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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Growing a (Northern) Lawn

 

One of the biggest benefits of spending nearly a decade in grad school is the tremendous amount of free time it affords you. One of the things I invested time in (besides basking in the then golden age of Ricochet) was understanding the ins and outs of lawncare.

Like most things, there’s popular advice that’s often wrong, there’s the deeper level of understanding if you’re willing to search past the headline websites, and then there’s the cutting edge/speculative insights that you’ll find if you scour every message board.

Since we’re moving into fall, which is the best time to do lawn renovation, and I’m planning on going all out on my new lawn this year, I thought I’d share all my best advice so you don’t have to scour the internet. Since I don’t have the patience to write it all in depth, I’m going to try to keep this as concise as possible and you can ask me to expand on anything in the comments.

As I said, fall is the best time to plant grass seed. Ideally right after the worst heat of summer (though you are always at the whim of the weather.) This usually means August 15 for the most northern states to September 15 around the middle of the country (again, my expertise is cool season grasses meant for Northern US Climates.) This year is especially cool in the midwest, so if you have any plans to do this, get moving now!

Grass Seed

First you need good grass seed. This is hard to find at your local store but I find outsidepride.com to be reasonably priced for high quality seed. I recommend sticking to mostly Kentucky bluegrass. More than 5-10% ryegrass will likely make your lawn mostly ryegrass, which isn’t terrible, but is not my preference. This means you might have to buy a couple small bags and mix them yourself because pre-made blends tend to have a lot of ryegrass and also fescue, which I don’t care for.

There’s a special grass seed called Supina which is great for dense shade. This is a breakthrough, but it’s expensive. $40 for the first pound of pure seed. Luckily, Supina is highly competitive and a little bit goes a long way. So you can get their mix with 75% rough bluegrass (for half the price) and the Supina will overtake it after a couple years. I planted this blend on the side of my house, which gets very little sun, in March and it’s done nicely.

A mix I’m thinking about using in the future is the following. Don’t feel you should follow this, I just like to overthink things.

This would have the benefit of maximizing genetic diversity and allow whichever grass is best suited for each area in the lawn to outcompete the others.

Planting Seed

Now that you’ve picked out your seed, how do you give it the best shot at taking hold. Well, it can be as little or as much work as you want it to be. The most steps you follow the better, but you don’t have to do all of this to get good results.

  1. Scalp your lawn, mow it as low as possible. This is bad for your existing grass, but you need it as short as possible to help new seed grow. Cut it to 1.5″ or lower.
  2. Dethatch. You probably have a thick thatch layer, which is dead grass material that strangles your live grass and prevents new grass from taking hold. I’ve dethatched with backbreaking raking for years, but this year I got one of these for just over $100. One of my best purchases ever.
  3. Aerate. You can get a local company to do this for you for around $10 for each 1,000 sq.ft. (minimum around $40). This does all kinds of good things for your lawn, including removing thatch. Moderately Water your lawn a day or two before they come out.
  4. Spread seed. Around 3 pounds/1,000 sq.ft. for a mostly Kentucky bluegrass blend on new or thin lawns. Half that if you are “overseeding” on an already full lawn. Use a broadcast spreader to spread half the seed around the yard in one direction and the other half moving perpendicular to the first pass. Ideally, you’d use an empty metal (or slightly full plastic) lawn roller to make good contact between the seeds and the soil.
  5. Fertilize. Find a starter fertilizer that has phosphorus and at least 30% of the nitrogen as “slow release” and spread it at recommended levels.
  6. Mulch. I really like to spread a thin (1/8″ – 1/4″) layer of Peat Moss because it keeps the seedbed moist longer after watering, which is the most important thing to do. I just bought one of these to make spreading easier so I no longer need to do it by hand.
  7. Water. The seed needs to stay moist, but not soaked. This is the hardest thing to keep up on because you need to water it at least twice (and more likely three) times a day for the first month. No exceptions. This is the least forgiving and where people mess up all their hard work and what makes the mulch step a good idea. After a month, you can water once a day for a week, then every other day for a week, and then commence a normal watering routine of once or twice a week.

Of these steps, I’d place the order of importance (after 4 and 7) at 5, 1, 3, 6, 2. So put in as much (or little) effort as you’re willing.

