Don’t Wait to Renovate

By: Michelle Wallace, Consumer Horticulture Agent – Durham, NC Cooperative Extension

Is your cool season lawn looking a bit rough at this time of year? Have you experienced a lot of die-off from the heat? Have the weeds taken over your lawn? Are you interested in trying to successfully rejuvenate your lawn? Well if you answered yes to all of these questions, then your lawn looks like most lawns in North Carolina but you desire the kind of lawn most people want – beautiful, green, and lush. Is it possible? Yes, but it does require work, and it does require management.

The challenge in growing a successful lawn in North Carolina is primarily connected to two elements: our soils and our weather. One we can amend and the other we must live with. The clay urban soils in the Piedmont tend to be compact and low in organic matter. These soils are some of the oldest soils in the world and have a low pH, impacting plant fertility. To successfully establish a lawn here, a substantial amount of compost should be incorporated into the soil. How much compost? Two to four inches of compost should evenly be spread over the area planned for renovation. Soil testing is also recommended to determine fertility. The soil test will indicate whether or not lime is needed to raise the pH to the optimum level for turf as well as provide a fertilizer recommendation. Soil testing is free through the NC Department of Agriculture, and soil tests are available at your local NC Cooperative Extension Office.

The weather gives us the option of growing either a warm season grass or a cool season grass. North Carolina is on the outer boundary regionally for growing both types. Unfortunately, this means it is a challenge to grow either well. While the warm season grasses deal well with heat stress, we have a relatively short growing season in NC. Warm season lawns’ dormant season will leave the grass brown for about a half a year. For this reason, most homeowners prefer to grow cool season fescue blends. These look great from September though May and terrible from June through August, their dormant period. Our high humidity makes both cool and warm season grasses susceptible to disease pressure, adding to the challenge of cultivating the perfect lawn.

In order to be successful, start with a good base. If your current lawn is more weeds than grass, consider a lawn renovation. This requires getting rid of the existing lawn, typically done using a non-selective herbicide such as glyphosate. Once the existing ground cover is completely dead, compost and soil amendments are incorporated into the soil, and the area is regraded for positive drainage and uniformity. Make sure the soil is moist when the land is tilled, or it will become a dust bowl. Tilling soil will expose weed seeds to sun. Fertilizer will encourage them to grow. Therefore, it is a good idea to wait until the weed seeds have germinated so that they can be treated with herbicide again before planting grass seed.

Choose a recommended fescue blend for our area and always buy certified seed. Make sure to look at the guaranteed germination rates. A high rate of germination will help ensure a lower amount of weeds. Utilize a rotary or drop-type spreader to spread seeds evenly in a grid pattern. Spreading half the seeds in one direction, and then spreading the second pass at right angles to the first pass. Lightly raking seeds will help to ensure good soil contact. Cover the seeds using weed free straw at a rate of 1-2 bales /1000 sq. ft.

New lawns require regular watering to prevent the drying out of the newly formed root. You may need a special permit from the city waterworks department to water your new lawn on a daily basis. Newly seeded grass should be lightly watered two to three times a day for as long as three weeks. As the new lawn is established, watering can be cut back to once a week. Established lawns need about one inch of water per week, which is the equivalent of 640 gallons of water over 1000 sq. ft.

The best way to keep your lawn looking good is to keep it healthy and thick. Water the lawn in the early morning to allow the blades of grass to dry out over the course of the day. Water the roots deeply in order to establish a healthy root system. Mow your grass at the recommended height (2.5″-3.5”) for cool season lawn to prevent die out and the introduction of weeds. Service and sharpen your lawn mower blades to improve the quality of the cut. Fertilize at the recommended time of year (cool season grasses – September, November, and February). Do not over fertilize. More is not better; it can hurt your lawn and do damage to the watershed. Get your soil tested and follow the recommendations.

To find out more information about lawn care request a hard copy of Carolina Lawns by contacting the Durham Extension Master Gardener Volunteers at 919-560-0528. You may also download a copy at