New construction lawn problems are a very common plague to many homeowners in the Richmond, Virginia area. Whether it is an issue with the quality and installation of the fescue sod or trouble with grading a yard, a lot of issues can come up as a result of a property being newly developed. Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to prevent new construction lawn problems from occurring, but there are things that can be done to diagnose and counteract them.
To understand the impact that construction can have on a soil system, we have to go back to the basics of geology. Soil is built as a combination of weathered rock and decaying organic material. At the surface, where plants and animals are most abundant, the ratio will be most heavily weighted toward the organic matter. The farther down you dig, the more the soil composition becomes mineral based, and the more coarse it becomes, eventually revealing bedrock.
This “soil sandwich,” in which the bottom bun is bedrock and the top bun is surface life, necessitates a balance for it to be a healthy and functioning biome. Each layer of the soil sandwich is referred to as a horizon:
- O Horizon: this is the litter layer made up of organic plant material at different points of decomposition.
- A Horizon: this is your surface soil, or natural topsoil, resting beneath the fresh organic material. It is considered the richest soil in organic matter and is most ideal for healthy lawn growth.
- B Horizon: this is also known as the subsoil, or what we distinguish as plain old dirt, having a soil structure with less organic material.
- C Horizon: this is the space in which rock has weathered enough to be loose and mixed with dirt, but little organic matter has reached.
- R Horizon: this is the bedrock that supports the soil layers.
During construction, it is normal and necessary for the land to be graded in which it is scraped and leveled to create a surface upon which a structure can be built. Grading a yard varies in extremes based on multiple factors such as how wooded the property originally was, how steeply sloped it is, and how surrounding properties and roads are leveled. Grading a property lower is generally easier and more cost effective than bringing in fill dirt to build it up higher would be.
This is where some of those new construction lawn problems come in. When an area is graded, we almost always lose the O and A horizons. Remember, the A horizon is basically our natural topsoil, while the O horizon is the source of that future organic material. In a good (or at least, less bad) situation, this leaves us the B horizon at the surface. In a bad situation, grading digs all the way down to expose the C horizon to the surface.
The reason this matters is because a certain amount of organic matter within a complex soil system is necessary to support healthy turf growth. When this is stripped away, you are losing key nutrients, the biome that is able to later create more of these nutrients, as well as the proper texture of the soil to support good development. If the C horizon is being exposed, there are a lot of rocks that your lawn’s roots will be trying to grow around or through, making development limited or impossible.
If a homeowner elects to have fescue sod installed when the home is built, it can be very difficult to determine how much recovery will be necessary to make up for the soil losses that occurred during the grading process. This is because few new construction homeowners are present and moved in by the time the sod is installed, so the soil surface is completely covered before it is able to be viewed. That aside, very few homeowners are aware of soil horizons let alone thinking about the impact they will have on their lawn down the road.
New construction lawn problems do not start and end with the soil, however. While this is the primary issue for long term recovery and success, in the short term, that fescue sod can pose a much bigger issue. Fescue sod is very similar in its sensitivities to fescue seed, which is why it is always ideal to have to installed in the fall. This schedule gives both sod and seedlings the most time possible to develop a healthy root system before the heat of summer sets in and does damage.
Unfortunately, while it would be nice for your lawn, most homeowners are not going to plan their construction schedule around what is best for the grass. If a newly built home has its yard sodded in the spring or summer with a cool season turf like fescue, it is going to take a ton of work to keep that grass alive until the temperatures drop again to a more suitable level. This is because sod comes with roots that are only about an inch long compared to the ten to thirty inches or more that adult fescue is supposed to develop.
To encourage fast rooting and to keep the sod alive as best as possible, extremely heavy watering is recommended for at least the first couple of months. Unfortunately, if this is being done during late spring or into the summer, this can substantially increase the risk of fungal diseases like brown patch or dollar spot. It is very difficult to successfully walk the line between losing your sod to heat stress and losing it to fungus.
Despite how serious of a setback new construction lawn problems can be, it does not mean that building a healthy and attractive lawn within a year or two of moving in is impossible. The greatest difference that a new build homeowner can make is to invest in a professional turf management program that understands the soil science behind your lawn’s needs. A carbon based fertilizer program is ideal for the replenishment of your natural soil system. If you are able to network with the right turf management professional from day one, you will already be miles ahead of your neighbors.