Caring for Your Health Lawn

After your lawn is up and running (or even if you’re nursing your unrenovated lawn) here’s the best way to keep it looking its best.

  • Water once or twice a week to give your lawn about 1″ of water total, including rainfall.
  • Mow at 2.5″ (or 2″ if you prefer) in the Spring and Fall when it’s relatively cool and 3″ or 3.5″ in the summer when it’s hot. Try not to take much more than 1/3 of the blade off, which can mean more mowing than you’d like so this is another recommendation that’s hard to stick with.
  • Get your soil tested locally for about $15 once a year or every other year and make the pH slightly acidic (about 6.8). Add sulfur if it’s too basic, add lime if it’s too acidic. This will also tell you if you need more or less phosphorus or potassium (potash). Other than that, you should apply about 4-5 pounds of Nitrogen per year per 1,000 sq.ft.
  • The most important time to apply Nitrogen is right now, early September. Usually apply 1 pound at a time. The next most important time is actually around Thanksgiving, and you can apply up to 1.5 pounds at this point. This is one of those tips few people know about. (You could also give your lawn a 0.5 pound boost in mid-October) Spring is the least important time to fertilize and can sometimes do more harm than good. You can feel free to fertilize in early May (and mid-June if you insist) after the fast spring growth slows down. Don’t apply fertilizer in July or August.

WEED KILLER

When and what types of weed killer to use is tricky business. I’ve developed a couple of favorites, but they mainly have to be bought online in concentrated form and diluted yourself.

  • Tenacity: This stuff is awesome. It both kills young grassy weeds and acts as a short term (one month) preventative. It’s one of the few preventatives that can be applied at the time of seeding. (Most weed killers/preventatives are incompatible with seeding for weeks before and after putting the seed down.) Use one teaspoon per gallon of water and apply it to 1,000 sq.ft. up to four times a year. Multiple applications separated by two to three weeks is often needed to kill growing weeds.
  • Triclopyr: This is my favorite broadleaf weed killer (think dandelions). Sometimes I mix it with Tenacity to get the best of both worlds. There’s highly concentrated stuff online, but then you have to buy large quantities. There’s a lesser concentrated form you can get at garden centers. Use 5 oz. of the Bayer brand per gallon per 1,000 sq.ft. up to eight times per year.
  • Roundup (Glyphosate): This stuff is good if you want to kill weeds that aren’t in desirable grass or if you want to kill everything and start over.
  • Barricade: This is a long-term preventative that you can dial in the number of months you want it to work as to avoid it overlapping with seeding (or make it last the whole growing season if you have no plans to seed).
  • If you are trying to kill plants, it’s a good idea to add a surfactant to make the weed killer more effective.

Unfortunately, you often have to make a choice between killing weeds or seeding grass, since beside Tenacity (and Roundup) you can’t seed for three weeks after or use herbicide until you’ve mowed new grass twice (five to six weeks after seeding). If you’re trying to choose which to do, I’d pick seeding over killing weeds since new grass is good at outcompeting weeds. After you have a strong lawn you can battle the weeds directly.

Good times to use weed killer are April growth and October dormancy, with October being the best. The weeds are pulling in nutrients from the leaves and they will absorb the herbicide at the same time. If you get your grass seed out soon enough, there’s a chance it establishes itself in time for you to spray for weeds in mid/late October.

I’ll update this post as I think of things and if people have questions. If you like it, please bookmark it for future reference!

Published in Education
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There are 40 comments.

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  1. Founder

    Is the photo accompanying your post an actual shot of your own lawn? Because if so, you really do speak from authority. That lawn is perfect.

    • #1
    • September 10, 2017 at 11:24 am
    • 6 likes
  2. Thatcher
    Mike H Post author

    Peter Robinson (View Comment):
    Is the photo accompanying your post an actual shot of your own lawn? Because if so, you really do speak from authority. That lawn is perfect.

    Ha, I wish. Maybe I should have found a picture of the lawn on my old property, but I’ve since moved to a new home that need a lot of work.

