Nov 2013

Life Outside the City Limits

Image of American bittersweet

Prepare Horses For Winter
By Kathy Anderson, UNL Extension Equine Specialist

Image of horse in snowAs winter approaches, horses need a different kind of care to stay in good condition while they fight the cold weather.

"Much of horse care depends on where they are kept during the winter", says Kathy Anderson, Ph.D., UNL horse specialist. "If horses spend winter in a pasture, their shoes should be removed. Often, ice and snow can build up and cause the horses to trip. If horses are wintered indoors, their hooves should at least be trimmed and reset."

Nutrition requirements also change in winter. It's important to maintain a condition score of six to seven. A horse in this condition has enough fat across its flank, neck, ribs and down its topline that it would be necessary to push a little to feel the bones.

The nutritional value of winter pasture grass also is slim so horses should be fed some type of hay -- round bales, square bales, grass hay or alfalfa -- as well as salt and mineral. Stalled horses' nutritional requirements don't change much from summer, but be sure they have enough hay to generate body heat and maintain their weight. Horses should always have an open, unfrozen water source.

If horses are kept outside, their coats should be allowed to grow. This isn't as critical for horses kept inside, but unless they are in a heated barn clipped horses should be covered in blankets to keep them from getting sick.

As the number of daylight hours decreases, horses' coats grow thicker because amounts of light affect hair growth. If the horses are on a lighting program, take them off far enough in advance that their coats can grow thicker. People who continue to show their horses in winter should keep horses inside and on a 16 hour per day lighting program from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Horses wintered outside need a shelter to block the wind. A shelter could be as simple as a thick shelterbelt or a three-sided shed with an opening that points away from primary winds.

Also, continue to deworm horses every 60 days and vaccinate them for rabies if there is a rabies problem in the area.

More information on winter horse care, Equine Winter Care.




As we gear up for the winter blasts, perhaps our November videos will help you pass the time and make some plans. This month includes topics such as fruit production, reflecting on 2013, planting spring bulbs, and why leaves turn color in autumn.


  Vaughn Hammond, UNL Extension, tells of Nebraska's history of fruit production and suggests that we have a promising future in that area. Farmers markets and the push for locally grown food offer potential outlets for those interested in raising any of the many fruits that can be grown in Nebraska.


Do you feel as the year is flying by? Here's a time lapse of the 2013 growing season at the Backyard Farmer Garden from April through September. It may inspire you to take photos of your garden throughout the year, starting now!


UNL Extension Assistant Stephanie Blum talks about how fall is the right time to plant bulbs and shows the right way to do it. You can plant bulbs until the ground freezes, so there's still time!


Trying to remember why leaves turn color in the fall? Nicole Stoner, UNL Extension, will help you recall.




The Mice Are Coming!
By Stephen Vantassel, Wildlife Damage Management Project Manager and Scott Hygnstrom, UNL Extension Wildlife Specialist

Image of mouseEarly fall is a great time to harden your homes and outbuildings against the mice seeking winter shelter. Mouse burrowing through insulation can raise heating costs. Their feces and urine contaminates food stuffs and structural materials. If those issues are not scary enough, the gnawing of mice can result in electrical shorts and in some cases, electrical fires.

Fortunately, excluding mice now can save a lot of money and time later. If rodents cannot access a structure then they cannot cause any damage. Though exclusion has the highest initial cost in terms of time and materials, those costs will seem inexpensive given the benefits accrue year after year.

Strategy #1. Seal cracks and crevices
Carefully inspect structures for cracks and crevices a ¼-inch in size or larger. Use sealants to secure gaps up to a ½-half-inch in diameter. For larger openings, such as gaps around pipes, use copper Stuf-fit or Xcluder™ mesh to fill the gap and follow up with a sealant appropriate for the surface.

Strategy #2. Screen passive air vents
Quarter-inch hardware cloth is ideal, but galvanized ½-inch mesh is effective also. Be sure, however, that screens will not restrict airflow excessively.

Strategy #3. Establish a weed-free zone
Pour ½-inch crushed gravel to a depth of 3 inches to create 12- to 24-inch apron around the structure. The crushed gravel removes ground cover needed by rodents to hide from predators as well as hinders burrowing.

