The first and most important part of establishing a good lawn begins with the soil it will be grown in. If you don’t have good soil it won’t matter how much fertilizer, watering or aeration you do, your grass still will not thrive. Begin by having a soil test done. You can check out: www.soiltest.vt.edu/soiltest for information on collecting the soil, cost, where and how to send it. I recommend the routine test, along with the organic matter and soluble salts tests. The test(s) will help you determine the pH level, nutrients and percentage of organic material within the soil. The more practical information you know the better decisions you can make.
Start with the pH level, which is a measure of acidity in the soil. Typically VA soils are acidic; turfgrass thrives in 6.5-7.0 range. If your soil is not in this range the grass has a hard time utilizing certain elements and nutrients that may already be in the soil. If the plant can’t absorb or utilize the fertilizer there is no sense in adding more to it. It is a waste of money and in this day and age of sustainability and going “green” you may be contributing to groundwater pollution. To change the soil pH, follow the recommendation on the test results. Usually this will require the addition of lime. Again follow the recommendations on the soil test for amount, frequency of application etc.
Another critical thing to look at in the soil test is the percentage of organics; typically I like to see between 5-8% organic matter in the sample. The more organics in the soil profile the more beneficial bacteria, fungus, mychorrhizae , etc. that improves the health of the soil. This will help to break down thatch and other organisms that can naturally build the health and provide more natural fertilizer to the turf. In fact if you can build a healthy soil there is less of a need for fertilizers and pesticides. The main thing about building good soil is that it does not happen overnight.
You must also determine the soil composition. Once you find out about the soil composition you can get a better understanding of whether you are working with clay, loamy, sandy or some combination of soils and how they react to certain situations you may need to deal with. One way to get a basic idea of the soil structure is to take a representative of soil from your sample, moisten it and knead it into a smooth, walnut shaped ball I your hand (if it is impossible to form a ball you, it is a sand soil). Using your thumb gently push a ribbon of soil of even thickness out between your thumb and crooked forefinger. A loamy sand soil will form no ribbon at all. A ribbon less than 1 inch indicates a loam; 1 to 2 inches, a clay loam and more than 2” a clay soil. While this is not a scientific test it gives you a general idea, although a soil test should also be taken to determine the soil composition.
There are also cultural practices that can help build and improve your soil profile. Regular aeration, at least twice per year will help to get air, water and nutrients down to the roots. A ¼” layer of good compost really will help build that healthy layer of organic matter. Water also plays a role in healthy soil and turf. Irrigation of ½ “ each twice a week will help keep the turf from getting stressed out and give the microorganisms in the soil the moisture needed to sustain itself. More than an inch per week is not really going to help. This is where an irrigation system really helps to make sure you get a metered consistent amount of moisture.
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