    Here my old house:

    • #2
    • September 10, 2017 at 11:38 am
    • 11 likes
  3. Reagan

    I’m about to give up on my lawn here in SoCal – it’s next to to impossible to keep things alive with the soil and water conditions down here.

    • #3
    • September 10, 2017 at 11:49 am
    • 1 like
  4. Inactive

    Makes me wish I had a lawn.

    • #4
    • September 10, 2017 at 12:21 pm
    • 2 likes
  5. Member

    Very nice. We were just looking up lawn aeration. This was my hobby pre- multiple kids. I didnt get as far as you. It is a beautiful lawn.

    • #5
    • September 10, 2017 at 3:15 pm
    • Like
  6. Member

    Now we should write lawn lyrics to the tune of “Life in a Northern Town.” And we can call our parody, “Growing a Northern Lawn.” (Hey-Oh-Ma-Ma-Ma ;) )

    • #6
    • September 10, 2017 at 3:58 pm
    • Like
  7. Contributor

    I will vouch for the lawn at Mike’s old place.

    It was magnificent.

    • #7
    • September 10, 2017 at 5:23 pm
    • 4 likes
  8. Thatcher

    KatRose (View Comment):
    Makes me wish I had a lawn.

    Makes me wish I didn’t.

    • #8
    • September 10, 2017 at 5:29 pm
    • 5 likes
  9. Moderator

    I’ve given up on my lawn. I just don’t have the time for it, and the builders scraped away all the topsoil. I’ve found that clover, though, does really really well, stays green year round, and doesn’t get too tall. Just watch for bees.

    • #9
    • September 10, 2017 at 6:56 pm
    • 4 likes
  10. Reagan

    Anyone know of a good hillside cover for zone 9 or 10? Flowering would be nice.

    • #10
    • September 10, 2017 at 7:47 pm
    • Like
  11. Member

    National Lawncare, NOW!

    http://www.jefflindsay.com/NLCN.shtml

    • #11
    • September 10, 2017 at 8:17 pm
    • 2 likes
  12. Thatcher

    Excellent article with good information that I may need to use next year. I bought a new house in December, and what used to be a field is now my house with crappy sodded Bermuda in front and scorched earth in the back. I was up for the challenge, though, and didn’t want to lay down the money for plug or seed or sod in the back, since it was 5,000 square feet (112′ x 48′) so I decided to try to get the field back. It has been a major struggle and my back will never be the same, but I have decided it’s just not going to make it. It was fun trying though and all it cost me was water. I’ve printed out your Post and I’ll see what I can do next Spring. These pictures are the end of each month, February, March, April, May, June, and July.

    • #12
    • September 10, 2017 at 8:59 pm
    • 5 likes
  13. Member

    Don’t try to lawn-shame me. Dandelions are beautiful and full of nutrients. :-)

    • #13
    • September 11, 2017 at 5:38 am
    • 9 likes
  14. Member

    I know it’s not prevalent in the north, but do you have any thoughts on zoysia? A previous owner planted it, and I don’t like it–at all. We’ve thought about the expensive task of resodding, but our local lawn guy told us he couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t come back.

    • #14
    • September 11, 2017 at 7:18 am
    • Like
  15. Member

    This post is full of awesome information right when I need it. I bought a house in April and the lawn turned out to be a mess. I haven’t done much with it because we’re supposed to have work done on the septic system that is going to destroy most of the yard anyway, though it looks like thanks to municipal crookedness that will not be happening this year. At least now I know what to do with the yard when that is cleared up.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • #15
    • September 11, 2017 at 7:36 am
    • 2 likes
  16. Member

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Anyone know of a good hillside cover for zone 9 or 10? Flowering would be nice.

    @amyschley, Doesn’t Kudzu work well for this?

    • #16
    • September 11, 2017 at 8:24 am
    • 4 likes
  17. Moderator

    ChefSly (View Comment):

    Doesn’t Kudzu work well for this?

    http://www.walterreeves.com/how-to-archive/how-to-grow-kudzu/

    CHOOSING A PLOT: Kudzu can be grown almost anywhere, so site selection is not the problem it is with some other finicky plants like strawberries. Although kudzu will grow quite well on cement, for best results you should select an area having at least some dirt. To avoid lawsuits, it is advisable to plant well away from your neighbor’s house, unless, of course, you don’t get along well with your neighbor anyway.

