Four Steps to a Healthy, Bay-Friendly Lawn

Editor’s Note: Lest you forget, we share with you one last time the invaluable advice of Dr. Francis Gouin — our Bay Gardener for 12 years until his death in 2018.

      Warm days and cool nights, combined with shorter daylight hours, are what the doctor ordered for the favorite grasses of Chesapeake Country: bluegrass and fescues. They’re called cool-season grasses because they germinate, produce roots and lap up nutrients once summer’s heat shuts down. So now’s the time to get to work on next year’s perfect lawn.

Step 1. Test your soil

      A good lawn grows from well-prepared soil. 

      Lawn grasses grow best when soil pH is between 6.3 and 6.8, with medium to high levels of nutrients. You’ll know where your soil stands if you send it to a reputable soil testing laboratory. Send soil samples for testing to Waypoint Analytical in Richmond. Full instructions for testing are online:

Step 2. Feed your soil

     The best lawns also grow on soils with a minimum of three percent organic matter. When the grass roots penetrate deep into the soil, grasses become more drought-tolerant and recover more quickly from heavy use. 

     Begin by spreading a minimum of four cubic yards of compost per 1,000 square feet over the existing lawn.

     If your soil test indicates low limestone, nutrients or organic matter, then incorporate the lime, fertilizers and compost into the soil by rototilling or spading. Do this a week or two before seeding so that the land has time to level and settle smoothly.

Step 3. Sow grass seed

      The best bet for Chesapeake Country is the improved fescue grasses that develop deep roots and become more drought-tolerant than bluegrasses. Seed following package directions.

Step 4. Water your sown seed

      Improve germination by keeping the soil surface moist with two to three light waterings each day for the first week. To retain moisture, spread a thin layer of straw sufficient to form a 20 percent shade cover over the soil.

     As seeds germinate, reduce the number of daily waterings. Once space between the glass blades begins to fill in, limit watering to two- or three-day intervals with more water each time. Each week at this point, apply one inch of water per acre. That’s about the amount of water needed to fill a tuna can placed under a sprinkler. By allowing the soil to dry between waterings, you encourage deeper rooting. Keeping the soil moist at all times will promote shallow rooting, which can be detrimental as the cold season progresses.

Seven Steps to Vanquishing Bare Spots
      Filling in bare spots takes more work than sprinkling seeds and a little peat moss over the seed. Most likely such seeds will germinate and grow, but odds are that the soil is compacted in that spot, so the new seedlings will die after a few weeks of drought.
     Soil compaction is the most likely cause for dead spots. Unless the soil compaction problem is resolved, it will recur.
Step 1. Loosen the soil to a depth of at least four inches.
Step 2. Amend that soil with about an inch of compost. Work the compost thoroughly into the loose soil.
Step 3. Firm the amended soil by walking over it several times.
Step 4. Scratch the surface lightly before spreading the seed.
Step 5. Seed.
Step 6. Spread compost lightly over the newly seeded area and surrounding grass in an area twice the size as the dead spot to keep the seed cover from being washed away by heavy rains or careless watering.
Step 7. Mist daily, ideally at high noon. Alternately, sprinkle a light coating of straw over the seeded area. After sprouting, decrease watering as above.