips from the city chipping place. I cut slits through the newspaper to plant perennials, berry plants, etc. I had very little weeding after that and no mowing.
posted by PatoPata at 9:55 PM on July 5, 2008

In California solarization might be a better option than simple layering; at least, it's what I plan to do with my weedy area. But Roundup is designed for and generally very effective on grasses, so for crabgrass I'd probably go for using that.
posted by anadem at 10:17 PM on July 5, 2008

What fshgrl said. Also sniff around your local native plant store and start stalking master gardeners.

Crabgrass is the effing devil.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:48 PM on July 6, 2008

Well in any case you're going to have to wait to plant until at least September or you'll just fry your plants, but here's my (really long) 2 cents on how to get started:

Don't use the mattock if you have crabgrass. You know how it roots at various points along the stems that lie on the ground? Well, it does that when it's chopped up, too. So any little chunk you leave will sprout roots and grow into a whole, brand new plant! If you chop it all up with a mattock, even if you take out the adult plants, in only a few months you will have an absolute JUNGLE of crabgrass.

The layering technique works really well, if you can stand to have your yard covered ankle deep in newspaper-with-mulch-on-top until next spring. The good thing about newspaper (not plastic!) layering is that you don't ever have to remove it: just pour another couple inches of topsoil or compost on top of it before you plant and lay your sod right there. None of the grass seeds present in your original lawn will ever germinate or make it up through the barrier (do be generous with your newspaper). Also once it breaks down, it becomes a compost that improves your soil.

I really wouldn't advise reflecked's approach: "mulch with at LEAST 9 inches (a foot would be better) of something like wood chips [ . . . ] you can add soil or sod next spring. If you mulch that heavily, and then put down sod or soil, you've no need to aerate."

1) you shouldn't put down sod (or any plant) directly on mulch or wood chips. There are no nutrients, it doesn't hold water well enough, it is acidic and depletes nitrogen (grass's primary nutrient!) from the soil. So any sod over mulch will just plain old die. While reflecked is right that *eventually* the wood chips would break down and create a nice airy organic soil, it would take years.
2) 9 inches is overkill, and completely unnecessary if you put down a barrier such as newspaper first. Don't waste your money on covering your yard with a foot of mulch, when two inches over some good ole recycling will do the trick.

Once you kill your old grass, I'd strongly advise - even beg - you to NOT go with grass again. Think about it: grass takes SO much water, then you have to fertilize it, which makes weeds grow, which means you have to use weedkillers. And then your fertilizers also make the grass itself grow more which means you have to spend more time mowing. On top of this, unless you're dedicated to organic gardening, each of these products is terrible for the environment in its own special way. Why bother?

Google "drought-tolerant groundcovers" and you will find a wide selection that you can pick up at your local nursery and plant this coming fall or spring. (Groundcovers are plants that will spread to create a lawn-like effect, while needing no mowing (they only grow to a certain height) and very little extra attention). Something like creeping thyme (between 1-2") even perfumes the air! So do your back and the environment a favor and avoid grass like the plague.

PS: one thing to keep in mind about alternative groundcovers is that some are for higher-traffic areas and some can only tolerate less traffic. So figure out in advance how much you use your lawn and choose your plant accordingly.

PPS: In Southern California I have heard rumors of a tax credit for replacing your lawn with more environmentally friendly plants. It might be something to check out.
posted by GardenGal at 10:35 PM on July 6, 2008

GardenGal, with respect, I disagree.

I hold a Master Gardener's certificate, and my work in reclaiming bad ground gets praise. Seeds of invasive grasses will sprout if there is sunlight within 6-9 inches (some can come from farther down, but the sprouts are sparse and easily pulled). The seeds actually sense the presence of light, even if it's not reaching them. Thick plastic can do the same thing, but then you can't till at all. Of course, wood chips are acidic. When you plant grass, or lay sod, you add lime as a matter of course. Putting down soil on top of the mulch, after it's wintered over gives adds nutrient.

Newspaper is also effective, if you put it down thick enough. So will straw if it's thick enough. The problem with newspaper is the inks. The problem with straw is that it usually has seeds, and it has to be put down much thicker, as it's airy and lets light though.

I agree about not replanting grass, though. A lot of people like to have a small patch, just for sitting on, etc, but groundcovers are a much smarter way to cover the ground. Nature abhores a vacuum. If you have bare dirt, something's going to grow there. When you plant groundcover, it's got to do just that.. cover.
posted by reflecked at 7:40 PM on July 9, 2008

Well if there's one thing I've learned from gardening it's that I have to keep learning... Thanks, reflecked.
posted by GardenGal at 10:44 AM on July 10, 2008

When you plant grass, or lay sod, you add lime as a matter of course.

