One of the most common questions we receive here at Nature’s Seed has to do with preparing soil for seeding, and how to maintain soil quality after that. I like these questions; in fact I’m glad that folks are asking about this since it shows a good understanding of what it takes to produce and maintain a lush, healthy lawn. Too many times soil conditions are overlooked, or even damaged, by first-time homeowners in their rush to complete their house. Yet soils are a crucial component in how successful a lawn will ultimately turn out. Grass seed, no matter how high the quality, has a hard time reaching its full potential in nutrient-poor, compacted soil. Even well established lawns can begin to grow weak over time if soil quality isn't properly maintained. By taking a little time and consideration you can save yourself a lot of money, water, and frustration by improving and amending your soils into the optimal conditions found in a natural setting. By this I mean conditions found in a natural grassland ecosystem prior to humans disturbing it.
Organic Matter vs. Organic Material
The first step to preparing the soil for planting grass seed is to consider the amount of organic matter found in the soil. Organic matter is perhaps the most important, yet misunderstood aspect of soil improvement. There is a big difference between organic matter and organic material. Organic material, such as grass clippings, leaves, manure, or dead plants is all material that has not yet become organic matter. This material first needs to decompose into humus which can then become available as nutrients for the grass. During this process only around 10% of the original organic material will become usable humus. In a natural grassland setting there is a very high level of organic matter due to centuries of dead grass and roots decomposing in it. When we begin to plant lawn seed in soils that have never supported grass life, we can run into issues. A simple soil test will let you know how much organic matter is present in your soil and how much you’ll need to add. These are available with the help from your local Cooperative Extension service.
There are many ways of adding this organic matter back into your soil even after your lawn has been established, although it is a gradual process. The easiest way is by applying an organic fertilizer such as our Slow-Release Maintenance Fertilizer. This fertilizer is part of a new generation of environmentally friendly organic based fertilizers. While traditional fertilizers supply plant growth nutrients, they do not supply the organic matter required to maintain quality growth. On the other hand, this fertilizer will restore usable organic matter back into your nutrient-starved soils.
Producing Your Own Organic Matter
Using a compost bin is another common and inexpensive way of producing organic matter. After the compost (organic material) has decomposed to the point of becoming rich humus, place the organic matter into a compost shredder and spread it evenly throughout your lawn. The compost shredder should chop up the material into even smaller pieces that can be more easily absorbed into the soil and won’t pile on top of the grass. If the matter is small enough already, you can skip the shredder. Avoid spreading more than ½ inch of compost on your lawn at one time. Adding anymore will begin to damage your grass. For even better results, be sure to aerate your lawn first to get the compost down where it will do the most good.
Another simple way of adding organic matter back into the soil over time is by mulching your grass clippings instead of removing them. This mimics the natural process of a grassland ecosystem where grass grows, dies, returns to the soil, decomposes and feeds the grass around it.
Organic Matter Improves Water-Holding Capacity and Soil Structure
Adding organic matter back into your soil will also increase water-holding capacity. You can think of organic matter like little sponges, soaking up moisture and releasing it back into the roots of the grass. This is especially important in areas of the country that experience seasonal drought as water-holding capacity determines irrigation requirements. Along with this water reducing benefit, the very structure of the soil begins to improve. Soils that have experienced compaction due to construction or heavy traffic throughout the years usually have poor permeability. Permeability is how well water spreads throughout a soil. As organic matter is added to soils permeability improves and so does the soil’s ability to hold water.
By analyzing the state of your soil prior to planting grass seed, or by adding organic matter back into an already established lawn, you can give your grass the best possible conditions to product a thriving, healthy, water-efficient lawn.