Two effective ways to fix low spots in your lawn

Ever step in a hole while you’re mowing and fall? Annoying, isn’t it?

We’ve got a hole in the front yard because someone pulled a bush out of the ground and didn’t fill it in. That hole has me shaking my fist every time I mow.

Low spots and holes in your yard are ugly and dangerous. But you don’t need to hire a landscaper to fix them. We’ll give you two ways you can do it yourself.

Specifically:

  • Top-dressing
  • Cutting turf to patch

 

Top-dressing

This method involves filling in low spots with dirt without removing sod. You’ll need to cut the grass to 1” or less and then dethatch in the areas you need to fill in.

Thatch is dead grass that collects around the base of the grass blades. It’s stopping your grass from getting all the light, air, and water it needs to thrive. Thatch also retains moisture during times of rain and promotes the growth of mold.

You’ll need some things before you begin:

  • The right dirt (see below)
  • A garden cart, unless you’re planning an Epsom salt bath later
  • A landscaping rake
  • A leaf rake
  • A shovel (if you’re using the patch method)

1. Use the right dirt

Most agree it’s best to use a 50/50 mix of soil and fine sand. Probably a good idea to add a little fertilizer, too. The soil and fertilizer will add nutrients, but they’ll also break down. So if that’s all you use, you’ll have to repeat this process more than necessary.

Sand is inorganic and will remain on the ground. You’ll still have to repeat this process in a few weeks, but won’t have to put quite as much work into it.

Buy more than you think you need. You might miss some spots the first time around.

2. Cut your grass to about 1”

You need the dirt to get through the grass to the ground. If you leave the grass too long, the dirt will just mash it down and lie on top of it.

At an inch, the grass is still tall enough for the amount of dirt you’ll be laying down, but not tall enough to lie flat and get buried by the dirt.

3. Put dirt on the low spots and level with the back of a landscape rake

You’ll only want to use about half an inch of dirt on the ground to begin with. It’ll settle, anyway. This is a process and takes patience. So you might as well treat it like a huge Zen garden.

Then, you’ll need to get on your hands and smear the dirt around. It’s fun, but maybe a good reason not to use anything with manure in it.

While you’re at it, look out for wood chips or pieces of mulch. Best to get those out.

4. Wait 2-4 weeks before repeating

Some say six, but four is probably enough time for the dirt to settle and the grass to get used to it. What you really want is for the grass to grow in healthy before you cut it and throw dirt on it again.

Filling and patching with sod

This is the one you’ll need the shovel for. We got one with a square, flat blade guessing it would help us avoid gouging out too much earth.

1. Cut your grass

You might have to use dirt to fill in the seams, so you want it to get all the way to the bottom. And it just makes it easier to cut through with a shovel. Again, you’ll want to cut it to 1” or less.

2. Use a shovel to remove 10”x10” squares of grass from the area

If you’re doing a large area, it helps to lay the pieces aside in the same arrangement you took them out in. None of us probably make straight enough cuts with a shovel to make all the edges match up evenly otherwise.

3. Fill with 50/50 mix of topsoil and fine sand

The same as you would mix for the first method. Even though you’re laying sod back down over it, you’ll still lose some volume as it settles and the organic parts break down.

4. Put the sod squares back in place

After you put the sod back on the ground, check for gaps between them and fill them in with dirt. Make sure you water thoroughly so the roots can get some moisture and start growing deeper into the ground.

If all else fails …

Take out all the grass in that area and grow vegetables there. You’ll be adding dirt, anyway, so that will help with the leveling problem and you won’t have to mow that part.

Next year, we’ll have a garden where our worst pits are. Hope you like tomatoes.

Lots and lots of tomatoes.

Takeaways

Wait till the right time of year and the right weather conditions to level your lawn. Avoid top-dressing when the forecast calls for rain the next day. And you’ll get the best results with both methods if you choose a time when the grass is full and healthy, not heat-shocked.

Both methods require cutting your grass to an inch and dethatching the problem areas.

A 50/50 mix of soil and fine sand ensures the soil will have nutrients but also longer-lasting leveling.

Do you have any tips or methods for leveling we haven’t mentioned? Set us straight in the comments!

How to use a weed whacker without whacking yourself (a nervous beginner’s guide)

Are you a weed-whacking novice and nervous about edging your lawn for the first time?

