HowTo: Regrow a Dead Lawn in College Station

This summer’s sucked around here. We’ve had a drought for most of the summer, and if you look at the current US drought maps, we’re in an area that’s experiencing the most severe level of droughts. Water use has gone through the roof and the utility companies are putting drought billing structures in place that will penalize excessive water use, although they haven’t yet implemented drought use restrictions since we’ve still got adequate water in the aquifer that feeds our drinking water wells.

College Station sucks as an area to grow things unless you’ve spent some time enriching your soil. The two varieties of lawn grasses that grow around here are Bermuda Grass and St. Augustine Grass, which isn’t that unfortunate because both will grow decently well in the clay subsoil we have, both are relatively drought tolerant, and as long as you’re not using fertilizers that favor one or the other, you can cross-seed them and they’ll help reinforce each other and present a greener total picture.

The clay sub soil is the worst problem. Any time it rains, most of the water hits the lawn and then flows straight down into the gutter because it runs off the clay. This is also true of any watering you do of your lawn or garden — it all hits the clay and runs right off downhill.

This summer, I’m growing some tomatoes in mostly unenriched areas. I did some enrichment using coarse sand and wood mulch to break up the clay, but it hasn’t been that effective and I’ve had to do a pretty extensive daily watering for brief periods to get the water deep enough to be effective. Thanks to the water running off the clay, most of my plants haven’t developed deep root systems … all of them have sent out wide root patterns just below the surface of the soil. And what’s worse has been the fungus. The lawn dries out and dies, and as it rots, it provides a fine thatch that retains water wonderfully and provides a great home for mushrooms and other fungus to grow… right in the middle of my yard. I’ve been putting down antifungal treatments as a preventative but still haven’t managed to get ahead of it. I’ve also had serious problems with blossom-end rot on my vegetable plants. My tomatoes, peppers, and squash have all had an impossible time establishing fruit.

After a bit of googling, I found two solutions to my lawn and garden problems. The first thing is deep spot watering. Deep spot watering means that you need to buy a programmable faucet timer and have it turn on the water in a specific area for five to ten minutes at a time, take a rest of about an hour (at very least a half hour), and then water again for five or ten minutes. You want to get the water down as far as possible into the soil — six inches if possible. If you find that any water is running out of your lawn and down into the drainage areas, then switch immediately to a different area. This cycle has helped to reduce my water bill and after three weeks has brought back almost my entire front lawn. You’ll want to water either early in the morning (4am-8am) or after the sun’s no longer directly on the lawn in the evening, but watering too late into the night will aid fungi in attacking your lawn.

The second solution is to spread some gypsum granules, which are available in a 40 lbs bag from Home Depot for under $10. Lime granules would also work. Gypsum is Calcium Sulfate and Lime is Calcium Carbonate. The calcium apparently over time will help break down the clay subsoil into actual soil — and it remedies the blossom-end rot problem in my fruiting plants, which is a sign of a serious calcium deficiency. Before an improvement is really noted it will take about three years of consistent applications, but I’m hoping to accelerate that a little bit by aerating the lawn and then applying it again next spring. The one caution when you’re using Calcium Sulfate instead of Calcium Carbonate is that you want to avoid ammonium sulfate-based fertilizers when you’ve just applied Calcium Sulfate because you can easily burn the grass.

I have no idea how specific this nutrient-free clay subsoil is to our area, but every house in the neighborhood that has been in place for over a year and doesn’t expend massive amounts of water via an automatic in-ground sprinkler system is having similar problems. My lawn now looks MUCH better. Hopefully this helps someone out!

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