New House - need to get a lawn growing
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    New House - need to get a lawn growing

    I searched around and found some good information here but I'm having some trouble putting it together, so I'm asking for help here. I've never had to start a lawn from scratch so I'm kind of lost.

    We built a new house last year and with it came about 1.5 acres of cleared land. The "landscaper" put down some sort of seed and covered it with hay but very little of anything came up. I'm in east-central Virginia - just outside of Richmond if that helps.

    So far, I've rototilled (by hand) one side of the yard and I'm digging up all sorts of large roots and tree debris that just got covered up when he smoothed things out. I will not continue to do this with my rear-tine tiller as I'm just too old for this nonsense. Since then I've purchased a 2018 2032R to help with this project.

    The dirt (if you can call it that) is clay mixed with sand. I know I need top soil before anything is going to grow but this is where my questions start. Should I get a 3-4" thick layer of topsoil and leave it alone, or should I mix it in?

    What is the best implement for doing this? My Deere dealer will rent me a Harley Rake if that would work. I hate to buy a PTO tiller as I'm hoping this is a one-time project. I have a set of harrows and a spring tine cultivator that I guess could tear up the ground in preparation for the top soil?

    Thanks for any advice and I'm sure I'll be updating this with more questions as they come along.
    Last edited by CoryB; 08-08-2018 at 12:39 PM.

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    AlKozak's Avatar
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    What are you striving for? A functional lawn or something that would not be out of place on an expensive golf course?

    For the former, 3-4" of topsoil is enough to get turf grasses established. The professional installers in my part of NY use a tractor with a loader and York rake. Deposit piles of topsoil around the plot with the loader and level it out with the rake. Roll it (totally optional) if you like. Hydro seeding is really the best low sweat way of planting and it will hold everything together for the two or so weeks it needs to sprout and tolerate less than daily watering. Otherwise seed, starter fertilizer and straw (not hay!!!) for mulch if you want to save $$$ and do it yourself.

    If there is a lot of junk in the subsoil and you're looking for a highly manicured result, frost will push up rocks every spring for a few years if you don't get rid of rocks and other debris. An alternative to a lot of work getting rid of them is to put down 6" or so of screened sand before the topsoil if your grade can handle the additional material. Depending on where you live relative to the source, sand is pretty cheap. It's mostly transportation costs you'll be paying for.

    Al

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    If you have heavy clay soil then your most effective route would be to lay down 2" of topsoil (loam)/compost mix and then till that in to a depth of at least 6". Then do the exact same thing a a 2nd time but only go down 4".

    A harley rake will loosen up the soil and help pull up those buried roots (and rocks) but IME, a harley rake won't dig deep enough to get your topsoil mix down where you want it on it's own. Lots of people use a moldboard plow to turn soil down 12"-14" deep and then run a harley rake over the top of that to smooth it out...

    If you don't get the topsoil down deeper you won't get decent root growth for long term lawn health.

    Check with someplace like Sunbelt rentals and see if you have a local place that rents PTO rototillers. I think that'd be your most effective tool.
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    AlKozak's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JimR View Post
    If you have heavy clay soil then your most effective route would be to lay down 2" of topsoil (loam)/compost mix and then till that in to a depth of at least 6". Then do the exact same thing a a 2nd time but only go down 4".
    Respectfully, I don't know if that is good advice. Most turf grasses common to northern climates (e.g. bluegrass, fescue) only have a root depth of about 3 inches. I wouldn't think it wise to "dilute" my 4" of topsoil by blending it with the top 6" of a soil of dubious provenance. I have no idea what the dilly is in Richmond, but my sister lives in Leesburg and, as far as turf is concerned, it isn't a whole lot different there than the northeast.

    Bermuda grass roots can reach 8 feet (!), but that stuff only grows in the far south AFAIK.

    Al

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    At our new place, I get to do a much larger area than Ive done before, as they didnt grade it properly when it was built 20 years ago.
    Ill do what Ive always done with bare ground, with the lone exception this time being to add topsoil to correct the grade.

    Once done, Ill roll it, make sure the grade is even one last time, put down seed, then roll again.
    Your best option with regard to seed is to have it hydroseeded. It works better and somewhat faster, depending on the seed used.
    I do NOT use straw. Any time Ive tried it, it leaves large areas where no grass grows. Well, by large I mean about a foot by a foot. Ive never had good luck having a nice looking lawn right away from using straw.
    I have when I use nothing but seed and roll after. Thats why I do it that way.

    For me, grass wise, I much prefer Pennington seed, but finding it in large sizes isnt easy. Ryegrass works well to establish a lawn fast. If you want really fast, use Annual Ryegrass. It wont come back, but if you also use Perennial Ryegrass with it, it will fill in very well before the Annual dies off in the Fall. I prefer Bluegrass myself, but generally seed/overseed with a Bluegrass Ryegrass mix.
    They say (you know the theys, they know everything) that Bluegrass will take over a lawn within just a few years leaving a very small percentage of Rye. I do not know if this is true or not.