Not as a general rule in Northern California. Our soils tend to be alkaline clay, with a high calcium content and a pH around 7-7.5. I also would never put sod or grass seed over uncomposted wood chips, when compost is readily available in bulk, and avoids the problem of nitrogen deficiency altogether. 9 inches to a foot of wood chips would never decompose in a mediterranean climate; add to that the fact that more than 4" of mulch is moving into the realm of starving soils of oxygen (particularly in clay soils) - this is not advice I would recommend in this climate. (Nor would I recommend bringing in topsoil, unless you are on bare rock. Otherwise, you're wasting time and money that could be better spent enriching the existing soil.)
posted by oneirodynia at 11:48 AM on July 10, 2008

I was under the impression that Northern CA got snow in the winter. Overwintering a thick mulch of wood chips, (or of anything) does break it down. I've seen the process in action in Humboldt County, admittedly the only part of N CA I'm familiar with. I'd have suggested something different, but went with the ideas the OP was presenting.

Ideally, you could layer wood chips, new soil, and other organic matter. Price-wise, if someone is already considering laying sod (which is massively expensive), just using the wood chips would work fine and keep costs down. It's the thickness of the mulch that I most want to emphasize. You're amending the soil if you don't put it on thick enough, but you're not killing the invasive grasses.

Starving soils of oxygen by using woodchips on alkaline clay soils? :) That's a good description of of the soil I garden in (coastal riparian zone). It doesn't happen. I also add lime. It's pretty hard to change soil pH significantly. Wood chips in that bulk can, even with clay soil. People I know that have planted lawn grass in alkaline soil are also sorry if they don't lime.

Barring the use of herbicides (likely having to apply more than once) a REALLY thick mulch is the only way to get rid of the unwanted plants.

I'm not a much of a California expert. :) I just look it up on the internets.
posted by reflecked at 7:42 PM on July 10, 2008

Starving soils of oxygen by using woodchips on alkaline clay soils? :)

It does happen, quite frequently actually. I've had to replace an entire garden after a previous landscaper mulched with bark, 8-10" deep. Over the winter, every single plant succumbed to root rot. Oxygen and water have to move through the same pores in soil. If those pores are occupied by water that can't evaporate due to heavy mulch or other obstruction, you end up with oxygen poor soils that can not support a healthy rhizosphere, including the microorganisms that break down organic material and make nutrients available to plants. Maybe not a bad thing if you are trying to only kill grass and weeds (and oxygen deprivation is one of the reasons a heavy mulch will kill things), and don't mind having to build your soil up afterward, but any nearby trees and shrubs will be stressed if their roots are under the mulch as well. It's just my preference to build healthy soil, not create unhealthy situations. I'm not saying that a thick mulch technique should never be used, only that people should know what goes on when they do.

"If a thick mulch layer is applied over a heavy, moisture retaining soil both layers would absorb moisture until saturated before water would infiltrate into the soil. These wet layers then create an impermeable barrier allowing preventing oxygen to filter through to the soil"

"Desired depth of wood/bark chips depend on particle size. Smaller size chips should not exceed a one to two inch depth. Larger chips are typically applied at three to four inches deep. Deeper layers may reduce soil oxygen. ...On compacted and/or clayey soil, three to four inches of wood/bark chips may reduce water evaporation from the soil surface so much that susceptible plants develop root rots in wet years or under frequent irrigation. In this situation, one to two inches would be a better depth or in wet sites, chips may be undesirable all together."

I was under the impression that Northern CA got snow in the winter.

The OP may live in a part of Northern California that snows, but the problem is actually with our dry summers. Soil microorganisms need moisture and warmth to break down material.

People I know that have planted lawn grass in alkaline soil are also sorry if they don't lime.

I'm not sure why that would be the case. It doesn't make sense to me to add something alkaline to an already alkaline soil, when you should really be trying to lower pH, particularly since lawns prefer a lower pH around 6.2, plants around 6.5. Iron deficiency due to high pH is extremely common in California and no one wants to induce a deficiency by raising pH even higher. Calcium is generally added to perennial gardens on alkaline soil in the form of Calcium sulfate, which does not raise the pH.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:09 PM on July 10, 2008

heh... good enough.

Gardeners can argue as passionately as any true believer. What I do works. I bet that what you do works, too.

I agree about CaSO4, it's a good thing. pH is very hard to change, and any regional gardener, if wise, just goes with the flow. I'm sure the lawn mixes there are different than the ones best suited for here, as are the ground covers, and the perennials that thrive. Even though the large categories appear the same(alkaline, clay, etc), I'm confident that the differences outweigh the similarities, and strategies.

My very fave is "micro-climate" gardening. I like fine-tuning a spot to perfection, and then watching the chaos defy my attempts at herding nature.

This year, the spring was so cold that the pollinators didn't wake up until after most of the fruit trees were done flowering. The only fruit I'm going to get are the result of me climbing ladders with a paintbrush and sex on my mind.
posted by reflecked at 12:20 AM on July 11, 2008

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