Strategy #4. Cut back the plants
Sometimes rodents use trees, bushes, and other tall plants to gain access to structures. Ideally, tree branches should not be within 6 feet of the structure and shrubs should grow no higher than 4 feet of the roof's edge. In addition, mow tall grass to reduce cover and food availability for mice.

For long-term management of commensal rodents, exclusion is the gold standard. Even if you are unable to implement all the strategies, we strongly suggest following as many as you can afford. Just keep at it, since what you can't do this year, can be done in the next.

For additional tips on the control of mice:
Controlling House Mice, UNL Extension
Bait Stations for Controlling Rats and Mice, UNL Extension
Rodent-proof Construction-Structural, UNL Extension



Low Stress Weaning : Fenceline Weaning Should be Considered
By Lindsay Chichester, UNL Extension Educator

Image of fenceline weaning techniqueWeaning can be stressful on the cow, the calf, and the owners of the animals who may have to hear the bawling. Fall is the time most producers begin weaning their calves. Timing may vary depending on available forage supply, cow body condition score, overall health of the animals, market for the calves (or cows in some cases) at weaning , environmental factors (i.e. weather), and/or availability of labor. Calves are generally weaned between three and eight months of age. The beef industry commonly adjusts weaning weights to 205 days to balance the age the calf, the sex of the calf, and the age of the cow. This ultimately makes comparisons between animals easier, especially if you are selecting breeding stock.

Prior to Weaning
It is important to note that a calf should not be weaned until their stomach becomes functional, meaning they can eat solid feeds (i.e. hay, grain, or grass); this is usually at about two to three months of age. Bottle calves may be weaned earlier from the dam, but should be fed a milk replacer.

Prior to weaning, calves should receive an initial round of vaccinations, be dehorned, and castrated if applicable (this should happen before three months of age). Contact your veterinarian if you need to set-up a vaccination protocol or need assistance in performing these tasks.

Once calves are weaned they should be provided with a good quality and quantity of forage, a mineral/salt mix, and access to fresh, clean water.

Fenceline Weaning
When it comes to weaning calves from their dams there are many options, with pros and cons for each. Since no two producers or their operations are the same, the key is to select the best weaning option for you and your operation. This article will discuss fenceline weaning as one of those possible options.

Fenceline weaning is done by placing the cows on one side of the fence and calves on the other side. Cows and calves are still able to have minimal contact (visual, physical, olfactory, and auditory). The fence should be strong and sturdy so that they cannot crawl through it, or get their head and/or legs stuck in the fencing.  Calves should also not be able to nurse through the fence.

Fences should be long enough so that all of the cows and calves have enough space to stand at the fence without pushing or crowding others. A good rule of thumb is to move the cows and leave the calves in an initial area where they are familiar with the feed and water locations. During fenceline weaning, the nose-to-nose contact and bawling will be frequent at first. Fenceline visits will decrease daily and in about five to 10 days the process will be complete.

Research has shown that fenceline weaned calves bawl less and gain more weight during the weaning process than completely separated calves. Fenceline weaned calves eat and lie down more, walk less, and have less vocalization (bawling) (Price et al., 2003; Siegford etal., 2007); which are all signs of reduced stress.

Calf Care During Weaning
Since weaning can be a stressful for the calves, they tend to be more susceptible to disease during this time. Weaned calves should be monitored closely for health concerns and feed intake.  They may need to be treated if they become ill.

In the days following weaning, you can begin to pre-condition the calves. Pre-conditioning is simply the nutrition and health management practices that will help prepare the calf to become a stocker or feeder. Approximately 45 days is an ideal time for this pre-conditioning phase to occur.

Additionally, during this 45-day period, the calves will be completely self-reliant; eating out of a bunk and drinking from provided water sources. If you have not already, this is the time to provide booster vaccinations and worm your calves.

If you market your calves through a public sale, be sure and let the person in charge know that your calves have been weaned and pre-conditioned. These are incentives for potential buyers, and will ultimately be reflected in the paycheck for you!


Price, E. O., J. E. Harris, R. E. Borgwardt, M. L. Sween & J. M. Connor (2003). Fenceline contact of beef
calves with their dams at weaning reduces the negative effects of separation on behavior and growth rate. Journal of Animal Science, 81:116.

