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It's time to give your lawn a little love

Friday - 8/29/2014, 5:30pm  ET

A reader sent in a picture of the trouble spots on his lawn. (Courtesy of Billy Nokesville)

Lawn seeding the time is NOW

Jeff in Woodbridge writes: "Hope you have an upcoming segment planned on seeding a fall lawn -- when to begin and the steps involved -- as I am rearing to go."

Great timing, Jeff, as "right now" is exactly when to begin.

To overseed bare spots

If you're overseeding an existing lawn, cut it a little lower than normal -- just this once! -- and spread an inch of compost on the surface, sow matching seed, rake it gently into the compost and then water the area gently for 20 minutes every morning. The soil is so perfectly warm at this time of year that the seed should sprout within five to seven days.

Then, back off the watering to every other morning, and then twice a week, leading up to the once-weekly watering you'll deliver forever after (and that's only in weeks when we don't get an inch of rain, of course).

Sound too easy? Plants ARE easy, if you don't make them hard -- just be sure the new seed matches the old grass perfectly or you'll have a patchwork quilt.

To sow a brand-new lawn

And if Jeff in Woodbridge wants to seed a brand-new lawn?

  • Have the old mess tilled up when the soil is dry and rake away as much of the old green as you can. (Do not "kill" the existing lawn with herbicides. That's a chump move that exposes you to dangerous toxins and makes it impossible to grow new grass any time soon.)

  • Level the surface, spread an inch of high-quality yard waste compost over the area, level it again (a crucial step that helps ensure years of trouble-free lawn care) and sow a named variety of seed from a reliable brand -- one that you'll be able to buy again when you need to overseed in future seasons. Write down the name and keep it in a safe place, or, even better, save the bag. Don't try to save money on generic seed: The quality will be low and you'll never be able to match it when you need to.

  • Just rake the new seed into the compost lightly. Don't cover it with straw or other nonsense.

  • Then water it gently for 20 minutes every morning. After it's all up (which should take a week, tops), gradually back off the watering frequency until you achieve the ideal once-a-week schedule that forces lawns to develop the deep roots that crowd out weeds.

  • Don't worry if you see a few weeds pop up. Once it's established, a correctly-cared for, fall-sown lawn will beat out any weed.

Spread corn gluten now? Then seed when?

Kathleen in Ashburn writes: "We are planning to spread our corn gluten this week, but we also want to overseed the lawn this fall. What would be the best timeline for that so that we don't kill the seeds with the corn gluten?"

Great question, Kath. All-natural corn gluten meal provides a perfect fall feeding, but its natural pre-emergent herbicide activity prevents all seeds from germinating, not just the targeted weed seeds. I would reverse your suggested timing and overseed ASAP, while the soil is still toasty-warm and germination will be super-fast. Water lightly every morning, and all the grass should be sprouted by the middle of September. Then feed it a week later, when it will greatly enjoy the whole-grain goodness of a corn gluten meal meal.

Bad lawn cure: Compost? Aerate? Sand? Seed?

Bill in Nokesville writes: "The bottom half of my lawn always turns brown. I've only been in the house two years and am betting the builder didn't put any good soil under the sod. Can I spread some good soil or compost over the lawn in that area? Should I aerate first? And when? What about spreading some sand for drainage? And with this cool weather, could I spread seed now? Or should I wait until September?"

The first thing you need to do is raise the height on your mower dramatically, Bill. The photo you sent clearly shows a scalped lawn. Continue cutting it lower than 3 inches and it will always look bad. And if this is the part of your lawn nearest the sidewalk or a pathway, DON'T use rock salt on those surfaces this winter.

Forget the sand. (Sand?)

Perform the core aeration first, to loosen your compacted soil.

Then, spread an inch of high-quality yard-waste compost to both feed the existing lawn and provide a perfect bed for the new seed. As we've been warning, make sure the new seed matches the old grass. Hopefully the builder can tell you what kind of sod he used or at least where he got it.

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