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Two Simple Possible Reasons Why Your Lawn Never Does Well

We’ve established how I feel about the lawn, and most folks I work with also want a nice patch o’ green for playing and showing off. I don’t do lawncare, and I’m not licensed to apply fertilizers or pesticides, but a question many clients ask at the initial consultation is “why does my lawn look so bad?” There are usually two possible reasons at play. One is easy to fix, the other not so much.

You have little to no topsoil

This is far and away the most common reason for a poorly performing lawn, especially for folks with newer homes. Why? Because topsoil is valuable. When a builder comes in to do a neighborhood, they scrape off and haul away the topsoil before they start grading the lots. When the house is finished, they come back and spread a scant bit of topsoil before putting down the sod. It looks pretty decent the first year, but it can go downhill quickly. You may have really rocky, dense soil (Bristow), nasty marine clay (Alexandria), or sandy, depleted soil (Spotsylvania). Turfgrass is like a dog: it spends its life hungry and thirsty. A rich bed of topsoil provides nutrients and an opportunity to hold the right amount of water.


How do we fix a lawn faced with no/little topsoil? The easiest way is to strip off the sod, bring in several inches of topsoil, and resod. If that’s not an option, you need to slowly build up the organic matter in the soil. This can be accomplished by periodically (once or twice a year) topdressing your yard with a fine compost and then overseeding. The first way is instant gratification; the second is an investment of time. Either way will get you there.


Especially in older neighborhoods, I’ll meet with a client who says “why can’t I grow grass back here? All that wants to do well is moss!” And I look around…

 Heavy Shade Backyard

This is when I tell them that they have a choice to make. They can have all these big, mature, beautiful trees, or they can have a lush lawn. If they want an ok lawn, we can get an arborist in to remove branches, thin the canopy a bit, and let light in; but at best they’ll have a year or two of awesome lawn before things start to revert back. It’s not just about the shade, though that’s a big part of it. If you have big trees, you have a big root system or even network of root systems. Those trees are sucking water from everywhere they can get a root, like a little kid with a long straw.

Source: Micah Sittig (used under Creative Commons license)
Source: Micah Sittig (used under Creative Commons license)

Depending on the overall design, maybe we do away with the lawn and do groundcover. Or perhaps we pick one or two less-than-awesome trees to remove and get a small patch of gorgeous lawn. It all depends on the client, the design, and the goals for the space.

Not sure about the best way to approach your challenging lawn, or other landscape dilemmas? Contact us for a consultation – I’d love to hear about what’s working, what’s not, and where you’re trying to go!


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