Green Thumb: Adaptive Gardening

Today, I have my Physical Therapist hat on. Therefore, I decided to reblog this article on adaptive gardening that I wrote for my rehab hospital’s website. Enjoy!


 

Spring is just around the corner, and that means gardening season for many Austinites. The health benefits of gardening are plentiful. They include:
• Stress relief
• Decreased risk of stroke and heart attack by up to 30% in adults > 60 yrs old
• Decreased risk of dementia by 36-47% (according to two recent studies) when performed daily
• Moderate cardiovascular exercise: one hour of light gardening and yard work can burn 200-400 calories
• Can provide an opportunity to soak up Vitamin D when exposing bare skin to sunlight. This is best achieved in early morning hours and limited to 20-25 minutes to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

 
Despite all these benefits, gardening is something that many adults feel is out of reach due to injury, disability or advanced age. Bending, squatting and kneeling are all tasks that pose difficulty. In addition, adults with impaired balance risk fall and possible injury negotiating tight spots between plantings and managing equipment such as rakes, shovels and hoes.

 
One solution is to build a raised garden bed. Raised beds of 24-36 inches high and no more than 4 feet wide are ideal for wheelchair users with an average reach of 30 inches. They are also helpful for individuals who need to sit and garden. Wide pathways can allow safe maneuverability on all sides of the bed, especially for those requiring assistive devices to walk. Plants are planted closer together, eliminating the need for frequent weeding.

 

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Table top gardens provide similar benefits. They are typically raised off the ground on legs with a 6-12” deep bed for planting. The height can easily be adjusted to accommodate wheelchair users or to enable gardening in standing. Wheels can even be added to allow the garden to be moved.

 

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For more info on how to build a raised or table top garden, please check out the resources below:
http://ana-white.com/2012/11/plans/counter-height-garden-boxes-2-feet-x-4-feet
http://dowlingcommunitygarden.org/pdf/Building_Raised_Beds.pdf
http://www.cityfarmer.org/tabletop.html

Also check out the Vernon Barker Memorial Garden, an accessible garden right here in Austin, TX. It is part of the Sunshine Community Gardens.

Enjoy this spring weather while it lasts, and don’t hesitate to get your garden on!

 

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This Old House: Dressing Up The Exterior Part II

Last fall, both the front of our house and our front yard underwent massive makeovers. You can refresh your memory by clicking here.

This July, we had Debbie and the crew of Sagebrush Landscaping back to redesign the back yard. I must preface this post by saying that, generally speaking, it is not a good idea to be landscaping in the 100 degree heat that consumes this part of Texas June through September. It is much preferable to tackle such a project in the early spring or fall. However, hubby’s family reunion was scheduled for mid July and he really wanted the back yard to be a little more functional before the big event.

For this part of Texas, we have a pretty big yard. It was mostly dust and weeds when we moved in with patches of good grass scattered throughout. Dean would “mow” this with his riding lawn mower and create quite a dustbowl! Debbie walked us through the yard, and we told her we had two goals. First, we wanted to xeriscape wherever we could. Austin has been in a drought since we have been living here, and it is was not feasible to water all this grass. We wanted to add gravel, mulch and decomposed granite where we could to break things up and add texture.  Secondly, we wanted to actually make use of the entire yard by adding zones of interest. Our requests were a playscape area for J, a hammock area for relaxing, an area for gathering around a fire pit, a picnic table amongst the trees and a herb garden wall opposite our raised garden boxes. She incorporated all that into the design as well as adding a “man cave” area for outdoor games. We were more than impressed with the results.

Basically our backyard went from this (picture taken after grass was removed and yard was filled with base dirt):

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To this:

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In addition to the xeriscaping, we took additional steps to save water by converting the garden and all landscape beds to drip and upgrading the sprinkler system over the turf to more efficient MP rotator heads. The City of Austin offers a rebate for such upgrades. Sadly, it is still more costly than I ever imagined to water the back and front yard, but once the turf is well established in both these areas, it will hopefully become more drought resistant.