    PREPARING THE SOIL: Go out and stomp on the soil for a while just to get its attention and to prepare it for kudzu.

    DECIDING WHEN TO PLANT: Kudzu should always be planted at night. If kudzu is planted during daylight hours, angry neighbors might see you and begin throwing rocks at you.

    SELECTING THE PROPER FERTILIZER: The best fertilizer I have discovered for kudzu is 40 weight non-detergent motor oil. Kudzu actually doesn’t need anything to help it grow, but the motor oil helps to prevent scraping the underside of the tender leaves then the kudzu starts its rapid growth. It also cuts down on friction and lessens the danger of fire when the kudzu really starts to move. Change oil once every thousand feet or every two weeks, whichever comes first.

    MULCHING THE PLANTS: Contrary to what you may be told by the Extension Service, kudzu can profit from a good mulch. I have found that a heavy mulch for the young plants produces a hardier crop. For best results, as soon as the young shoots begin to appear, cover kudzu with concrete blocks. Although this causes a temporary setback, your kudzu will accept this mulch as a challenge and will reward you with redoubled determination in the long run.

    ORGANIC OR CHEMICAL GARDENING: Kudzu is ideal for either the organic gardener or for those who prefer to use chemicals to ward off garden pests. Kudzu is oblivious to both chemicals and pests. Therefore, you can grow organically and let the pests get out of the way of the kudzu as best they can, or you can spray any commercial poison directly onto your crop.

    Your decision depends on how much you personally enjoy killing bugs. The kudzu will not be affected either way.

    CROP ROTATION: Many gardeners are understandably concerned that growing the same crop year after year will deplete the soil. If you desire to change from kudzu to some other plant next year, now is the time to begin preparations.

    Right now, before the growing season has reached its peak, you should list your house and lot with a reputable real estate agent and begin making plans to move elsewhere. Your chances of selling will be better now then they will be later in the year, when it may be difficult for prospective buyer to realize that beneath those lush, green vines stands an adorable three-bedroom house.

    • #17
    • September 11, 2017 at 8:47 am
    • 6 likes
  18. Thatcher
    Mike H Post author

    Hoyacon (View Comment):
    I know it’s not prevalent in the north, but do you have any thoughts on zoysia? A previous owner planted it, and I don’t like it–at all. We’ve thought about the expensive task of resodding, but our local lawn guy told us he couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t come back.

    I agree. I hate it. It goes in/comes out of winter dormancy way too early and looks terrible.

    Tenacity would probably be your best bet if it starts to come back. Using it at the lowest recommended concentration 4 times, separated by 2 weeks each time.

    • #18
    • September 11, 2017 at 9:38 am
    • 1 like
  19. Reagan

    Amy Schley (View Comment):
    u and begin throwing rocks at you.

    SELECTING THE PROPER FERTILIZER: The best fertilizer I have discovered for kudzu is 40 weight non-detergent motor oil. Kudzu actually doesn’t need anything to help it grow, but the motor oil helps to prevent scraping the underside of the tender leaves then the kudzu starts its rapid growth. It also cuts down on friction and lessens the danger of fire when the kudzu really starts to move. Change oil once every thousand feet or every two weeks, whichever comes first.

    MULCHING THE PLANTS: Contrary to what you may be told by the Extension Service, kudzu can profit from a good mulch. I have found that a heavy mulch for the young plants produces a hardier crop. For best results, as soon as the young shoots begin to appear, cover kudzu with concrete blocks. Although this causes a temporary setback, your kudzu will accept this mulch as a challenge and will reward you with redoubled determination in the long run.

    ORGANIC OR CHEMICAL GARD

    I don’t wnat something that’s going to take over my garden.

    • #19
    • September 11, 2017 at 10:11 am
    • Like
  20. Moderator

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Amy Schley (View Comment):
    u and begin throwing rocks at you.

    SELECTING THE PROPER FERTILIZER: The best fertilizer I have discovered for kudzu is 40 weight non-detergent motor oil. Kudzu actually doesn’t need anything to help it grow, but the motor oil helps to prevent scraping the underside of the tender leaves then the kudzu starts its rapid growth. It also cuts down on friction and lessens the danger of fire when the kudzu really starts to move. Change oil once every thousand feet or every two weeks, whichever comes first.

