The best time for renovations to your lawn and garden are late summer and early fall — usually from about Aug. 20 to Oct. 5, when the summer temperatures have dropped and the rains begin.

Until Wednesday, it seemed that late-season rains weren’t going to come, but they at least have begun. An inch of rain a week will help the lawns along, and that heavy, steady rain was a good start.

Another reason to work on the garden in the fall is that most gardeners have more time then. Spring brings a rush to clean up after the winter and to plant. In July and August, you are busy with vacations and family. Late fall is time for raking and preparing for winter. But September just sort of sits there.

So, for the next three weeks, I am going to tell you how to renovate your gardens. I’ll begin this week with the lawn, move to perennials next Sunday, and to shrubs the week after that.

It’s great to have a plan.

The first thing you should do is get a soil test. Jesse O’Brien of Down East Turf Farm in Kennebunk was talking about lawns when he told me that, but if you are planning to rehabilitate any of your gardens, you should get a soil test for those as well.

The test will tell you if your soil has the proper pH (whether it is alkaline or acidic) and whether it has enough organic matter. So, get a test and if it shows that your soil needs changes, take care of those first. It will take about two weeks to get results through the Extension Service, so if you plan to do a renovation this year, get the test done quickly.

For now, though, we will assume your lawn is just stressed and can be improved fairly simply.

“If you have something better than 50 percent of bare spots,” O’Brien said, “it probably would be best to redo the whole thing.”

And that means tilling in what you have, probably adding lime and compost, and then putting down sod or planting seed.

“What you want to figure out is why the lawn is under duress,” O’Brien said. “Is it shade or high traffic or just the stress of the drought?”

One of the major problems of older lawns is compaction. After three or four decades of tag, touch football, badminton, volleyball, Wiffle ball and just walking around to look at your gardens, the soil is likely to be compacted — which means the roots of the grass won’t penetrate the soil.

“If the soil is compacted, you want to use a core aerator,” O’Brien said. “What it does is go over the lawn and pull out pieces that are sort of like dowels.”

That will solve the problem of getting air into the soil.

O’Brien said there is some disagreement on whether to leave the dowels of soil on top of the lawn or to remove them. But a lot of people will then top-dress with organic matter to further improve the soil.

The next step in the renovation is seeding, and O’Brien recommends using a slice seeder.

“If you have a really small area, you can rake it up and put seed down,” O’Brien said. “But you really have to make sure the seed gets in contact with the soil. The slice seeder gets it through the canopy and thatch layer and down into the soil.”

Both the core aerator and slice seeder are available at local rental centers, O’Brien said.

For lawns in Maine, you have three basic choices of seed: bluegrass, ryegrass and fescue. Most lawn seeds provide a mix of the three.

“The ryegrass is pleasing because it jumps out of the ground quickly, and that is good,” O’Brien said. “Fescue is a good choice in a shady situation. And bluegrass is excellent when maintained properly.”

Next, it is time to water. O’Brien said he hesitates to say how many times or how many inches per week to water. But you have to make sure that the ground stays moist, or the grass will not sprout.

If you follow all of these instructions, the good grasses should take over and crowd out the crabgrass, switch grass and annual weeds. And you should have a really good lawn by the time spring rolls around again.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at

[email protected]


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