Now, we actually venture into the backyard beyond the pool. We have yet to test drive the fire pit (better once the nights get cooler) and have not done nearly as much relaxing in the hammock as we would have liked BUT J loves her play area and the house with the slide that her uncles built. It gets nearly daily use.  Our only real complaint is that the back yard being on a downhill slope, rainwater tends to take the path of least resistance down the decomposed granite pathways and wash them out. This is even after all our downspouts were rerouted via drains to the turf. This picture was taken after two days of heavy rains. Not good!

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We are currently trouble shooting this and will let you know how we make out. I also have been busy planting the herb garden and succulent beds. Pics to come once those projects are finished. Fall is an ideal time for planting in our neck of the woods so my green thumb should be getting a workout very soon 🙂

Green Thumb: Companion Planting

In Texas, we get spring started a little early,usually the end of February/beginning of March.  This is very exciting for a gal from NH, where spring doesn’t show her face consistently until at least May.  That is why I typically ignore the general recommendation to wait until after March 21  (when it is consistently above 40 degrees) to plant tomatoes, basil and peppers and get my garden in the ground around St. Patty’s Day.  This year, I dared to go one week earlier. This is how it looked after planting.
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And this is how it looked the first week of April when we had a very late hard freeze. I did cover these bad boys, but this was no brief dip below 40. It was a chilly 32 degrees!

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All my tomatoes, peppers and basil plants died along with a few beans. Eggplant was the sole survivor of this box. Even sadder, it was slim pickings at the Natural Gardener when I went to replace my crops as most everyone has purchased their starter plants by April.

Happily, three weeks later, everything is thriving. I used a concept called companion planting to plan out my raised beds. This is the notion that certain plants help each other out in terms of providing nutrients, pest control and pollination. I read a lot of articles on this technique, but found the chart on this site  and on wikipedia the easiest to follow. The list of crops I desire in my  garden includes:

  • tomatoes
  • eggplant
  • peppers
  • cucumber
  • beans
  • peas
  • carrots
  • onions
  • shallots
  • garlic
  • lettuce
  • strawberries
  • basil

Tomatoes, eggplant and peppers are all part of the nightshade family. Good companions for nightshades include alliums (garlic, onions, shallots), mints (basil, oregano) and carrots. Basil increases the yield of tomatoes and carrots help them to grow, although somewhat at the expense of their own growth. In addition, marigolds or nasturtium flowers help repel pests.

Cucumbers grow well with beans, peas, celery and lettuce. Nasturtiums repel cucumber beetles and corn protects against bacterial wilt and gives the cucumber something which to climb. Cucumbers do not grow well with cauliflower, potato, basil or any strong aromatic herb.

Beans and peas work well with carrot, corn, cucumber, squash, radish, turnip, spinach, lettuce, mint, potatoes and brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, brussell sprouts and cauliflower). Corn lends climbing support and squash helps to suppress weeds.  Like other legumes, beans and peas contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria and are great soil amenders. They do not like to be planted with alliums.

Carrots help the growth of tomatoes and alliums. They are, in turn, helped by alliums, rosemary, parsley and sage, which all deter the carrot rust fly. Beans add nitrogen to the soil, which carrots love. They do not do well with dill or parsnip.

Alliums help nightshades, brassicas, and carrots, as already mentioned, as well as fruit trees. Avoid planting with beans, peas or parsley.

Lettuce helps radish by repelling earth flies while radish helps spinach (leafminers prefer the radish leaves). Both do well with strawberries and peas and beans help by providing shade these cool weather crops prefer.

Based on the above info, I mapped out my 3 beds.

Box 1 (4×10): Snap peas, beans, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, strawberry (not planted this season as it was too late), nasturtiums

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Box 2: (4×10) Carrots, onions/garlic/shallots (to be planted in September), tomatoes, basil, marigolds

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Box 3 (4×12): Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, marigolds

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Things are looking a tad bit crowded in box one but will ease up once all the lettuce is harvested (likely by end of May). I can’t wait until all my hard work pays off! I really hope my veggies like their BFFs.

