Amending soil to rebuild your lawn may be the most practical option you have. If you have a small yard, or poor access for equipment, you may be better off working with what you have.
It also may be an affordable option if soil is at a premium in your region. There are a few other advantages of when it makes sense to amend soil that we will cover in this section.
Sometimes we have to be practical and work with what we have.
The best way to amend your current soil is by using a good tiller and mixing in amendments. There are many different types of amendments you can use to improve your soil, and your choice should be based on what your current soil conditions are.
If you are not familiar with Dream Yard, we are not into step by step instructions. Instead, we give you options by talking about the pros and cons of each method. We understand that every country, climate, and situation is different. So here is our take.
Before we start, we always insist on making sure you protect yourself when using any equipment in a yard. Tilling can be more dangerous than you think. Have your yard staked for any underground utilities before your begin. The tines can easily penetrate 5 to 10 inches into the soil after a few passes, so care should be taken around these areas.
Amending soil may not be the best lawn repair option for you if you have in-ground irrigation, or buried landscape lighting lines.
Tilling is hard work., and I want you to understand what you are getting into to save yourself some money. Managing a good tiller effectively through rocky, or clay soil requires a decent level of physical fitness and strength.
You won't be using a light duty garden tiller for a job like this. 8 hp or higher with rear tines is recommended for hard soil. I am not trying to endorse Honda, but they do make a great tiller so take it for what it is.
You can rent them at most equipment rental stores, including Home Depot. If you remove the side plates you can til down even deeper.
It might be a good idea to have a few extra cotter pins handy, as they often come out when you work them in hard rocky soil.
If you are tilling an area with lots of grass and weeds, it may be helpful to remove as much of this as you can before you start.(You may want to consider using a sod stripper). Grass may be organic and provide nutrients when it breaks down, but it can also make things difficult to work with.
Sod clumps left in the soil after tilling, can leave voids or spongy areas. This can leave you with a lumpy surface. You have the choice to remove your grass with a sod remover like we discussed in the previous section, or til it into the soil. It's very difficult to rake out these grass clumps when tilling, and you most likely will end up with a lumpy uneven lawn.
Topdressing may help you deal with uneven soil after the fact. You can fill in small depressions with topdressing to level your lawn over time. (It is normal for soil to settle over the next few years), but the best way is still to remove all the grass before you begin, using a sod remover.
Before you til, you can have your soil tested. This will help you to know what amendments will work best for you, and how much of each you should be adding.
You should also do a simple test of the area by putting a shovel into the ground in different places. If the shovel sinks in easily, you may not have to til. Studies have shown that tilling can have a negative effect on a well balanced soil with good structure.
This is a yard tip that is often overlooked.
If the shovel does sink in easily, it means that roots, water, and oxygen will be able to penetrate the soil. This is a good opportunity to check how deep the grass roots are growing into your soil.
This shovel test is also great for transplanting trees and shrubs. You don't need to dig a big crater before you put a shrub or tree in the ground if the surrounding soil is healthy and penetrable.
The advantage to the tilling method is in your increased soil depth. A tiller will be able to penetrate 6 to 8 inches or more into the soil depending on the model of tiller you use, and how efficient you are when using it.
Your grass will thank you for it. You can have a deep rooting, drought tolerant lawn if you train your roots with effective watering. This can also be a good method for improving clay soil, as we will talk about later.
To purchase a topsoil base 6 to 8 inches thick would cost you quite a bit more than amending.
If you live in an area where topsoil is very expensive, it might just be worth the hard work to build your own.
This is one of the reasons why I tilled one of my properties. (Topsoil was over $300 a load and it wasn't the best quality soil either.)
I made my own loam, and was able to develop a great lawn at a fraction on the cost.
How accessible is your yard with equipment, and what damage can result from it's use?
Think about clean up and repair costs to existing pathways, sidewalks, or existing lawns and gardens. The heavy equipment used for replacing your existing lawn and soil can damage all these existing features.
You may have to drive over or through other areas which can badly rut or damage them. This is another reason to choose working with your existing soil.
Another thing to consider is how accessible the area is. If you have a yard that would require a large amount of time and effort for material exchange (Bad soil out, and good soil in), you may want to consider tilling. You may not be able to access your yard with heavy equipment, but you can easily bring in a few yards of amendments with a wheelbarrow.
Just like everything else in science, there is always controversy. Landscaping is no exception to this rule. So, what works for amendments?