Siegford, J.M., D. D. Buskirk, & M. K. Sharra (2007). Behavior of beef calves weaned by traditional,
fenceline and two-step methods. Journal of Animal Science, 85:1.



Smart Gardening for Pollinators
By Rufus Isaacs, Michigan State University Extension, Department of Entomology

Image of bumblebeeA free, hour-long webinar gives background and tips for gardeners wanting to do their part to help "save the bees."

The public has been hearing a lot of news recently about the challenges faced by bees and the implications of that for our food crops. Gardeners have been responsive to this issue and are increasingly interested in what can be done in their own gardens to help support pollinators. As part of Michigan State University Extension's Smart Gardening Program, a webinar presentation titled "Smart Gardening for Pollinators" was delivered earlier this year by MSU entomologist Rufus Isaacs. This is now available online and can be accessed for free over the Internet.

The talk and associated colorful slides provide gardeners with an introduction to smart gardening for pollinators, including some background on bee biology, what bees need to be healthy, and some simple steps that can be used to provide nesting and food resources for some of the key pollinators. The talk emphasizes taking small steps and gradually building a more bee-friendly garden, and it highlights some of the resources at the MSU Horticulture Demonstration Garden that can be seen if people visit campus.

Dr. Isaacs' work is funded in part by MSU's AgBioResearch.



Sericea lespedeza, Map Now - Treat Next Spring
By Brent Meyer, Lancaster County Weed Superintendent

Image of Sericea lespedezaFor those unfamiliar with this invasive plant, the name itself can be difficult. Sericea lespedeza is a perennial that grows well in grasslands and pastures as well as along roadsides and drainage areas. It is mainly found in southeast and south-central Nebraska, though it has the potential to invade range and grasslands statewide.

This fall is the ideal time to map this plant and start making plans for treating next spring. Let me explain; now is the easiest time to spot sericea lespedeza because the grasses are turning brown, but the lespedeza stays a vibrant green and is easy to spot. If you see something nice and green in your pasture or CRP and the cattle haven't grazed it, it's a good chance it's sericea lespedeza. Map the locations now and treat in the spring when the chemical will be more effective and control much better. We are finding many infestations right now, especially around some of the lakes like Bluestem and Yankee Hill.

As with many invasive species, learning to identify it is half the battle. The plant generally grows 3 - 4 feet tall, but will grow anywhere between 2 - 7 feet tall and can be identified by its alternate leaves. Lower leaf surfaces tend to have short hairs. Stems are straight, slender, and grooved and can have short hairs. Flowers, which bloom in late summer, range in color from white to cream to light yellow.

Sericea lespedeza can be not only challenging to pronounce, but to get rid of as well. It is an extremely aggressive invader of open areas. Dense monocultures of thickets are formed due to its ability to sprout from root crowns. Established sericea lespedeza plants will reduce or eliminate competing native vegetation thus, impacting native ecosystems and reducing carrying capacity for livestock (it is not palatable to most livestock).

Image of Sericea lespedezaA combination of two or more control methods (mechanical, chemical, etc.) is the best approach when controlling sericea lespedeza. By utilizing several control options, your odds become greater that more plants will be controlled. Control recommendations can be found in UNL Extension 2013 Guide for Weed Management, page 150. Existing infestations spread rapidly through seed dispersal, which can be carried by wildlife, livestock, contaminated hay, vehicles and equipment. Continued monitoring and follow-up are essential for maintaining and reducing infestations.

Everyone's cooperation is needed in spotting and preventing new infestations. Early vigilance and action will prevent the huge cost of controlling large stands of sericea lespedeza.

Contact Information
We need everyone's help, so if you would like more information on identifying sericea lespedeza or would like to report an infestation contact the Lancaster County Weed Control Office. Email: or phone 402-441-7817.



Tips for a Successful and Safe Thanksgiving
Lisa Franzen-Castle, UNL Extension Nutrition Specialist

Image of Thanksgiving turkeyAs Thanksgiving approaches, planning and preparing for the holiday dinner can result in anxiety and questions. What kind of turkey should I buy? Should I buy a frozen or fresh turkey? How do I store my turkey? A few simple steps will ease holiday fears and ensure a delicious and a safe meal for family and friends. The following tips may help you prepare a successful and safe holiday meal.