Triumphant Return of Green Thumb!: Lasagna Gardening

I love gardening. I obviously inherited this love from my father and grandfather who had very large and vigorous New England gardens. My Mom, however, is still completely dumbfounded that I have pursued this hobby in my adulthood. Perhaps, it is because I spent the better part of my childhood summers coming up with excuses as to why I could not help out in the garden. Picking rocks is not all that appealing to children, but if the love is truly genetic, there is hope for Juliette yet 🙂

Last year, I blogged quite a bit about my garden until I had to leave it at the end of May to move into our new house. This house has kept me plenty busy, but there was a void that could only be filled by dirt between my fingers. I told Dean he could help me LOVE this house by adding a garden to our priority list.

Fortunately, my father-in-law is handy and more than happy to make me some raised garden beds when he visited for Christmas. The dirt at the new house is very different from the old, although we are only 3 miles down the road. Instead of a clay soil (which was not fun to prep beds), we have very shallow topsoil with limestone underneath. We discovered this very quickly when we needed a pick axe to plant even 4″ starter plants by the pool. This would mean a LOT of work to prepare a 20×12 garden area like I had previously, so we decided to have three raised beds instead. I pinned a lot of raised beds on my pinterest idea board and found several sites boasting of plans for inexpensive raised beds- as low as $10. We got a good laugh out of that one when Lowes rung up all our materials. We opted for cedar for its longevity and I, err, went a bit over budget. Here are my beautiful boxes- two 4x10s and one 4×12. My FIL even routered the edges. Very fancy!

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The next task was filling the boxes. I found a handy soil calculator online. You enter the length, width and depth of your beds and it tells you the amount of soil needed in cubic feet and cubic yards. The bad news was that my beds called for about 40 cubic feet for the smaller beds and 48  for the larger beds. That’s nearly 5 yards of dirt! Yikes!

In researching an alternative way to fill my beds, I stumbled upon a concept called lasagna gardening. Lasagna gardening is a form of no dig gardening that involves alternating layers of carbon rich and nitrogen rich organic matter that will compost over time giving you rich, fluffy soil. This is typically done in the off-season so that the layers will cook down in time for spring planting; however, it can be done at virtually any time if you add a 4-6 inch layer of soil mix to the top. This is the option I chose since I didn’t prep my beds until the end of February.

Much of the layers can be gathered for free with a little bit of leg work.

Green nitrogen-rich layers include:

  • Grass clippings
  • Spent blooms, trimmings from pruning garden and flower beds
  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Coffee grounds (free from Starbucks)
  • Tea leaves and tea bags
  • Alfalfa
  • Manure
  • Seaweed
  • Blood meal or bone meal

Brown carbon-rich layers include:

  • Crushed leaves
  • Shredded newspaper (black and white ink only is preferable)
  • Peat moss
  • Hay or straw (straw preferable because it is less likely to contain seeds that will sprout)
  • Pine needles
  • Chopped brush

In general, your brown layers will be 2x as thick as your green layers.

Your planting soil will go on top of your lasagna layers and will follow the standard recipe:

  • 60% topsoil
  • 30% compost
  • 10 % soilless grow mix (i.e. peat moss, perlite, vermiculite)

Here’s a look at my layers. First, I laid down cardboard and/or newspaper. This doubles as both a weed block and carbon (brown) layer. You can either wet down your newspaper as you lay it down or give it a good soaking with the garden hose.

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Next came the alfalfa hay, which I purchased at a local feed store. I was able to use 1 bale for all three of my beds.

IMG_5906I covered the alfalfa with a thin layer of composted manure and wet everything down.

IMG_5907On top of that came the coastal hay. Again, I was able to use one bale for all three of my beds and I still have extra left to use as mulch once my garden is established.

IMG_5908I covered the hay with another thin layer of composted manure and gave it a good soaking. My next green layer was kind of a free for all. I had one bag of garden clippings, 5 big bags of coffee grounds from Starbucks and a couple weeks worth of fruit and veggie scraps to be composted. I distributed these as best as I could across the three beds.

IMG_5910 IMG_5911For the next carbon layer, I used fall leaves, which are plentiful in my yard. These are better for a bottom compost layer since they take a while to break down, but I crushed them to give them a head start and figure they will have plenty of time to compost while my garden is growing in the soil mix I add to the top.