First, don’t panic. A weed whacker (weed eater, string trimmer) is not an uncontrollable doomsday machine. It’s basically just a long stick that spins a strip of plastic really fast.

This post will prepare you to use a weed whacker safely and keep it in good condition.

Be prepared to use a weed whacker safely

A weed whacker is just like any other tool. Even a simple tool without moving parts — like a hammer — can injure you if you don’t use it properly. (Or if you use it properly for the wrong purpose.)

Anything that can cut through plant material can also cut your skin. And anything that moves at high speeds — like the plastic line in a weed whacker — can fling material like mulch, dirt, and small rocks into the air.

So practice good safety to avoid getting hurt.

Dress appropriately

Cover up anything you wouldn’t want lacerated by the weed whacker line and dirt and gravel the weed whacker might churn up.

For minimum safety, you need:

  • Safety goggles. They’re not just a versatile accessory for elegant evening wear. They protect your eyes from flying debris.
  • Long pants. It’s hard to remember this when it’s hot and you’re wearing shorts every day. But your ankles and shins should be protected.
  • The right shoes. Open-toed shoes are no safer for weed-whacking than they are for knife-dropping. You don’t need steel-toed boots. Just cover your feet.

The right way to hold a weed whacker

For best results, hold it parallel to the ground as possible so the cutting line doesn’t chop up the ground and wear out while simultaneously chucking stuff at you.

Know your equipment

Read the manual.

No one really likes reading manuals, we know. But at least skim and read the important parts.

If you don’t have a manual, you can easily look up your weed whacker’s make and model online and usually find a PDF version.

You may be surprised at how many different kinds of weed whackers exist.

Different types of weed whackers

Gas-powered

There are two kinds of engines for gas-powered weed trimmers – 4c (4-stroke) and 2c (2-stroke). Like it needed to be any more complicated.

If you haven’t bought a weed whacker yet, this should give you food for thought.

Electric

  • Corded. These give you more power, but the cord is only so long and it tends to get in the way.
  • Battery-powered. They don’t have cords to trip over and are great for small lawns and power outages.

How to load line into a weed whacker

You could do this:

Or you could do this:

Remember basic physics. An angle cuts better than a flat edge. Cut your line so that the cut edge angles out.

How to mix fuel for a gas-powered weed whacker

That means knowing which type of engine you have. Use gas only for 4-stroke engines. Look for a label stuck to the side of the weed whacker or look at the manual if you’re not sure.

Use this online oil and gas mix ratio calculator if you need extra help.

Tips for maintaining your weed whacker

Like all things of a physical nature, weed whackers break down. You can extend the life of yours by:

  • Using the right fuel. Pay attention to the instructions and make sure to get the oil to gas mixture right.
  • Cleaning away trimmings so they don’t gunk up moving parts.
  • If it has a cord, make sure the cord is in good shape.
  • If it has a battery, remember to charge it according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Takeaways

Safety first. A weed whacker won’t rip your face off, but it can lacerate your skin and kick up things that shouldn’t go in your eye. Wear protective eyewear, long pants, and closed-toed shoes.

Be prepared. Do you have enough fuel? Is the weather on your side? Will you have to step around dog poop?

Maintain your equipment. Things just work better and last longer that way.

Don’t worry — it takes practice just like anything else. Before long, you’ll be a pro at it.

7 Natural, effective ways to keep pests out of your garden without chemical pesticides

It’ll be time to start planting soon, and you may be wondering how you’re going to keep aphids, cutworms, and other pests out of your garden. Chemical pesticides are starting to fall out of favor as organic gardeners revive old chemical-free methods that have always worked.

Specifically, there are seven safe and effective alternatives we’ll discuss:

  1. Routine lawn maintenance
  2. Mechanical methods
  3. Companion planting
  4. Crop rotation
  5. “Soft” chemicals
  6. Parasites
  7. Predators

1. Routine lawn maintenance

Keep your grass short. When you let your grass get tall and raggedy, it becomes the preferred habitat of ticks and fleas. They like moist, cool places and tall grass keeps them covered in shadow. So channel your inner Hank Hill and keep that lawn well manicured.