    Your trouble now though is that its pretty late to start planting grass seed. Early Spring or Early Fall are the best times. Summer is rough because of the heat and generally a lack of rain in some areas, or at least less than is required to establish seedlings. You will have to water daily. Maybe twice a day. Ive done little areas in the Summer, but watered in the morning and late afternoon. If it was a particularly hot day, Id water mid day too, just to keep the soil damp. Good topsoil at a good depth will help with this, but youll have to keep an eye on it.

    Fescues grow well too, but I dont really like the texture of them in lawns, but in shady areas, there isnt much choice.
    I HATE Bermudagrass. H A T E ! ! ! Once established, its a nightmare to get rid of. Plan on Roundup a couple times, for a couple years to end it for good, and even then, some will still come back.
    Zoysia isnt bad, but it doesnt green up until later in the Spring. We had a large patch of it in our old yard and every Spring someone would invariably ask what happened to our yard there.
    Its great though because its so thick, not much else can compete with it. It also doesnt care much at all about rain. Very drought tolerant.


    Ill add too that I agree with Al, I dont think its necessary to till the topsoil in. All things considered, if you are mulching your grass, or discharging and not bagging, you will be adding nutrients back into the soil where it needs to be, and if you arent, but are fertilizing, you are doing the same. No need to overdo it by tilling in where the root wont reach anyway. Generally, the grass roots as deep as it is tall. Mow at 3", and your grass is likely rooting 3" deep. There are exceptions of course, but thats a good generalization of how most grass is. Tall Fescue roots deep, but it makes for a very coarse looking lawn, so I dont really care for it much.


    Not relevant to this, but when we moved here a few years ago, my daughter told our new neighbor that I was sort of a yard nut, and spent a lot of time making it look nice, and shes right although I never really thought I was all that bad. I worked for probably 5-6 years on my old lawn to get it where I wanted it. Annual fertilizer program, spot spraying weeds, getting rid of Bermuda where I could, aerating and overseeding, etc. I had it nice for about 6 years, then we moved and I get to start all over. Some people just want a green lawn and dont care what is is thats green. Im not some people. I wish quite a few times during the year that I was some people...lol. But when it gets where I want it, Ill be glad I did it all. Very satisfying for me anyway, to tame the weeds and other stuff I dont want in the grass. And once its there, its much less work than the initial time spent. I just wish it didnt take so long to get it how I want it, without paying for it anyway.
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    Quote Originally Posted by AlKozak View Post
    Respectfully, I don't know if that is good advice. Most turf grasses common to northern climates (e.g. bluegrass, fescue) only have a root depth of about 3 inches. I wouldn't think it wise to "dilute" my 4" of topsoil by blending it with the top 6" of a soil of dubious provenance. I have no idea what the dilly is in Richmond, but my sister lives in Leesburg and, as far as turf is concerned, it isn't a whole lot different there than the northeast.

    Bermuda grass roots can reach 8 feet (!), but that stuff only grows in the far south AFAIK.

    Al
    Different strokes for different folks.

    I'm not sure where you got your root depth numbers from but most references list cool season grasses (bluegrass, rye, fescues) as having root depths considerably deeper than 3". (That references lists bluegrass at the shallowest of the 3 at 10".) While I'd agree that the BULK of roots are fairly shallow, the whole idea for a decent lawn is to get the roots to grow deeper.

    But any time someone mentions that they are putting in an entirely new lawn and that their soil is primarily clay, I tend to recommend they till as deep as they can reasonably and till in organic matter to break up the clay. One thing none of the grasses like is to be sitting in water for any length of time. The soil should always be permeable deep enough so that the bulk of the roots aren't sitting in water after heavy rains. Breaking it up also allows air and water to sit below the bulk of the roots and roots need both to be deeper if you want your lawn to survive any sort of dry spell without having to water it yourself every day.

    As far as "diluting" goes, I don't see a problem. Grass doesn't need "pure" topsoil in order to grow. If you put 2" of topsoil/compost down over the clay and till to a depth of 6" you have 6" of mixed soils that is 66% clay and 33% organics. If you then add 2" more topsoil and till that to a depth of 4" you are left with your top 4" at 66% organics and 33% clay. That's more than adequate for any lawn grasses.
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    I just used my box blade and rippers to till up the soil and smooth out the yard from the construction. This brought any junk/debris to the surface and i just picked it up for the trash.




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    My yard is mostly clay. Grass grows ok in it . I think you could get away without deep tilling. Just loosen up the surface a bit, a heavy raking. Try to leave the grass that’s already started, just over seed it. Give it plenty of fertilizer and water and it should grow.
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    Thanks for all of the advice. I'll chew on it all and try to get a concensus of advice and decide what to do.

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    Tried three times with three different new for us homes to get a nice lawn going with seed and inevitably just went with sod, then kicked myself for not doing it sooner. Just sayin.
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