Think back to last summer. What impressions do you have of your lawn? Was it thin-looking, with irregular brown patches throughout? Did it not respond to regular fertilizing and watering? Was it inundated with broadleaf and grassy weeds throughout the growing season? If so, your lawn may be a candidate for a process known as renovation, or sometimes not so jokingly referred to as rehab. Your lawn, over time and with abuse, may have become chemically dependent on the "drugs" of modern agronomy — synthetic, fast-acting, soluble fertilizers. It may need your help to kick the habit. A healthy lawn's immune system is the best protection against stress-related problems and invasion by insects and weed pests.
The first step in any renovation is to determine the source of the problems. It's easy to blame weeds as a problem, but in truth, weeds are a symptom that the grass plants are thinning and allowing the encroachment of undesirables. Insects, such as crane fly larvae, find it hard to survive and multiply in a properly drained lawn area and will favor other, easier-to-colonize locations when your soil is performing well. Find the causes of poor drainage and correct them. Our clay soils are easy to compact from simple foot traffic when they are wet. Don't put up the badminton net right after a watering! Correcting compaction usually requires aerating the lawn with a core cutting machine which is heavy, awkward to use, and just generally disagreeable for 95 percent of the population. Consider hiring a lawn care company to perform this for you.
Thatch is a tightly interwoven layer of living and dead tissue existing between the green vegetation of your grass plants and the soil surface. Although a little thatch improves the wear tolerance of a lawn, excessive thatch harbors disease organisms and insects, making the lawn more susceptible to damage from disease and drought. Thatch can also shed water, preventing moisture from getting to the roots of your lawn, causing dry spots, even when your sprinklers apply water perfectly. Thatch must be physically removed to improve the lawn. There are no miracle sprays that decompose thatch reliably, contrary to what you may read elsewhere.
Once you correct any faults, you can take what I feel is the most single important step in renovating your lawn: topdressing with real compost, not just a wood mulch product. This means physically dropping compost on top of the turf and then sweeping it off the grass plants and onto the soil where the microbes will be washed into the soil. A careful watering of the lawn after the application of compost will hasten this process. Care must be taken to avoid topping with too much material. A one-quarter inch of finished compost will not smother the grass plants. This will restore the microbial balance to the soil that we destroy through improper management, such as repeated applications of herbicides and insecticides. This is also an excellent method to introduce your lawn to organic turf care, which will prevent so many of the above-mentioned problems in the first place.
Don't expect overnight turnarounds when using "green" techniques. Although slow to manifest changes, organic methods are long-term solutions to problems, not cover-ups that we use to mask symptoms. In this fast-paced world, we've come to expect immediate results. It's often difficult to be patient, but my experience says change will come and at a gentler cost to our beautiful environment.