Tips for a Successful and Safe Thanksgiving:

  • Plan ahead. Cut down on holiday anxiety and stress by planning ahead. Plan the menu two to three weeks before the holiday. Shopping early will ease the countdown tension for your Thanksgiving meal.
  • Fresh or Frozen? That is one of the Thanksgiving turkey questions. There is no difference in quality between a fresh or frozen turkey. You can buy a frozen turkey in advance and take advantage of special sales. Fresh turkeys provide convenience because they don't require thawing, but they have shorter shelf lives. Before purchasing, make sure there is enough space in your refrigerator or freezer.
  • When to buy the bird. A whole frozen turkey takes about 24 hours per four to five pounds to thaw in the refrigerator. Purchase a frozen turkey as far in advance as necessary to safely thaw it in the refrigerator. If buying fresh, purchase it only one to two days before the meal and keep it refrigerated.
  • How do you know when it's done? A whole turkey is safe when cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, as measured with a food thermometer. Insert a food thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh, not touching bone to measure the temperature.
  • Carving and food safety. Worried about food safety when carving and serving turkey this Thanksgiving? It's best to let the turkey rest for 20 minutes before carving to allow juices to set, and it will carve easier. Use a clean cutting board that has a well to catch juices. Remove stuffing from the turkey cavity. Make sure the knife is sharp before you start carving.
  • Storing your Thanksgiving leftovers. It's important to store leftover turkey in shallow containers and put them in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours. Use cooked leftover turkey, stuffing and gravy within three to four days. Cooked turkey keeps for three to four months in the freezer. Reheat leftovers thoroughly to 165 degrees Fahrenheit and bring gravy to a boil before serving.
  • Who you gonna call? The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline can personally answer food safety questions on weekdays year-round. This toll-free telephone service helps prevent foodborne illness by answering questions about the safe storage, handling, and preparation of meat, poultry, and egg products. The hotline is staffed by food safety specialists with backgrounds in home economics, nutrition, and food technology. Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at: 1-888-674-6854 or send an Email to:

Make this Thanksgiving holiday healthy and safe by following these tips and recommendations from the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. For more food, nutrition, and health information related to Thanksgiving go to



Fall Garden Chores
By Nicole Stoner, UNL Extension Horticulture Educator

Image of pumpkinsI can't believe that I can finally tell you again that we have to start thinking about what to do with our garden vegetables now that fall is on the way and our temperatures will soon be falling. You can take a lot of produce out of your garden prior to a freeze event to salvage as much as possible, even some of it that isn't quite mature yet.

Final Tomato Harvest
Tomatoes can be pulled out of the garden prior to a freeze event to save them. Even if the tomato is still green, you can pick it and use it. Store green tomatoes inside in a cool, moist location; some people wrap them in newspaper during this storage period. Green tomatoes can be stored for up to four to six weeks.  Tomatoes with even the slightest tinge of red or pink, will eventually fully ripen to red, but totally green tomatoes will not and should be used green instead.

Harvesting & Curing Pumpkins
Pumpkins are a staple of fall decorations. We need to know what to do with them when a freeze is in the forecast so that we don't lose our decorations. Pumpkins are mature and ready to be harvested when a fingernail does not puncture the skin. However, if a frost is forecasted, you should harvest all pumpkins that are mature or very close to being mature. You can still get them off of the vine in the next day or two following a killing frost if you didn't get them out before the frost.

To keep pumpkins from now until Halloween or even into the Thanksgiving season, you will need to cure the pumpkin to keep it looking the best. To cure a pumpkin, you should store it for about 10 days in a warm, humid environment, 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit with 80-90 percent relative humidity is best. After that time, they can be kept indoors for 55-60 days.

Fall Garden Cleanup
When you have finished harvesting from your garden for the year, be sure to clean it up. In the fall, we need to remove all old plants from the garden to reduce the overwintering abilities of some insect and disease pests we may find in our gardens. If your plants were seriously infested by any type of disease, do not add them to your compost pile.  Home compost piles may not get hot enough to break down the disease organism. Diseased plant materials should be put in a black plastic bag and sent off with your regular trash.

