Lawn Renovation, Part 1: Making Choices

By Gil Medeiros, Fairfax Master Gardener
WeedsOn a bright morning in early August, you rise from your sleep and walk to the street to retrieve your newspaper. You focus your gaze on the paper in its tidy wrapper in order to avoid looking left or right because you might see your lawn. It’s mostly green, but it is certainly not the smooth, uniform greensward that you see in magazines. There are some brown patches, some bare spots, some blades of fescue poking through the crabgrass, some blades of bluegrass among creeping charlie vines, and there are some blades — you can’t tell what — hidden under this yellowish-green mat of grassy-looking stuff that gobbles up more of your lawn each year. You stop; you stare at the bedraggled mess. A wave of embarrassment washes over you. You vow to fix it.

August is a good time to start!

This is the first in a series of three articles on lawn renovation and care. First up: fundamental choices you must make before tackling a lawn renovation project.

There is a shortcut to accomplish the soil testing, lawn measurement, and weed assessment I describe here. You can simply enroll in the Fairfax County Master Gardener Association Home Turf program. For $30, a team of master gardeners will visit your property and do this for you.


Most of the property in Fairfax County has clay soil with a thin veneer of topsoil. Red clay is not the worst soil in the world (gray clay, on the other hand, is not good), but red clay has some negative aspects.

  • It tends to pack down very tightly because clay particles are very small–microscopic in some cases. This means there are no little spaces between soil particles to hold air and water, which are vital for root health.
  • Local soils often have an acidic pH. Acidity is great for growing azaleas, hydrangeas, and blueberries, but grass needs a slightly acidic pH of 6.5.

Before you start a lawn renovation, you should do a soil test. (See our article on soil testing.) The soil test will tell you exactly what to do to achieve the optimum pH and levels of most nutrients (except nitrogen) required to grow healthy grass.

You should also assess the compaction of your soil. If you can push a screwdriver three inches into the soil with normal effort (driving it with a hammer is not normal effort), you probably do not n