Weed regularly. Weeds provide too much comfortable shade for pests and act as a bridge to help them spread from one plant to another. Plus, savagely yanking them out of the ground is a great way to blow off steam if you’re feeling some stress.

Keep your yard free of debris, like grass clippings and leaves. Not only do they provide shade, they also trap moisture, which can cause fungal infestations. Some people like to leave the clippings on their lawn to return the nutrients and moisture to the soil. If you want to do this, be sure to mulch them so they break down quickly and easily. Alternatively, you can put the clippings in your compost.

Surround your plant beds with mulch to create a migration barrier. Fleas and ticks aren’t that ambitious. Crossing such a terrain makes them visible and vulnerable to predators and they won’t do it if they don’t have to.

2. Mechanical methods

Barriers and traps can protect your plants and ensnare pests using no chemicals at all. You can make sticky boards, bury coffee cans, etc. to capture bugs.

Diatomaceous earth (DE) is also a mechanical means. It’s a fine white dust made from fossilized fragments of diatoms. The particles have sharp edges that cut through the exoskeletons of insects and causes them to dehydrate. A word of caution about DE – it will also kill beneficial insects.

3. Companion planting

Some of the plants that smell fantastic to us smell absolutely terrible to bugs and keep all kinds of pests away. Lavender, marigolds, and rosemary repel the most dangerous insects in the world Including ticks, and mosquitoes.

My grandmother was a serious gardener. She planted marigolds to keep harmful insects out of her vegetables. She also did what is now referred to as diversified planting.

Diversified planting takes companion planting to a level that can actually help you find creative ways to organize your plants. For example, plants from the Allium species (garlic, onions, et al.) repel aphids, slugs, among other things. So I might plant them next to tomatoes and peppers and think of that part of my garden as the Italian section.

4. Crop rotation

Some pests lay eggs in the soil around the plants they like to eat. Rotating your plants can help cut down on parasitic activity by forcing them to travel to find their food and expose themselves to predators.

It also helps to preserve a better balance of nutrients in the soil.

5. “Soft” chemicals

Dish soap diluted in water can be sprayed on the plants to repel insects. Some dish soaps may be too harsh for certain plants, but mild soaps like Castile soap can be used on more sensitive plants.

Certain plants, like rhubarb and stinging nettles, produce oils that repel or kill insects. You can make a spray out of nettles by cutting them up and soaking them in water. You can also use rhubarb leaves.

Baking soda is one of the most useful substances you can have as a DIYer. Not just because you can use it to make your own cleaning products, but because it can also kill bugs.

6. Parasites

Certain fungus species, like mycorrhizal, protect your plants from parasitic fungi. Parasitic insects like Braconid wasps lay their eggs inside larvae and other eggs. When they hatch, the larvae then devour the host from the inside out.

Below ground, tiny unsegmented worms called nematodes feed on eggs and larvae of pests in the soil.

7. Predators

Bugs have a lot of problems. Reptiles, amphibians, birds, spiders, and bigger bugs are always trying to eat them. You can use that to your advantage by taking a few steps to attract these predators.

Birds can eat loads of insects every day. Especially in the spring when they have young to feed. So make your lawn a welcoming environment and they’ll happily snipe those caterpillars and Japanese beetles right off your plants.

Frogs and toads eat many types of pests. They need shade and water, so creating habitats for them is a good way to lure them to your yard.

Predatory insects like ground beetles, lacewings, and damsel bugs can actually eat too many pests. Ironically, to attract beneficial insects to your garden, you first have to have the pests they like to eat. It might seem strange to wonder if you have enough aphids, but not if you’re planning the menu for lady beetles.


Between all of these methods, some of which you can use together, there’s something that should work for everyone who wants to be rid of chemical pesticides. In many cases, taking care of your lawn and taking a few simple steps to leverage nature against your pests is enough.

Got any favorite methods of your own to share? Let us know in the comments.

How to protect your outdoor plants in the winter

Winter is here, and you’re cold. But you’ve got your fuzzy pajama pants, your favorite hoodie, space heater, and YakTrax. You’re settled in for the blustery winds and freezing rains. But what about your outdoor plants?

During these cold months, the most vulnerable part of a plant is the root system. The roots, whose job it is to absorb water and nutrients from the soil and supply the plant with the hydration, vitamins, and minerals it needs to grow stronger, are most susceptible to freezing temperatures and the cellular destruction they cause.