After you have removed the plant material, till your garden and add compost or other soil amendments as needed. If you plan to apply fresh, noncomposted, manure to your garden, this should be done in the fall to allow time for the bacteria in the manure to break down. You then should add a layer of mulch to the garden so that your top-soil does not blow away in the strong winter winds we see often in Nebraska. Mulches used can be untreated lawn clippings, newspaper, cardboard, or wood chip mulch.

Cold Frames Extend the Growing Season
If you have any cool season, fall, crops be sure to protect them in case of a hard freeze. Cold-frames are an option if you are looking to extend your growing season. A cold-frame is a garden that is protected from frost with a covering and usually is dug into the ground or has a frame around it to give it 5-10 degrees more warmth than outside.



Soil Amendment for Lawns and Landscapes
John Fech, UNL Extension Horticulture Educator

It Ain't Just Dirt

There are many types of soil, each varying in the proportion of three basic components--clay, silt, and sand. A soil is commonly described by its predominant ingredients, such as "silty clay". In its ideal combination, soil is known as loam, a mixture of roughly 20 percent clay, 40 percent silt, and 40 percent sand. Loam encourages nutrient retention and proper drainage. You may have to add certain amendments to your soil to bring it near this ratio.

Sandy Soils
Sandy soils are very well drained, and sometimes excessively so. The angular shape of the particles creates a good deal of air space so that water passes through the soil quickly. In general, roots thrive in sandy soils, because they get the oxygen they need to grow well. Another advantage is that sandy soils hold their shape well, and resist compaction. This is very important in high-traffic areas such as the path to the trash cans, the mail carrier's everyday route through the front yard, and the lawn adjacent to the patio or deck. Golf course greens and professional sports fields are heavily sand based; they require compaction resistance and rapid drainage to maintain a firm, safe playing surface.

The down side to a predominantly sandy soil is that it will not hold water and nutrients well. Moisture tends to rush right through these soils, making it necessary to water frequently. And because sand particles are slick and hard, much like marbles, they have few sites for holding on to nutrients and fertilizing must be done frequently. Sandy soils are managed best by applying light but frequent doses of water and nutrients, and they can be improved by adding components that hold water and nutrients well, such as compost, aged manure and leaf mold.

Image of soil layers

Clay soils
Clay soils are made of extremely small particles that are packed close together. Clay particles are flattened in shape, something like tiny pancakes. When lawns growing on clay soils receive even moderate foot traffic, the particles smash together in what is known as compaction. There is little room for water and air, because the percentage of voids is reduced. The limited spaces tend to fill up with water after a rainfall, leaving little or no oxygen for the root system. Water does not pass quickly through clay soils, and often will move downward only after the soil voids are completely saturated. The roots remain wet, and are vulnerable to rot.

Clay soils do have their advantages. They hold water well, reducing the loss of nutrients through runoff and percolation. Lawns growing in soils predominant in clay can be fertilized and watered less often, due to their holding capacity.

Silty soils
Silt particles are smaller than those of sand and not much larger than clay particles. Silty soils perform much like clay soils. Their particles tend to stick together, and they are prone to compaction. In some parts of the country, they are referred to as "muck" soils. They hold nutrients well, and most are naturally plentiful in soil nutrients, reducing the need for the homeowner to fertilize the lawn.

Organic matter
Organic matter is a very important component of the soil, even though it makes up only 3 to 5 percent of a good soil's solid portion. This nutrient-rich material serves to moderate the hardness of the mineral component. When the soil is predominantly clay or sand, the addition of organic matter (aged manure, Canadian peat moss, ground bark, sawdust, compost) makes clay soil looser, and easier to work. In clay soils, organic matter additions improve drainage, and allow air to move into the soil more readily. In sandy soil, it helps to hold moisture and nutrients in the root zone of the lawn. Organic matter has the magical quality of being able to help both soil problems. If you want to know what it looks like, buy a bag of compost at a garden center. High-quality composts are predominantly organic matter.

Fixing Soil Problems

Image of soil left after a new home is constructedIn home construction, the topsoil is often carelessly mixed with the other layers, reducing its ability to support a quality lawn. Ideally, the topsoil should be scraped off and placed in a pile, to be redistributed when the home is finished. This is rarely done, especially if the contractor is in a hurry to complete the job and the homeowner is more concerned with picking out the curtains than making sure the soil is properly managed.