In case you missed this in another section, grass grows well in a nicely balanced loam. That means having the right amounts of organic matter, fine sediments (silt), sand, and clay.
This loam will allow surface water to penetrate through the soil, yet still retain enough moisture for the roots. So by tilling, your goal is to build your own balanced loam.
The most common additive is lawn organics. Organic matter is the best choice to improve clay (Not sand), as well as improve water retention in sandy soil. You can usually find some great additives at your local garden center. They can recommend the right mix for you if they know what you are using it for.
An enhanced topsoil (Garden mix), is a popular choice. They are a little more expensive, but largely organic and worth the money. We don't want you to invest $500 on sod, without spending a few bucks on good soil.
What they are providing with their garden mix is AMENDED topsoil. Garden mixes have much higher percentages of organics, and usually contain peat to hold the moisture. The percentage you use to amend your soil will depend on the current soil you have. Remember what we said about what constitutes a good loam? (Balance.)
Be careful about using too many organic amendments when you til, because they do not compact well. They can also hold too much moisture giving you a spongy, or saturated soil. This may be fine for certain gardens, but won't work as well for a lawn. You will need to find the right balance for your base.
Remember that you can also add topdressing each year to continue the process of soil improvement for years to come.
Amending Clay Soil
There is a lot of information out there on how to improve clay soil. Do you add sand, organics, or both? The best answer is always organics. Studies and experience have shown that adding sand can have negative effects on your soil. If you google “amending clay soil” you can sift through the over 50,000 results and do some reading for yourself.
We try to save you that time by giving you a few of the better articles. The first link will open up a new window to one of the best lawn care sites on the internet. I suggest you bookmark it. There is tons of valuable information to help you with your lawn.
The second link is to a great article that will make you understand the difference between soil “structure”, and soil “texture”. I strongly suggest you read this as well if you have clay soil. There are other options when working with clay soil then breaking it up with a tiller.
My personal experience of amending soil.
My first house was on 2.5 acres, and I installed my own lawn after tilling. I did one section each year over a four year period to make it more manageable on my pocketbook. I tilled, amended, re-tilled, amended and re-tilled, raked, and seeded. Sounds like a lot of work right? It was. However, having your own tiller, to save on rental fees helps too.
I built a beautiful lawn and saved a substantial amount of money in the process. The amendments I used were, good quality topsoil and garden mix, with some free manure from a local equestrian center. You can be resourceful with amendments to save more money.
The first pass I made with the tiller was to break up the hard rocky ground. (Make sure you get rid of rocks and debris 2 inches around or bigger, because they can impede root growth.)
Next, I amended and tilled in the free manure. I then amended and tilled one last time with some good quality topsoil and organics mixed together.
After a good raking to ensure proper drainage, and some starter fertilizer, it was ready for seed or sod. I did not use any herbicides in my yard, although I did have some weeds growing up with my new grass. Maybe I am old school, but I hand picked them quite easily from the nice loose soil.
It actually took me less time to hand pick the weeds, than it would take to go to the store and buy the herbicide.
There was also no risk of damage to the soil, kids, or pets, and I didn't have to wait to seed the yard until the herbicide presence in the soil was almost gone.
If you do decide to use a herbicide, visit a reputable garden center. The extra few dollars you might pay for the products, is worth having the knowledgeable staff that can help you choose the right products.
Timing can be important with herbicides. They can also prevent you from seeding or sodding for a specified period of time. You need to plan your application well before your work start date.
Tilling a couple of days after a rain helped a lot. It softened up the soil to make tilling easier. However, tilling in very wet soil will have no benefit at all. As we mentioned earlier, tilling wet soil can actually damage your soil structure.
The seed I purchased was in bulk quantities from the local farm supply store.(Cheaper than buying small bags at Wal Mart.) If you are going to sod, try purchasing directly from the sod farms to save you from paying the middle man.
Don't forget to visit our full modules on seeding and sodding at the links below for more help.
We also have shortened versions of tips in the last two sections of this series.
Sodding is probably the best route to go if you have pets, want an instant lawn, or have no interest in picking weeds. The thick mat of sod will prevent MOST weeds and old grass from growing through.
No matter which method you choose, you must always ensure that you grade and rake for proper drainage.
Let's have a look at rebuild option #2, Adding Soil Over Grass.
Table of Contents: Lawn Problems
C. Lawn Repair
E. Replace Lawn
H. How to Sod