A lawn looks so simple; grass growing in soil. Oh, that it were that easy.
Lawns can get diseases, become weed-choked, turn brown and die. They suffer from neglect; they suffer from too much love.
Maintaining a lawn may not require a crash course in horticulture, but there are some fundamental, sound turf management practices that are worth learning. Too often they are overlooked, ignored or simply not followed properly. These practices not only will help keep a lawn healthy, they often will save a property owner money, too.
We spoke with seven experts, six of them involved in turf research or turf management education at the University of Connecticut, and a seventh who owns a landscape business and recently hosted a workshop on lawn care for professionals. Providing advice at UConn were Jason J. Henderson, assistant professor of turfgrass and soil sciences; Tom Morris, Extension soil fertility specialist; Karl Guillard, professor of agronomy; Steven Rackliffe, Extension instructor, turfgrass science; Victoria H. Wallace, Sustainable Turf & Landscape Associate Extension Educator, and John Inguagiato, director of UConn's Turfgrass Disease Diagnostic Center. Steve Bousquet, past president of the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association and owner of American Landscape and Lawn Science in North Franklin, also provided suggestions.
Things You Should Know
>>Perhaps the Single Most Important Thing You Can Do For Your Lawn: Get a soil test. It is inexpensive and you will receive a report that tells you exactly what your lawn needs - or doesn't need. It can save you money, it can help you create a healthy, weed-free, durable lawn. Detailed instructions on how to take a soil sample and where to send it are available at http://soiltest.uconn.edu/sampling.php. Cost is $8 per sample. Well worth it.
>>Helping the Environment. As an example, in about 25 percent of the samples UConn receives analysis shows the lawn does not need phosphorus. Phosphorus, a nutrient essential to plant growth, can cause problems if excessive applications wash into waterways. Excess phosphorus running off lawns, farms and in treated wastes is blamed for algae blooms in many lakes, streams and coastal areas. Phosphorus-free lawn fertilizers are available.
>>Be Careful Raking Early in the Season. Homeowners often complain early in the season that the grass comes out of the ground roots and all when they are raking. "I tell them to stop raking the lawn. Let the grass start growing and root in before you give it a hard raking," Bousquet says.
>>Don't Cut the Grass Too Short. Experts agree 3 inches is usually a good height for mowing. Cutting it shorter can stress the grass, requiring more fertilizer. Cutting to a height of 3 inches encourages deeper roots. The grass will need less water and less fertilizer because it can access moisture and nutrients deeper in the soil. Cutting a lawn too short also makes it easier for weeds to become established.
>>Let the Clippings Remain on the Lawn. Those clippings help return nutrients to the soil, reducing the need for fertilizer applications. A UConn graduate student found that nitrogen applications could be reduced by up to 50 percent just by letting grass clippings remain on the lawn.
>>Keep the Mower Blade Sharp. A dull blade tears the tips of the grass blades, stressing the lawn and leaving it more susceptible to fungal problems.
>>Not Too Much, Not Too Little. Overwatering a lawn is a common problem. Overwatering discourages the grass from developing a deep root system and encourages fungal diseases. Here in New England, an inch or an inch-and-a-half of water a week is usually sufficient. A simple way to measure? Place some empty tuna tins in the yard to measure rainfall. Or, use a trowel to dig down and see how moist the soil is a few inches down. A slightly dry lawn is better than a lawn that is too wet, the experts say. Keeping in mind the weather, a rule of thumb might be 3 water applications a week.
>>No Sloppiness, Please. When applying fertilizers, be careful not to let the product fall on driveways and other impervious surfaces. It will flush into storm drains and waterways with the first rainfall, adding to the excessive nutrients causing algae blooms in waterways and Long Island Sound.
>>When You Water Matters. Many lawn disease problems are caused by fungi, and many homeowners invite fungal problems by watering after work at, say, 6 p.m. Add to that any dew that forms hours later and the lawn stays wet all night, encouraging fungi. If you have an automatic sprinkler system, the experts suggest starting it at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. That allows most of the moisture to sink in, while the early morning light dries out the grass, minimizing losses to evaporation while reducing chances of fungal disease.
>>Not Too Much. It is worth the slight effort to apply lawn products in the proper amount, avoiding excessive applications that waste money and can harm the environment. Even though most yards are not perfect squares or rectangles, a simple length times width calculation should come close in determining how much surface needs to be covered. Half a bag of fertilizer left? Don't just add it to the application; it can do more harm than good.
>>Preventing Dandelions and Crabgrass. The best way to prevent weeds is to maintain a healthy lawn. Fertilize properly, water properly, don't cut the lawn too short, and the healthy thick turf will be too much for weeds to work their way in.
>>Plant the Right Grass Seed. The experts say it can be a good idea to talk to a knowledgeable salesperson at a garden shop or nursery. Some seed blends are best for shady areas, others for open areas. Whether the lawn will receive heavy traffic — children and dogs playing, for example — is another factor. Certain fescues are good for high traffic areas. Never use an annual rye grass on a typical home lawn. A rule of thumb for a home lawn? A blend that is roughly one-third Kentucky blue grass, one-third fine fescue, one third perennial rye grass.
Contact Steve Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org