In another common scenario, the topsoil and subsoil are trucked away by the contractor for resale or use somewhere else, leaving the new home with the poor soil left over after digging the basement. The homeowner is faced with trying to establish a landscape on a yard that has reduced infiltration, porosity, and fertility, and that is easily compacted. The end result is a very nice-looking home in the middle of a stunted landscape. If you still have the chance, talk with the contractor about reserving the topsoil and then spreading it over the graded yard. You may even want to call in a landscape architect or designer at this early stage to direct the contractor so that the job is done right.

Some lawns have a perched water table. This means abrupt differences between soil layers prevent water from freely percolating into the ground. The most common example is a predominantly clay layer over a predominantly sandy soil. The clays have much smaller and more numerous voids that must be filled with water before it will percolate down into the clay. This limits the depth of the root zone to the upper layer. The upper layer is also prone to compaction, and there may be standing water on the lawn for several hours after a rainfall.

It's very difficult to correct a perched water table. The only real solution is to rebuild the soil, from "the ground up," so to speak, so that the duff, topsoil, subsoil, and bedrock are in the proper location and proportion. You can go through the work of stripping off the sod for reuse, then changing the soil's composition. Consider this if your lawn continually has standing water, or if the roots are commonly rotten upon inspection. The process is expensive and quite laborious. If you choose not to go ahead with it, you can prevent root rot and problems with standing water by watering more often and putting on less water with each application.

Other soils are excessively well drained, if layers of larger particles occur over layers of smaller ones, or if the top layers are quite deep. A sandy soil is particularly apt to drain too quickly. These soils are unable to retain enough moisture and nutrients to sustain the lawn, and the grass may look anemic, rather thin, and yellow. On the other hand, these soils are excellent for drainage and discouraging root rot diseases.

Fast or slow draining soils can be corrected through rebuilding and mixing several inches of compost with the existing soil as deep as is practical. Soil rebuilt to a depth of of 24 inches is ideal, but you may only be able to enhance the upper 12 to 18 iches or so. Use a rented front-end loader for this operation or hire a contractor to do the job. An easier but somewhat less effective process is to aerate the soil over time with a core cultivation machine, available at rental stores. In these circumstances, aerate the lawn twice in fall and twice in spring. After each cultivation pass, apply dried compost with a fertilizer spreader. The compost should be of a uniform particle size, or the spreader will clog and distribute unevenly. You can drag the lawn with a piece of chain link fence or a stiff-tined rake to help move the compost off the grass blades and into the holes left by the aerator. Whether rebuilt through deep incorporation or gradually via aeration and topdressing, the goal is to improve root development and tolerance to drought or excessively wet soils.

Soil Testing

Much as an IQ test measures a person's ability to learn, a soil test computes how capable this medium is to support plant growth. You'll need tests in several places to get an accurate reading of a yard of any size, so take a sample from each part of the lawn that you suspect to be responding to different soil conditions.

To collect samples, arm yourself with a clean, dry plastic bucket (metal could interfere with the test) and something to dig with (a bulb planter, a garden trowel, or small shovel). Take a few tablespoons or small handful of soil from a depth of 2 or 3 in.. Remove any thatch, roots, or grass blades from the soil sample, as they will cause inaccurate readings.

A real slick way to take a soil sample is with a sod spade. Its cutting head is straight or vertical, rather than curved or bent. This allows you to simply slide the spade under the sod, lift a flap of grass, remove the sample, then fill the hole with soil from the garden. Lower the sod back into place, tamp it slightly, and water to encourage re-rooting.

Take about 10 samples from each lawn area you've identified and mix them together in the bucket. The laboratory will need about a pint of the mixture for each soil test. The lab can run all of its testing procedures from this combined sample. Make sure that no fertilizers, bird food or garden soil amendments contaminate the samples, or your test may be thrown off.

Generally, you'll get a test report analysis returned to you in via surface or electronic mail. Most labs report their information in an easy-to-read chart format, along with recommendations on how much of a particular nutrient or amendment to add to make the soil more fertile or to make the existing nutrients more available. If the pH is out of the best range, modifications may be made according to the chart; the lab may caution you about adding too much in one growing season, particularly if your pH is extremely high or low.