    MULCHING THE PLANTS: Contrary to what you may be told by the Extension Service, kudzu can profit from a good mulch. I have found that a heavy mulch for the young plants produces a hardier crop. For best results, as soon as the young shoots begin to appear, cover kudzu with concrete blocks. Although this causes a temporary setback, your kudzu will accept this mulch as a challenge and will reward you with redoubled determination in the long run.

    ORGANIC OR CHEMICAL GARD

    I don’t wnat something that’s going to take over my garden.

    Then also avoid bamboo. There are 2 types, and one spreads out terribly. There was a lady here who planted the wrong type and is currently being sued by her neighbors as it has spread out all over their block via its roots.

    • #20
    • September 11, 2017 at 10:23 am
    • 2 likes
  21. Reagan

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Amy Schley (View Comment):
    u and begin throwing rocks at you.

    SELECTING THE PROPER FERTILIZER: The best fertilizer I have discovered for kudzu is 40 weight non-detergent motor oil. Kudzu actually doesn’t need anything to help it grow, but the motor oil helps to prevent scraping the underside of the tender leaves then the kudzu starts its rapid growth. It also cuts down on friction and lessens the danger of fire when the kudzu really starts to move. Change oil once every thousand feet or every two weeks, whichever comes first.

    MULCHING THE PLANTS: Contrary to what you may be told by the Extension Service, kudzu can profit from a good mulch. I have found that a heavy mulch for the young plants produces a hardier crop. For best results, as soon as the young shoots begin to appear, cover kudzu with concrete blocks. Although this causes a temporary setback, your kudzu will accept this mulch as a challenge and will reward you with redoubled determination in the long run.

    ORGANIC OR CHEMICAL GARD

    I don’t wnat something that’s going to take over my garden.

    Then also avoid bamboo. There are 2 types, and one spreads out terribly. There was a lady here who planted the wrong type and is currently being sued by her neighbors as it has spread out all over their block via its roots.

    I have bamboo currently at my beach house – you have to cut it back every darn week.

    • #21
    • September 11, 2017 at 10:33 am
    • 1 like
  22. Moderator

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Amy Schley (View Comment):
    u and begin throwing rocks at you.

    SELECTING THE PROPER FERTILIZER: The best fertilizer I have discovered for kudzu is 40 weight non-detergent motor oil. Kudzu actually doesn’t need anything to help it grow, but the motor oil helps to prevent scraping the underside of the tender leaves then the kudzu starts its rapid growth. It also cuts down on friction and lessens the danger of fire when the kudzu really starts to move. Change oil once every thousand feet or every two weeks, whichever comes first.

    MULCHING THE PLANTS: Contrary to what you may be told by the Extension Service, kudzu can profit from a good mulch. I have found that a heavy mulch for the young plants produces a hardier crop. For best results, as soon as the young shoots begin to appear, cover kudzu with concrete blocks. Although this causes a temporary setback, your kudzu will accept this mulch as a challenge and will reward you with redoubled determination in the long run.

    ORGANIC OR CHEMICAL GARD

    I don’t wnat something that’s going to take over my garden.

    Then also avoid bamboo. There are 2 types, and one spreads out terribly. There was a lady here who planted the wrong type and is currently being sued by her neighbors as it has spread out all over their block via its roots.

    I have bamboo currently at my beach house – you have to cut it back every darn week.

    Have you tried napalm, or even thermite?

    • #22
    • September 11, 2017 at 10:41 am
    • 2 likes
  23. Reagan

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Amy Schley (View Comment):
    u and begin throwing rocks at you.

    SELECTING THE PROPER FERTILIZER: The best fertilizer I have discovered for kudzu is 40 weight non-detergent motor oil. Kudzu actually doesn’t need anything to help it grow, but the motor oil helps to prevent scraping the underside of the tender leaves then the kudzu starts its rapid growth. It also cuts down on friction and lessens the danger of fire when the kudzu really starts to move. Change oil once every thousand feet or every two weeks, whichever comes first.

