Lawn Care Tips

As a lawn care provider for 20+ years, my aim here is to provide some helpful hints, tips and advice to those who want to increase the health and appearance of the lawn they care for. Whether you are new to lawn care or an old hand, you will find information here that will save you time, money and wasted effort. Thanks for stopping by.


Monday, April 11, 2005

Is Your Lawn Growing In Clay Instead of Topsoil?

With enough care, a homeowner could probably lay sod down on top of a large slab of concrete and get it to stay green. Of course, no one in their right mind would try this. And yet there are thousands upon thousands of people living in subdivisions who are just about trying to do the same thing.

All too often when a subdivision is being developed and massive re-grading is being performed, large amounts of topsoil are removed and sold at a high price for the rich topsoil that it is. Later, when it’s time to apply seed or sod to the landscape of a newly built home in such a subdivision, it will be applied to what is basically a subsoil. Unfortunately, all too often this subsoil contains a very high percentage of clay. Now mind you, clay has its benefits. Because it perks slowly, it will hold water and remain moist longer than a very sandy soil. Clay also tends to hold beneficial nutrients better than sand. However, between a heavy clay content and a very sandy content of the soil, there lies a much healthier content known as topsoil. Topsoil is ideally suited for growing grass, and in an ideal world your lawn would be growing in four or more inches of topsoil.

Topsoil contains extremely fine particles (such as those found in clay), very coarse particles (such as those found in sand), and - most importantly - lots of organic matter. Topsoil is very well-rounded and, as such, is perfectly suited for growing grass and many other plants. If you are trying to grow turf in soil that has too much clay or too much sand, you can (over time) make applications of topsoil and thus amend your soil, making it more suitable for growing turf.

There are a couple of things that will indicate you have a very high clay content in your soil. One is severe and persistent ponding after a heavy rainfall. Since the very tiny particles of clay do not allow water to drain through (or perk) very quickly, the water will stand on the surface for a long time. If the surface is sloped, another indication of high clay content after heavy rain is that the water will run-off quickly rather than soak in. One more indicator of high clay content in a soil is that once the soil has had most of its water dried out of it, it is hard and brittle - similar to concrete.

If you suspect that the clay content or the sand content of your lawn’s soil is too high, you can always apply topsoil. One dramatic way of doing this would be having large trucks deliver large amounts of topsoil and having this applied evenly all over your turf areas and then reseeding or restarting your lawn. This is NOT a method I recommend. I believe a much better approach would be to have just a few yards of topsoil delivered and dumped in an inconspicuous spot in your yard. Then from once a week to once a month, you can take a bit of this topsoil from the pile and scatter it throughout your lawn using a broadcast type spreader. It will be important to keep your pile of topsoil covered with a tarp or large piece of plastic so that when it is time for your to apply your topsoil it will be dry enough to fall through the hopper of your spreader. When topsoil is applied in this manner (small amounts on a regular basis), it will not destroy or damage your existing lawn.

Special Note: If you’re going to take the time, spend the money and go through the above amendment process in order to get more organic matter into your soil, then you should also be mulching when ever you mow. As I have stated in prior posts, mulching is one of the easiest and least expensive ways of putting organic matter back into the soil. Running a close second is applying compost, particularly if it is compost you have made yourself.

NEXT TIME: Your County Extension Office As An Information Source


At 12:12 AM, Anonymous Matt said...

Can you use a spreader like the ones you use to apply fertilizer? I'll have to try this - what a great idea!

At 1:18 PM, Blogger Paul said...

You can, but the topsoil must be very dry. A "drop spreader" may get clogged up if the topsoil is moist or if it contains small stones. I recommend using a "broadcast spreader" for applying topsoil as it is less likely to get clogged and it is so much easier. You can find broadcast spreaders at most lawn and garden suppliers. Paul

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Dave said...

There are also some great all-natural top-dress pellets derived from alfalfa that are really easy to aply with a spreader. They increase the soil water and nutrient holding capacity while naturally and without smell decompose to act as a food source for the soil and turf.

At 3:28 PM, Blogger Brian said...