To understand why freezing causes cellular destruction, we first need to understand what happens to water when it freezes.

Something fascinating you didn’t know about water

I know, I know. You didn’t sign up for a physics lesson. But here’s something fascinating you didn’t know about water. It behaves like no other liquid on Earth, and that’s what’s keeping all of us (and our plants) alive.

When most liquids freeze, they shrink because the crystalline structures formed during the freezing process are tightly packed. But when water starts to freeze, it goes through a contraction/expansion cycle that ends in expansion.

That’s because when water molecules start to lock into their crystalline lattice structure, their hydrogen bonds keep them spaced apart. That leaves open spaces in the structure.

That’s nice, but what does this have to do with anything?

If your plant’s roots freeze, it means that the water around and inside them has locked into a jagged crystalline structure. That slices them up inside and out, compromising their ability to take in nutrients from the soil and maintain the plant’s health.

Freezing one time might not damage them enough to kill the plant, but freezing and thawing repeatedly will.

If you want to keep outdoor plants alive during the winter, you’ve got to keep some heat at the roots.

How to defend your plants against the freeze/thaw cycle

It’s all about slowing down the loss of heat accumulated from sunlight. Heat takes the path of least resistance, so the more obstacles you put in its way, the slower it travels. To keep more heat trapped at the ground level longer, you have to create many layers of air pockets separated by a multitude of barriers.

Think about it like this. If you need to get to a destination 15 miles away, drive through the city, and get stopped at every light, it’s going to take longer to get there than if you took the freeway. Even if the freeway route is a greater distance.

The air pockets in the insulating material are like the stretches of road between stops, and every place the pieces of material come into contact with each other are the traffic lights.

How to insulate potted plants

The first thing you need to do is figure out which kinds of pots will be appropriate. You’ll want to use those made from materials that won’t crack. Here is HGTV’s breakdown on all-weather gardening pots if you could use a few tips to make your selection.

Push them together so they help shield one another. Like penguins. Penguins even take turns in the middle, so maybe your plants would like it if you occasionally rotated them.

Wrap them in old sheets, towels, or clothes. Some people suggest bubble wrap, but others insist on avoiding plastic, as it will retain too much moisture and could cause mold to grow. Something that breathes and will hold layers of air to trap heat is ideal.

Soil is also a good insulator. You could bury the plants, pots and all.

Make sure the pots have enough drainage and water them adequately. If the soil is dry, frost will penetrate more deeply into it.

What to do if you have planters

Here’s a post from Lindsay Stephenson’s blog about using foam core to insulate roots against the surrounding cold air. Then again, just because I like playing devil’s advocate, not every expert gardener agrees that polystyrene necessarily keeps plants warmer.

Some, like Larry Hodgson of Laidback Gardener, argue cold will make it to the roots anyway and that the foam’s real purpose is to slow down the loss of heat long enough to prevent freeze/thaw cycles.

It’s true that the purpose of any insulation is to create lots of air spaces separated by barriers that slow down loss of heat and foam certainly does that. But there’s another thing worth considering.

Polystyrene off-gases chemicals that get absorbed by whatever’s in contact with it. If the chemicals leech into the soil and the plant’s roots, that’s not great for your plants. I wouldn’t eat polystyrene packing peanuts. And I wouldn’t give them to my dog. So I wouldn’t want to feed them to my plants, either.

How to insulate plants in the ground

Some people go all out and build insulating structures filled with material around each plant. Here’s an example if you like making things and want to check that out.

For others, simply covering the ground to protect the root system suffices. Straw, mulch, and burlap all work well for that.

There are enough simple and inexpensive solutions that you can find something that works for you, whether you have a little space and time or a lot.

As thorough as we try to be, we could have left something out. Have a favorite insulating technique I haven’t mentioned? Share it with your fellow gardeners and us in the comments.

4 Essential herbs that grow well in pots

Fresh herbs can weave an extra dimension into our sensory experience with food unsustainable by meat and veggies alone.

But fresh herbs are expensive and often wither in the fridge too fast despite your intentions when you buy them.

