Test your home for radon gas

November 22, 2008|By ROBERT KESSLER

Now is a good time of year to test your home for radon.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that radon is responsible for more than 20,000 lung cancer deaths per year.

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States after smoking and the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.

The only way to know if you have a radon problem in your home is to test. Testing homes for elevated levels of radon is simple and inexpensive. Radon test kits can be purchased at local hardware and home improvement stores or directly from radon testing companies. Many are priced less than $25. Radon problems can be fixed by qualified contractors for a cost similar to that of many common home repairs such as painting or having a new water heater installed (anywhere from $800 to about $2,500).

In-depth radon information is available at the EPA Web site at or at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Web site at (then enter "radon" in the search field); or call the Pennsylvania DEP radon division hotline at 800-237-2366.


Dormant seeding

If there are areas in your lawn that you didn't get seeded this fall, you can use a dormant seeding to patch those bare spots in your lawn this winter. This works well for Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue seed.

Research has shown that the best time to spread seed is in February. Seed spread at this time will stay dormant and then when conditions are right, the seed will germinate and quickly fill in those spots. The quality of the seed is important. If you can still find a garden center that has grass seed, you should purchase the quantity you will need now and store it in a cool location until you are ready to spread the seed.

You will need 6 to 8 pounds of bluegrass or turf-type fall fescue seed per 1,000 square feet of lawn. If you are only doing bare spots in your lawn, you can use leftover seed to overseed the rest of your lawn.

Soil preparation is also very important. This can be done now or anytime the soil is dry enough to work. Rake over the bare spots to loosen the soil. If needed, you can use a little soil from the garden to add to the spots to give you a good seedbed. Then wait until the proper time this winter to seed.

There are a couple of ways you can get good seed-to-soil contact with a dormant seeding. The first is to apply the seed to snow, preferable about an inch of snow. As the snow melts the seed will come in good contact with the soil. The freezing and thawing action of late winter will help cover the seed in just enough soil.

The other way is to apply the seed to the bare areas and then rake the areas lightly to cover the seed and then roll the area to press seed and soil together. We often have February days when this type of work could be done comfortably.

Once the seed is in place, you can wait for spring and the germination of your grass. One word of caution: Do not use crabgrass prevention in this area. The herbicide that prevents crabgrass will also prevent grass seed from growing.

If you have had a big problem with crabgrass in the last couple of years and you wanted to get it under control next spring, you can use a product that contains Tubersan (siduron) as its active ingredient. This will not inhibit your new grass seed.

Poor plant growth

People come to our office to purchase a soil test kit because things don't grow well. Often the problem, is not the fertility of the soil but other issues.

One common problem, especially on a new home's lot, is poor soil structure. Too often, soil gets compacted during construction because of heavy equipment. This makes it very difficult for roots to penetrate the soil. To correct this, you need to add organic matter to loosen the soil structure.

Another common problem at new homes is little or no topsoil. The way houses get built is by pushing off all the top soil, then build the house and put a little top soil back. The roots of your new plants will not grow from the good soil to the poorer soil. The only correction is to blend the two soils together so the plant mix is uniform.

Sometimes plant-growth problems are not related to soil. One problem not related to soil might be shade. It is hard to grow sun-loving plants in areas that get limited sunlight. Most plants like six to eight hours of sunlight a day to grow well.

If you have lived in one place a long time, your trees are much larger now than they were 25 to 30 years ago. These could be shading your yard too much during the day. If this is the case, you might need to select grass and other plants more tolerant of shade.

One problem that is not often thought of is the presence of a black walnut tree. Black walnuts have a chemical called jugalone which is toxic to many plants. If there is a black walnut tree in your area, keep your vegetable garden fifty to 75 feet from the tree, especially if you try to grow tomatoes, which are very sensitive to walnut.

Bob Kessler specializes in consumer horticulture and energy for Penn State University. He can be reached at 717-263-9226 or by e-mail at

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