Sulfur and Limestone Amendments

Adding sulfur and ground limestone (also referred to as agricultural lime) is much more effective if you can do it before seeding the lawn, or when regrading the site. But you also can incorporate them through aeration as you would compost. Wear a drywaller's mask to avoid breathing these dusts, and long pants and sleeves to avoid a skin rash. Allergic reactions are not common when using these materials, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

Raising pH with limestone (lbs. ground limestone per 1,000 sq. ft.)
change in pH desired sandy soil silty soil clay soil
4.5 to 6.5 50 160 200
5.0 to 6.5 40 130 150
5.5 to 6.5 30 90 100
6.0 to 6.5 15 50 55


Lowering pH with sulfur (lbs. elemental sulfur per 1,000 sq. ft.)
change in pH desired sandy soil silty soil clay soil
8.5 to 6.5 45 60 70
8.0 to 6.5 30 35 45
7.5 to 6.5 10 20 25
7.0 to 6.5 3 5 7

Image of productive soilOrganic matter

One of the most common deficiencies is too little organic matter, either because the soil was initially poor or because it was devalued in the construction process. Organic matter content will gradually improve with the age of a lawn, but it is a very slow process--even a 30-year-old home may have a yard deficient in this component.

A soil test may reveal your yard has no more than 1 to 1.5 percent organic matter, when the ideal range is 3 to 5. To improve a serious shortfall before putting in a lawn, add liberal amounts of finished compost to your soil and till it in by with a rototiller or small plow. Work it in to the upper 6 inches of soil, and it will trickle downwards over the next few years. You'll need 3 to 4 inches for a soil with a reading of less than 1 percent. If the soil needs only a slight improvement, spread about an inch of compost over the entire area and then incorporate it.

Infiltration Testing

The soil beneath the lawn must be able to handle the water that falls on the yard as precipitation and when watering, or the resulting pools of water may cause the roots to rot. On slopes, the water may run off, resulting in dry soils where the grass suffers from drought stress. The infiltration rate (the speed at which water moves downward) is affected by several factors, especially soil particle size and the relative position of soil layers.

If you suspect your yard may absorb water too slowly, you can perform a simple test. Cut the bottom and top out of a coffee can, and place it upright on the lawn. Use a pocket knife to trace the outside edge of the can, remove the can, and deepen this circular cut to 3 in. or so. Then carefully work the can down into the cut without displacing the sod. Pour a gallon of water into the can, or as much as it will hold, and time how long it takes for the water to move downward. Take note of the time required for the water to drop an inch, 2 inches and then 3 inches. These observations help determine the infiltration rate, which is expressed in volume of water in a unit of time; such as a half inch per hour. If the water in the can doesn't disappear in a few hours, then you need to do something to help your soil. For the best determination of infiltration capacity, perform this test when the soil is moist, not overly dry or soggy wet--the cracks that often develop in dry soil and the filled up voids of wet soils will distort the test results.

Knowing your lawn's capacity to accept rainfall will suggest how often to water, and how long to water each time. For example, if the water is absorbed quickly, you know that your soil should be watered more frequently and with less volume.

Don't Try This at Home--Adding sand to help improve drainage

While on a beach, you've probably noticed that the water moves through sand quite rapidly. You might be tempted you to add sand to improve the drainage of a heavy soil, but as logical as this sounds, it's not a good idea. The opposite effect would occur. Drainage problems are usually due to a predominance of silt and/or clay, and when combined with sand these soils become harder, not more permeable. This reminds me of reading with my daughter from her social studies textbook about Adobe Native Americans making bricks out of sand and clay.

The silts and clays which cause the lawn to drain slowly can only be improved through liberal amendment with compost, or by amending the exising soil to bring the sand percentage to 85%. Doing so would mean adding a whole lot of material to the lawn; it's usually not practical to do this, or to replace the existing soil with a sandy mix.

If the lawn remains too wet after remediation attempts fail, consult a contractor about installing a lawn drainage system. The most common type uses perforated pipes, made of various thicknesses of hard plastic--usually PVC. The system collects water and directs it away from the lawn. It is usually desirable to place gravel around the drain tiles to prevent clogging by fine soil particles. At several locations in the wet area (usually 6-8 feet apart), columns of the gravel extend up to the surface of the lawn and function as catch basins for collecting surface runoff water. A perforated cover is placed on top of the columns to discourage soil particles from clogging the system.