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Growing Tall Fescue In Difficult Soil: Renee’s Success Story

Growing Tall Fescue In Difficult Soil: Renee’s Success Story

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Paul Brown

As a gift to her parents, Renee decided to give her childhood home’s yard in Michigan a makeover. She knew that some radical steps needed to be taken. Though several upgrades to the yard had occurred over the years including a concrete walkway and a patio, the lawn was sparse and lacking life.

Despite repeated seeding, she described the lawn as looking “extremely dry and empty”. She intended to seed with Tall Fescue but knew that some serious preparation needed to be done first to ensure successful germination.

Tall Fescue is an excellent grass choice for difficult soils in colder climates. It germinates well from seeds and has a deep root growth, allowing it to withstand harsh winters and seek nutrients and moisture deep in the soil.

Let’s have a look at Renee’s journey in transforming your lawn and her future plans to ensure a thriving yard.

Breaking The Cycle Of Difficult Soils

Renee ran across one of our YouTube Videos where I was explaining my 5 step process for improving clay soil.

The concept behind this process is to disrupt the natural compaction of the soil and infuse higher quality organic matter. This goes beyond topdressing alone since the organic matter is actually integrated into the difficult soil instead of only layering it on top. This also facilitates air and water filtration.

Being more than a casual viewer, Renee went to work putting these principles into action. She began applying a soil conditioner like this one (link to Amazon).

While often touted as liquid aeration, a better description and use of these conditioners are to serve as a wetting agent. It moistens the soil to allow for the next, critical step that Renee took to improve her lawn.

Deep Core Integration – The Key To Improving Difficult Soil

Using a planter auger bit like this one (link to Amazon), Renee began the process of drilling holes throughout the yard. This would allow her to integrate organic matter and quality soil deeper than traditional core aeration alone.

Here’s a picture of her parents’ yard with the deep core integration process underway:

To help the tall fescue's root growth, holes are drilled in the difficult soil throughout the yard.

This can be a little labor intensive but is a critical step to improving the quality and texture of difficult soils. We are often advised to simply topdress and overseed but if we don’t take steps to improve the soil itself, we are simply covering up the problem.

This is especially true when trying to grow a deep-rooting grass such as tall fescue. Just as a plant sitting by a window will naturally grow toward the sunlight, grassroots will push deep into the ground toward needed nutrients.

But if the soil is compacted and lacking in available nutrients, the grass will have no incentive to push its roots deep. The result? Grass that dries out or dies easily and lacks the ability to flourish. If your lawn has problems with drought tolerance, this is often more of an issue with the soil than the grass.

Infusing Organic Matter To Improve Soil Quality

With the deep core integration holes established, Renee began adding plant-based food scraps into the holes. This is a method of in-ground composting and is an excellent solution for improving the soil while making good use of kitchen scraps.

The scraps will slowly decompose, releasing nutrients and creating pockets of organic matter throughout the yard. This provides an environment that encourages worms the natural microbial activity that is a staple of healthy soil.

It also allows for air movement and improved water penetration. This is an investment of Renee’s time that stands to pay huge dividends in the years to come as her soil continues to improve.

Topdressing Difficult Soil For Seeding Grass

The final step that Renee took before seeding was to apply a topdressing of good quality soil. Not only does this soil provide a base layer for seeds to germinate, it also backfilled the remaining space in the deep core integration holes, further enriching the overall soil quality.

Topdressing is applied to give grass seeds a growth medium.

So now, Renee has a medium (the topsoil) in which the seeds can germinate and cavities throughout where their roots can extend deep as the grass matures.

Seeding Tall Fescue

The final step in this process for Renee was adding the fescue seed, working it into the topsoil, and beginning a routine of watering every morning and mid evening.

A common misstep here is to spread the seed before putting down the topsoil. The idea, of course, being that you are going back over and covering the seeds in one swoop.

The problem with this approach is twofold:

  • The seed distribution would be disturbed as the topsoil is spread, and
  • You risk covering seeds too deeply which could inhibit successful germination.

By putting down the topsoil first, she was able to gently mix the seeds into the soil with even distribution across the lawn.

The results so far are quite impressive!

Successful growth of tall fescue in what had traditionally been difficult soil to grow a lawn.

Next Steps And Advice For Others

Renee shared with me that she intends to do another round of deep core integration next spring. This will be very beneficial in breaking up even more compaction and allowing that nutrient-rich organic matter to be infused into the soil. One thing’s for sure, she has her parents’ lawn on the right path!

When asked for her best advice for others, Renee encouraged taking your time and not feeling as if you have to apply these principles across an entire yard at one time.

“If your lawn is spacious,” she said, “it is okay to amend small areas day apart. Just make sure to have water for hydration”.

I sincerely appreciate Renee sharing her story and pictures with us and allowing us to share them here. Growing a lawn in difficult soil can be such a frustration. It is inspiring to see others making it work.

See our list of recommended compacted soil products.

Related Reading:

My hands-on review of Sunday Lawn Care, a natural pet and child-safe lawn fertilizer.

What Is The Best Grass for Clay Soil?

Best Pull Behind Aerators: Key Features Compared