May 15, 2011

Maine Gardener: Compost key in creating the green, green grass of home

By Tom Atwell tatwell@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

Lawns are a personal thing. Some people want their lawns to look like the perfect expanse of green at a golf course. Others are happy with anything that is green. And a few prefer no lawn at all.

But barring a major renovation project, all homeowners must live with the lawn they have.

They can renovate it and try to improve it, but without killing it off and starting over, you are going to be stuck for the foreseeable future with the soil that is under the sod growing in your yard.

I am sure that all readers of this column, if they were starting a new lawn, would do everything correctly.

They would have the soil tested before they planted anything. They would, once they received that soil report, add the right amount of lime to create the proper pH balance, add compost to make sure the soil had enough organic matter and make sure the soil was not compacted. And they would analyze the amount of sunlight and pick the correct seed mixture or, if they were laying sod, the right kind of sod.

But for most of us, the lawn was already in place when we bought our homes.

And for those of us who planted our own lawns -- well, we weren't as smart then as we are now. We've got problems.

But you can work on that lawn so you have thicker grass, fewer weeds and a lot fewer problems.

This column fills you in on how to create a lawn, aerate and add compost for an ailing lawn and feed a lawn. Those are the basics of dealing with a lawn that is mostly trouble-free.

Chace Campbell, estate gardening director at Gnome Landscaping and Design in Falmouth, said one of the most important things you can do -- right after the soil test -- is to core aerate your lawn and then spread a fine compost over it.

"There are lots of advantages," Campbell said. "You are adding organic matter to your soil and at the same time loosening compacted soil. The best thing about compost is that it helps sandy soil hold water and nutrients, and it lightens clay soil. It works with both sandy soil and clay soil."

The problem with top dressing a lawn with compost is that it is tedious, backbreaking work.

The compost has to be spread evenly and thinly. If you put it on too thickly, it smothers the grass, and you are in worse shape than before. It takes a long time with a garden rake to get the job done.

As a commercial operator, Campbell has two machines that spread compost in the right amount.

One, for large lawns, is nothing more than a glorified farm manure spreader. The other, for smaller yards, is the Ecolawn top dresser, which has four wheels and a tub that holds one-third of a yard of compost, which it efficiently spreads.

"Having these two machines allows me to do work for my customers that would normally take hours, or even days," Campbell said.

Tom Roberts of Billy Goat Landscaping in Kennebunk is another landscaper who liked the Ecolawn top dresser so much he became the dealer for the product.

At $5,500 each, the only market is landscapers, but he hopes to sell a few to equipment-rental companies.

He said the machine spreads the compost from 3 to 15 feet, and works well as long as the compost is fairly dry.

On his own lawn, Campbell likes a little clover, which fixes nitrogen and improves the soil, but not all of his clients would go for that kind of lawn.

(Continued on page 2)

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