IMG_5912Since I had so much alfalfa left and space to fill, I added another alfalfa layer.

IMG_5915Next came my soil mix. For my 4×12 bed, I used 2.2 cubic ft peat moss, 2 cubic feet Organics by Gosh triple power compost, 4 bags of Scott’s premium topsoil, 2 bags of Organics by Gosh composted manure, 3 bags of Organics by Gosh Texas friendly topsoil, 2 bags of EarthGro topsoil, 1 bag of Earth Gro humus/manure and native soil excavated when I removed the sod and scraped the area around the bed.

The two 4×10 beds used 2.2 cubic feet peat moss, 2 cubic feet flower power compost, 3 bags Earth Gro topsoil and 3 bags EarthGro humus/manure and a good amount of native soil. I also added about a cup of bone meal to each of the beds.

IMG_5916 IMG_5918When I finished, the soil came within a few inches of the top of the beds. I watered them down daily and we then had several days of rain prior to planting.They have already shrunk down by a few inches. I imagine they will continue to bake down throughout the summer and hope all will turn into lovely compost by next planting season!

In my next Green Thumb post, I’ll talk about how I organized my beds using a method called companion planting. Now this momma has to get herself to bed ASAP. Another long day of yard work and mothering is on the horizon. Oh how I love spring!

For more reading on this topic, check out my sources:

This Old House: Dressing Up the Exterior

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To set the scene, I must replay the story of this home purchase. We were happily living in our first home. We had not quite outgrown it yet, but were keeping an eye out for something with more land- something that is scarce within the city limits. I came across the listing for this house and we were wowed by the pictures, spend all of 20 min looking at the home and immediately submitted a bid.  I am not the least bit impulsive.  In fact, the Libra in me usually has me agonizing over even the smallest of decisions. My husband is the impulsive one, and usually I consider it my duty to interject with some sound reasoning lest we act too hastily. This is the one time I went along with one of his spontaneous plans, and I think it is because I was impressed by the possibilities of this house.  I didn’t have the big vision. That is all Dean. But I could immediately tell you what I liked and did not like. And I can tell you that upon moving in, we both had a little buyer’s remorse because one of the things we did not like was the look of the house itself.

Upon closer inspection, you can see why:

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First of all, the house itself is limestone, which I like, but laid out in brick rather than flagstone style, which is not as charming. Worse, the gutters and trim were printed red and the fascia burnt orange. True, we are home to the UT Longhorns, but I see no reason to drag your house into it. The existing limestone walkway was showing its age and the hedges had long become unmanageable.

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Probably our least favorite part was these massive stone columns, which obscured a good part of the front windows.

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The trees provided a lot of charm, but the landscaping left a lot to be desired, and there was an awful lot of grass beyond that to mow and water.

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We decided that we wanted to tackle the landscaping in the fall.  We had some experience transforming a blank canvas in our previous home, but had never attempted such a large project. We decided we would seek help with the landscape design and implement it ourselves over time. What really happened is that we fell in love with the design and wanted to see it come to fruition a little sooner than we could manage. I love gardening so it killed me not to get my hands dirty doing it myself, but in the end, we decided to have Sagebrush Landscaping implement their design and boy are we glad we did.

At the same time, Dean was adamant that we needed to do something about the orange and the unsightly columns. We came across this house on one of our weekend rides in the TX Hill Country , and he became convinced we could achieve a similar look. In fact, that is how we found Debbie of Sagebrush. She did the landscaping for this house also. Notice all the texture she creates by mixing mulch, gravel and decomposed granite beds with the grass providing a pop of color in between.

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First up, our trusty mason Juan of CM Masonry took down the original columns and replaced them with more eye-pleasing tapered columns with stacked stone. Our carpenter, Jonathan, gave us a nice vaulted cedar ceiling and rustic cedar shudders. When the original stone came down, we discovered the house was held up by twigs (I’m exaggerating but not my much), so we were glad to know something more structurally sound took its place. The results far exceeded my expectations. As Dean says, “I don’t know why you ever doubt me.” Good eye, Dean. Good eye.

