Our lawn is awful. In truth, we do not even have a lawn — we have an area that I mow. We have some grass, a sea of white, blue and yellow violets, a few dandelions, some clover that seems to be spreading, some chickweed, a couple of spirea seedlings and a few spots of bare soil.

The part of our lawn that I care about is roughly 12 feet wide and surrounds three-quarters of our house. I paced off the length, and it is about 160 feet. We have some other areas that we never planted with grass and they look good, especially since one section is a parking lot when we have company.

I have been tempted many times to extend the perennial beds, narrow what is now the lawn area to about 4 feet, and cover it with brick. Because we use the lawn mostly as a path to the flower gardens, the brick would more clearly make the statement that the area is a path.

But Nancy wants a lawn, and while she does not mind the violets or even the clover, she does want this area to be green and mowed.

When our lawn was much larger, it looked good. We planted it in late September 1975 and brought in a good amount of good topsoil, added lime to get the pH right, used good lawn seed, and watered regularly. If I were starting a new lawn now, I would have added compost to the topsoil, but the methods were sound and worked. By May 1976, we had a great lawn.

Beginning about 1980, we hired a lawn company to do what was the standard three fertilizer treatments a year, and that continued until about 1990, when the lawn company we used went out of business and we began to worry about all the chemicals that were going on the lawn. And that is when the quality of the lawn began to deteriorate.

Part of the reason is shade. Our neighbors to the east and south have trees that have grown during the past 30 years, and the lawn has a lot more shade than it used to. And I have done nothing to kill weeds. I have fertilized once a year, if at all. Those are the rules recommended by the Yardscaping Partnership. And it is easy.

But this spring, I decided I had to take some action.

One thing I had never done was core aerate the lawn. Many lawn experts recommend the process. After three-plus decades of using the lawn as a path and for playing ball, tag and other games with children and grandchildren, it has gotten packed down. I considered core aerating, which lets water and fertilizer go deeper in the soil.

But core aerators are loud, big, complicated and polluting, and you have to rent them. Instead, we bought a pair of sandals with 2-inch spikes on the bottom at Skillins for $20. I spent about an hour stomping on the lawn while wearing these sandals, bending over every now and then to dig out dandelions.

A core aerator would have been better — because it actually pulls out cores of the compacted soil — but quiet is important, and the sandals are better than nothing.

The next step was to add compost/topsoil to areas where there was nothing growing and that were lower than the lawn. Nancy refers to them as divots, although no one has ever played golf on our lawn.  I added our screened compost to the low areas and raked the soil smooth.

We studied the options for lawn repair mixes — and there are lots of them. I chose something called the EZ-Straw Lawn Repair mix. It cost $17 — the lowest price of the offerings — and would cover about 250 square feet, and that seemed like the amount of area that needed repair.

Overall, it took me about four hours to complete all of the lawn work.

While picking up these items, I also found a Skillins pamphlet on lawn care. I am doing most of the maintenance items that the pamphlet recommends.

First is to rake the lawn hard in the spring. We do that. We fertilize only in the fall — although I did do a spring feeding early this year, just because the lawn was looking so bad.

I have been using organic lawn fertilizer for the past few years, and Skillins has an organic 7-2-2 option. Another option is a phosphorous-free 18-0-3. I will fertilize again in the fall.

I add limestone every couple of years. 

There are two things that Skillins recommends that I haven’t been doing, and I think I will try those. 

In the spring, I will use a fertilizer with corn gluten in an effort to keep down chickweed, dandelions and crab grass. And when I overseed, I will try the Bionide Heat and Drought Tall Fescue mix, which has deep roots and survives well.

You’ll hear about how all of this works out when I do my midseason update sometime in early August.

And if all this fails, I will again consider the bricks.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer who gardens in Cape Elizabeth, and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

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