I live on the edge of the Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina, and I just had about 1/2 acre of heavily wooded forest cleared off my property, and we had them bury all of the debris, branches, etc in very large and deep holes that were dug (8-12ft deep) in the back corners of the property. This allowed for huge mounds of leftover dirt to be spread over the newly cleared land. Unfortunately, this excavated dirt is obviously very dense and rich clay. I plan to grow Centipede grass over this to match my lawn, so I am assuming that I can not grow grass seed overtop compacted clay. What is the best way to go about growing grass? will I have to have enough topsoil dirt delivered to cover a 1/2 acre of land? That could be 4-6 dump truck loads! Please help.

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sorry for not responding sooner. I recently moved to Washington state and it has taken awhile to get reconnected to the internet.
I am not too familiar with southern grasses, but I'm sure if you contact your local "County Extension Office" someone there can advice you on how best to solve your turf issues. All the best, Paul

At 9:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should have some excellent topsoil under that layer of excavated dirt because "wooded forests" tend to drop a lot of organic material over the years. Just do some serious tilling and I would think your lawn would do fine.

At 5:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will this method improve the drainage, i.e stop the puddles forming?

At 7:26 AM, Anonymous Paul said...

If you are having drainage problems, it may be from high clay content in your soil and/or a grading problem or something else entirely. I suggest contacting some local contractors for their take on the cause and possible remedies of your puddles. Many contractors will give you a free courtesy evaluation. The method I discuss above might not work to prevent your puddles if you have very high clay soil that is near the surface and goes deep into your soil. Also, if your landscaping is poorly graded, then regrading it may be your best option.

At 10:24 PM, Blogger sarah said...

Any ideas for planting on completely bare soil. I am in new construction in an existing neighborhood. The lot was previously completely wooded. Now there is hard packed clay. We tried to seed. It looked great at first but died within two weeks. Then tilled and reseeded. Still nothing.

At 3:48 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Hi Sara,
You might be able to get some type of native (local to your area)grasses to grow in that clay. Maybe even some other type of ground cover.
One option would be to contact local landscapers and get prices on different alternatives.such as soil amendments.
Another great resource would be your local county agent. You can find them in the phone book under county government listings. They might be able to send out a Master Gardener to look over your situation and made suggestions at no cost to you.
All the best, Paul

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Stacey Beck said...

Thanks for your help! Our lawn looked awful last summer so I am already thinking ahead for next. I want to get topsoil in Vancouver but I believe ours was planted in clay. Do you suggest just tearing it all up and starting over by planting the seeds in the soil instead? Or just sprinkling it over the grass you already have? sorry if that's a dumb question.

At 8:05 PM, Blogger Kevin Esplin said...

Does arriation provide any benefits to kentucky blue layed over dense clay, it seems after three years if I go more then a day or two without heavy watering my grass drys out and I'm certain I have a very high clay content.

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous Paul M Langevin said...

To Kevin,

Have a local lawn expert look over your lawn so you have their input.

One possible solution may be to try watering daily but less heavily. Once a clay soil becomes damp additional water may just run off down slopes wasting water and the cost of that water.

Hope that helps.

At 6:14 AM, Blogger Nick Glafter said...

Thanks for a great blog. I was able to get the information that I had been looking for Sod California. Thanks once again!

At 9:16 PM, Blogger Kelsey Higgins said...

My husband and I recently moved into a home in a newly developed subdivision and have been having a hard time growing grass in our yard! It's nice to know that they often remove the good topsoil when building new neighborhoods! Hopefully laying some good topsoil down will solve the problem so we can have a good lawn for our dog to play on!

At 9:55 PM, Blogger Jamie Cloud said...

Looks like you’ve forgotten to mention to perform a core aeration when you have a clay soil. This method can save your lawn or plants from dying as aeration helps your lawn develop a deeper and stronger root system. I have a Sir Walter buffalo turf that often became waterlogged during heavy rains – which destroyed my grasses and other plants. And core aeration is the best way to get them back to its beautiful, green, and lush condition.

At 11:07 PM, Anonymous Paul said...

Jamie, you are right, I did forget to mention that using core
aeration can help a high clay content soil.

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At 12:35 PM, Blogger Jim’s Mowing said...

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At 6:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 10:09 AM, Blogger Gareth Durcan said...

Thanks Paul for such an informative and interesting post.
I recommend using the topsoil similar to the one which I have got from my local company


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