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I may have forgotten to mention, that we have an orange roof made more orange by the burnt orange fascia. I actually took a shingle over to Sanders at Roosters Paint and Decor on South Congress. He came up with a list of his top five brown paints that would downplay my roof and we ended up going with Benjamin Moore 1232 Fresh Brew, which is a chocolate with red undertones that looks great with the white limestone. Love that Sanders.

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Benjamin Moore Fresh Brew

 

 

Debbie was no slack herself. Her crew worked its magic over the period of a week creating a front yard oasis, all while working around our septic tank and leach fields (with which I was a bit obsessed not wanting to end up with poop backed up in the front yard and all).

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We now love the rustic charm of our updated house and hope to enjoy it for many years to come!

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DIY Dry Laid Flagstone And Mulch Pathway

This project has been on my to do list since 2008 when we had our patio expanded.  We have a very small walkway next to the patio that leads to our AC unit.  It is too narrow to mow, especially once we planted a border of Wax Myrtle trees along our fence to create a natural screen. And the grass either grows like crazy because it is shady or doesn’t grow at all because it is shady.

Last spring, we took the first step by moving all extra flagstone from our patio into this small corridor and roughly laying it out how we’d like it to be placed.  There the stone remained slowly killing the grass underneath because I was much too preoccupied with my newest role as Mom. In assessing the damage to the lawn this spring, it appeared that most of the grass had died. This may be the first and last time I rejoice over this. It did, after all, save me the pain and back breaking work of sod removal.

Here is the correct procedure for dry laying a stone pathway:

1) Choose the area for your pathway and paint it out.

2) Depending on where the pathway runs, you might want to consider trenching out the borders and filling with several inches of crushed stone.

3) Prepare the area by removing any sod and debris and loosening the top several inches of soil. Rake and level the area, adding more topsoil if needed.

4) Depending on the potential for drainage issues, some may recommend that you create a french drain. My neighbors did this for their stone pathway by digging a trench and placing a perforated PVC pipe in it. The trench is lined with weed cloth and filled with gravel.

5) Next, you need to add a base layer. Several inches of sand or gravel will prevent weeds from invading your path and provide a stable base to prevent settling over time. It helps to dampen the base layer with water before you rake and level it.

6) Now, you lay the flagstones like a puzzle piece, carefully testing each rock to make sure it’s level and does not move or rock.

7) Finally, fill the gaps with your choice of  filler medium- decomposed granite, pea gravel, sand, mulch, etc.

8) Brush any extra filler off your stones and you have yourself a completed pathway.

For more details on the above, see this tutorial on the DIY Network.

Here is what I did. I was hoping to make this a quick, inexpensive project, so I omitted a few steps. Drainage is something I am normally very concerned with, but I had observed this area practically sod-free for a complete year.  Even during the rainy season (this is the season when it actually does rain), no water pooled in this area.  I decided that it was unlikely to be an issue and did not lay a French drain. I hope I do not end up on the losing end of this gamble. I prepared the area by removing the remaining sod, raking up all the leaves and debris and leveling the area by adding several inches of topsoil using the leftover landscaper’s mix from our topdressing project.

Next I laid down weed cloth that was leftover from a previous landscaping project.  I did not have enough to cover the whole area, which is unfortunate. But I know I am going to have a problem with grass sneaking in under the fence no matter what, so I am going to have to control that with hand picking the grass in that area. I laid the flagstone down directly on the weed cloth and settled each one into place.

I planned for a base/initial filler layer of decomposed granite, but did not buy nearly enough bags of this medium. I ended up having to supplement with more landscaper’s mix to make sure each stone was stable and level. Because I do not have a thick, stable base layer, my pathway may settle over time and I may have to make modifications to it at some point. It is very likely that I will have to add more decomposed granite or gravel in the fall once my mulch starts decomposing. But I created a very informal pathway more for aesthetics and to eliminate an area to mow. It is not an area that will be regularly walked. In fact, it is a pathway to nowhere unless you like looking at the AC unit.