If you’d like to try growing your own, this post is about four herbs that grow well in pots. I’ve grown them myself. They’re easy to care for and fill your kitchen with seductive aromas. You can also use them to infuse cooking oils or make salad dressings and homemade cleaning products.

Maybe you’ll even feel inspired to try cooking new dishes.

4 herbs that grow well in pots, indoors and out

Basil, oregano, thyme, and rosemary thrive in at least eight hours of full sunlight. They have similar watering and pruning requirements. And they go great together, especially if you love Italian food.

1. Basil

Basil plant
Photo by Tone Høines on Unsplash

There are too many varieties of basil to choose from. Thai basil has gorgeous purple leaves and smells spicy and sweet. Boxwood basil grows compactly with small leaves that grow so fast you’ll be able to use it for a lot more than just cooking.

2. Oregano

Oregano plants with sign
Photo by Dayana Brooke on Unsplash

Oregano will punch you in the mouth if you overuse it. Pair it well with spices that complement its bite. By the way, its antimicrobial properties make it an excellent ingredient in a homemade all-purpose cleaner.

3. Thyme

Thyme sprigs with lemons
Photo by Nadi Lindsay from Pexels

Thyme is a little sour and perfect for enhancing flavor in chicken, fish, and veggies. Be careful not to cook it for too long, or it’ll lose its potency. This post from Foodal explains how best to cook with thyme.

4. Rosemary

Close up of rosemary plant
Photo by Babette Landmesser on Unsplash

Rosemary leaves are thick and velvety but sticky with resin. It’s hard to strip the leaves off the stems if they’re sticking to your fingers. So rub a little olive oil on your fingertips first.

Keep rosemary plants at the perimeter of your favorite outdoor space to keep mosquitos away.

What you’ll need before you plant your herbs:

  • Four 12” (about 30cm) pots with drainage holes
  • Potting soil
  • Plant food to encourage leaf growth
  • Bone meal (optional)

I was taught to put bone meal and plant food in the hole first. Bone meal promotes root and leaf growth. Plant food will give the sprout an initial growth spurt.

These plants all thrive in at least eight hours of full sunlight. So if you’re growing them inside, be mindful of their location. Test the soil moisture by poking your finger into the dirt. If the top inch or so is dry, your plants need water.

If you use fertilizer, take care to get it in the soil but not on the leaves. Regular watering and pruning are sufficient aftercare. You don’t even need to pull weeds. Gardeners who enlist beneficial insects to fight pests say a few weeds help.

So … now what?

When you start harvesting homegrown herbs, let the kitchen experiments begin. Do it for science. Do it because it’s cheaper and makes your food more delicious. Do it because you can. Here’s a bonus recipe to kick off with.

Roasted veggies to top your favorite pasta

I made this recently, and the best way to describe the flavor is that it smells and tastes like summer. Buon appetito.

Ingredients

  • 1 bulb of garlic, separated into cloves and skinned
  • 1 red onion, halved and sliced into 1/2” pieces
  • 2 tomatoes, halved and sliced into 1/2” pieces
  • 1 medium-sized zucchini, sliced in half length-wise and cut into 1/2” pieces
  • 1 sprig of rosemary, stripped
  • 1 t of chopped fresh oregano
  • ½ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil, divided
  • 1 lemon, zested and quartered
  • grated parmesan, romano, pecorino, or your favorite vegan alternative
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • your favorite pasta

Cooking directions

  1. Place your top oven rack in the highest position. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper.
  2. Toss cut onion, peeled garlic cloves, tomato, and zucchini with olive oil, salt, and pepper and spread in a single layer over the baking sheet.
  3. Bake on the top rack for 18 minutes, turning halfway through.
  4. Melt butter in the saucepan over low heat and squeeze the lemon quarters into it. Add a generous splash (or two) of your favorite white wine or cooking sherry and stir in herbs. Leave half of the basil to sprinkle on top.
  5. Toss sauce with cooked pasta, drizzling with olive oil if you like. Top with roasted veggies, remaining basil, lemon zest, and shredded cheese. Salt and pepper to taste.

Learn more

How to use bone meal fertilizer for plants, Love the Garden.

Potted rosemary herbs: Caring for rosemary grown in containers, Gardening Know-How.

Growing thyme, Bonnie Plants.

Everything you need to know about growing oregano, Kitchn.