Heights-area lawns crave organics

Compared to spreading by hand, specialized top-dressing equipment allows for large volumes of organic material to be applied consistently and cost effectively. Photo credit Doug Freer.

Gardeners and farmers alike know that regularly adding organic matter builds healthy soil allowing plants to flourish. In the natural environment, plants die and decompose, returning nutrients and organic material to the soil. We interrupt this natural cycle in our urban landscapes because in most cases it’s necessary to clean our yards of landscape debris, piling leaves, sticks and grass clippings on the tree lawn for the city to haul away to a nearby compost facility.   

A few gardeners compost yard and kitchen waste, but rarely generate enough compost to impact more than a small garden area.  In most cases the bulk of our yard waste is composted at some facility and is returned only when we buy composted products and spread them in our landscapes. However, homeowners often do not return enough compost to replace the material that has been removed or that is necessary to sustain healthy soil.    

The lack of organic material is easy to spot. Try sticking a pencil or pen into the lawn and see how far it penetrates. Be careful you don’t break your pencil pushing too hard. For comparison, try a maintained flower or vegetable garden. Ah, yes, quite a bit easier. 

Despite our best hopes and intentions, it would appear that our lawns have become the second-class citizens of our yards. As the pencil test demonstrates, the soil in our lawns has very little organic material, primarily because it’s rarely, if ever, replaced, as opposed to your gardens and beds, which have much better soil. 

Soil consists of three basic minerals (sand, silt and clay), organic matter, air and water.  In the Heights area, of the three mineral components, clay is found in the largest concentration. Clay is also the smallest of the three minerals, comparatively, leaving little room for air. And when compacted, the soil has less air space, making root development even more challenging. A healthier lawn begins with building better soil. 

Top dressing with bulk organic materials like compost, leaf humus or SweetPeet will improve the composition of the soil, making the existing clay more hospitable to growing grass, just as it does for your garden beds. For existing lawns, the challenge has been that making a meaningful difference requires adding a large amount of organic material. To spread approximately ¼-inch of compost requires about one cubic yard for every 1,000 square feet of area. This is enough to help the lawn without smothering it.  Applying half again as much or double will not hurt the lawn, but it will become a little more noticeable. Larger volumes can be applied more frequently, but in smaller amounts to avoid smothering the lawn.

When starting over with a new lawn add ½-inch to ¾-inch of compost per 1,000 square feet and incorporate it into the existing soil with a rototiller. Spreading a large volume of material by hand is labor intensive. Professional lawn care companies may have specialized equipment to reduce the labor and, therefore, the cost for top-dressing your lawn. Depending on the type of compost material that is being used, spreading by hand requires placing small piles throughout the yard and then raking it out, so the material is very thin, then using a power backpack blower to further disperse and scatter the compost, which prevents smothering. A consistent and thin application is more difficult with this hand method particularly when the compost is dense or wet.    

Applying the compost at any time of year is fine, but prior to or during the fall or spring growing season is preferable. Scheduling your spring and/or fall lawn aeration at the same time as the top-dressing helps to further incorporate the compost into the lawn, improving the effectiveness of your efforts. Beyond basic fertilizing (traditional or organic), the next-best thing you can do for your lawn is to add organic material to improve the soil. You will be rewarded with a greener, healthier and lower-maintenance lawn.   

Douglas Freer is a Cleveland Heights native and is the owner of Lawn Lad, Inc. Lawn Lad provides residential landscape services in the Heights area. Call 216-371-1935 or visit www.lawnlad.com

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Volume 2, Issue 8, Posted 8:27 AM, 07.17.2009