Finally, I added several inches of mulch to complete the pathway. No more mowing! Now let’s hope my pathway remains problem free.

Green Thumb?: The Lawn Gets a Makeover

Forgive me readers. It has been 23 days since my last blog.  A lot has gone on since then. You see, my folks just made the trek from NH to TX to visit us for Easter.  If you are anything like my husband and me, then the prospect of visitors is enough to get you off the couch and out working on projects that have been on the to do list for far too long. Couple this with spring-time in Austin, and there was quite a bit to do in our little yard.

Last summer in Austin was brutal.  I swear it hit 100 degrees by March, if not April.  And we had one of the worst droughts in history.  Typically, we are in stage 1 watering restrictions of 2x/wk starting in May. This was upgraded to stage 2 watering restrictions of 1x/wk. All that stress took its toll on our garden beds and especially our lawn, which appeared to have just upped and died.  It is currently in a sad, sad state. The solution: a partial make-over.

Dress Me Up and Dress Me Down 

Topdressing is a common solution to lawn woes here in Austin. By definition, it is a procedure in which you add a very fine layer of compost or other organic material over your lawn so you can improve the soil quality without killing existing turf.  Topdressing can be performed in the fall or in the spring.  We typically de-thatch the lawn at the end of it’s growing season and topdress bare spots with Dillo dirt or other compost. Then we do a more through treatment in the spring when the grass starts to come back to life. It is also helpful to aerate your lawn every couple of years.

This year, we found that the entire middle of the back yard was bare after raking leaves and de-thatching. We have St Augustine grass, as do our neighbors.  We didn’t see much St Augustine grass filling in the bare spots, mainly weeds and bermuda grass that birds likely brought in by seed.  Clearly, this was not going to be a job where we could treat a spot here and a spot there, so we decided to call up our local landscape supply company, Daniel Stone, and order several yards of topdressing material to do the entire back, front and side yard. They recommended landscaper’s mix, which is a combination of topsoil, rice hull compost and cow manure. We ordered 3 yards, but you can determine the exact formula for your yard by multiplying length (ft) x width (ft) x depth (in) and dividing by 324 to get the amount of cubic yards you need.

Once the material is dumped in your driveway, use a wheelbarrow to make small piles all over the lawn.  This is what it looked like at our house. As you can see, we didn’t have much lawn to speak of.

Then, use a rake, leaf rake or large broom to brush the piles of soil out over the lawn. Ideally, you want the material to be 1/2 inch thick or less. Any more will suffocate your lawn.

Finally, water all the top ressing in. We used a soil activator called Terra Tonic Super Soil Activator, which is sold at Austin’s Natural Gardener to give things a jump start.  It is composed of humid acid, seaweed, compost tea, cane molasses and other good stuff.

When you’re done, your lawn should look something like this:

And a grass close-up like this:

Now we sit back and wait for the grass to come back to life. A little praying never hurts.

I Prefer a Green Dress

As the majority of our grass in the backyard did die, we had no choice but to resod in areas. Warning: this is not an instruction manual in resodding.  In fact, what you are about to see is a very unorthodox method.  The proper procedure is to get rid of the dead thatch, lay down some topsoil (our top dressing took care of this), get each piece of sod real wet and lay it down as you would bricks, making sure each piece is flush with the adjacent piece. The problem is that we needed at least 2-3 pallets of sod to get the job done.  We learned this after marching to Home Depot and loading as much sod as we could fit into Dean’s SUV. This amounted to 40 pieces, which did not even put a dent in the backyard $60 later. So, we decided we would make some cheerful cross designs in our grass in honor of Easter. We know the St Augustine to send out runners like a weed and could already see several areas where it was starting to fill back in after top dressing.  So we created little bridges and are currently watching and waiting.  We probably will have to add many more pieces of sod, but my parents’ arrival put much of the landscaping projects on hold.  This is what the lawn looked like immediately after resodding (yes, I am aware it is a bit crazy).  I am watering the sod daily and desperately praying some grass fills in and then stays alive once the heat gets dreadful and the rain ceases to be common. It is already starting to fill in some more, so things are hopeful.