    MULCHING THE PLANTS: Contrary to what you may be told by the Extension Service, kudzu can profit from a good mulch. I have found that a heavy mulch for the young plants produces a hardier crop. For best results, as soon as the young shoots begin to appear, cover kudzu with concrete blocks. Although this causes a temporary setback, your kudzu will accept this mulch as a challenge and will reward you with redoubled determination in the long run.

    ORGANIC OR CHEMICAL GARD

    I don’t wnat something that’s going to take over my garden.

    Then also avoid bamboo. There are 2 types, and one spreads out terribly. There was a lady here who planted the wrong type and is currently being sued by her neighbors as it has spread out all over their block via its roots.

    I have bamboo currently at my beach house – you have to cut it back every darn week.

    Have you tried napalm, or even thermite?

    Nope just chop it back so I can close the windows and keep it from spreading. I actually like the way it looks.

    • #23
    • September 11, 2017 at 10:48 am
    • Like
  24. Member

    I’m probably going to be an outlier here but personally I believe the expense and time required to maintain a nice lawn, not just a great lawn, only a nice lawn, is not anywhere close to being worth it. If it’s green and it’s cut to the same length, it enough. I’ve got better things to do than care and spend hard earned money on than blades of grass. ; )

    • #24
    • September 11, 2017 at 11:22 am
    • 2 likes
  25. Thatcher
    Mike H Post author

    Manny (View Comment):
    I’m probably going to be an outlier here but personally I believe the expense and time required to maintain a nice lawn, not just a great lawn, only a nice lawn, is not anywhere close to being worth it. If it’s green and it’s cut to the same length, it enough. I’ve got better things to do than care and spend hard earned money on than blades of grass. ; )

    Like most hobbies, you have to enjoy doing it sufficiently beyond its objective benefits for it to be “worth” it.

    • #25
    • September 11, 2017 at 4:38 pm
    • 6 likes
  26. Member

    Hoyacon (View Comment):
    I know it’s not prevalent in the north, but do you have any thoughts on zoysia? A previous owner planted it, and I don’t like it–at all. We’ve thought about the expensive task of resodding, but our local lawn guy told us he couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t come back.

    It is about the only thing I can’t kill, and I’ve tried several times. I’ve been told that it doesn’t compete well with bluegrass if you water and fertilize the bluegrass properly. Which might explain my problem.

    • #26
    • September 11, 2017 at 8:35 pm
    • Like
  27. Member

    Mike H (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):
    I’m probably going to be an outlier here but personally I believe the expense and time required to maintain a nice lawn, not just a great lawn, only a nice lawn, is not anywhere close to being worth it. If it’s green and it’s cut to the same length, it enough. I’ve got better things to do than care and spend hard earned money on than blades of grass. ; )

    Like most hobbies, you have to enjoy doing it sufficiently beyond its objective benefits for it to be “worth” it.

    I understand. : )

    • #27
    • September 12, 2017 at 11:24 am
    • 1 like
  28. Coolidge

    How much (if any) of this applies to a Bermuda lawn in the Southeast? Mine looks pretty good in some spots but is starting to have problems in others, getting patchy and brown. I apply the dihydrogen monoxide stuff regularly, but it doesn’t seem to be making a difference.

    • #28
    • September 12, 2017 at 12:16 pm
    • Like
  29. Admin

    Mike H (View Comment):

    Peter Robinson (View Comment):
    Is the photo accompanying your post an actual shot of your own lawn? Because if so, you really do speak from authority. That lawn is perfect.

    Ha, I wish. Maybe I should have found a picture of the lawn on my old property, but I’ve since moved to a new home that need a lot of work.

    Here my old house:

    Nice grass.

    • #29
    • September 12, 2017 at 12:41 pm
    • 1 like
  30. Member
    LC

    Nick H (View Comment):
    How much (if any) of this applies to a Bermuda lawn in the Southeast? Mine looks pretty good in some spots but is starting to have problems in others, getting patchy and brown. I apply the dihydrogen monoxide stuff regularly, but it doesn’t seem to be making a difference.

    Pour beer directly on the brown spots. You’ll have green grass in about a week.

    • #30
    • September 12, 2017 at 12:56 pm
    • 1 like
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