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   Apr 23

Lawn Care Made Easy

August 18:

Lawns, lawns, lawns; why do I get so many questions about lawns? A pox on the house of the Englishman who first brought grass seed here; and the Long Island aristocrats who made it fashionable to have a lawn. If we took the money we spend every year on lawn care products and services, we could probably pay off the national debt. Well maybe not that much; it doesn’t matter I just had to vent. I’m okay now.

We have this fixation about walking barefoot on a soft carpet of dark green grass, and our instant gratification gene keeps telling us that we can have that if we just spend more money on chemicals, an irrigation system, and lawn care service.

The questions I receive are from people who have spent the money or put in a lot of hours and just can’t get that magazine cover lawn. Here are a few along with some tips.

Soil condition – Let’s get this out of the way first. If you do not have a good combination of sand, silt and clay; if the pH is off; if there is not a good amount of decomposed organic matter in the soil; then you are already starting with a handicap.Sandy soil lets the water and fertilizer percolate faster than the grass can absorb them. Clay soil hardens to pottery when dry and the water and fertilizer run off into the storm drain. Organic matter stabilizes the too much/too little roller coaster.

When is the best time to start a lawn? The ideal time is mid-August when the warm season weeds begin to die off and the cool season grasses that make up your lawn begin to green out again. It all has to do with shading out the sun to minimize weed seed germination. If you sow the grass seed in the fall it will have two growing cycles, this fall and next spring; resulting in a thicker lawn the following summer. If you sow in the spring the lawn will have only one growing cycle and will not be developed enough to prevent a lot of weed seed germination.

What is the best grass seed mix? Your goal is a healthy lawn that will withstand drought, and attack from insects and disease. The way to accomplish this is by sowing a blend of fescue, blue and rye grasses. These grasses have different tolerances; that means more green lawn, less brown out, and less chance of disease or insect damage. If you have areas that receive a lot of use, you should include tall fescue in the mix. All of these grasses are identified on an ingredients label on the back of the package. Ignore the annual grasses; they are a one season crop. If you plant it in the fall it will provide a quick green lawn, die, and will not grow back next spring.

How do I grow grass under my trees? Cut the tree down, especially if it is a Norway maple. Just because a grass variety is shade or drought tolerant does not mean that it prefers the shade. All plants need to make their own food through the process of photosynthesis and sunlight triggers the process. Water, consisting of hydrogen and oxygen, other key components of photosynthesis enters the plant through the roots. Grass just cannot compete with a tree for these components. You can water more often and thin out some tree branches, but you will not get the ideal lawn under a tree. If you insist on fighting a losing battle, plant the tall fescue seed.

Should I de-thatch the lawn first? If you bag your grass clippings, probably not; if you use a mulching mower, maybe; if you cannot remember the last time you thatched, definitely. Get down on your hands and knees and drill your index finger through the thatch to the soil. If you have to go past your first joint to get there, you need to de-thatch. Keep in mind that the thatch has been holding and shading out weed seed, so you might see more weeds than usual next summer.

How often should I water? The secret of successful seed germination is that once you get the seed wet you have to keep it wet. August marks the beginning of the tropical storm season so you do not have to water as often as you would in the spring. Once the seed has germinated, you may not have to water at all.

The only negative to a fall started lawn is that it is too cold in October to be walking on it barefoot.

August 3: Remember last summer when the heat and humidity were just too oppressive for us to go outside and take care of the yard? As a result the annual weeds that thrive under those weather conditions were able to complete their life cycle; going to seed and spreading their offspring all over the yard. Now, I am paying big time in the flower beds and lawn for a problem that could have been avoided last year by me simply pulling the weeds and cutting the grass.

The end of July and early August is when our perennial cool season lawn grasses; the ryes, fescues and blue, go dormant. They are replaced by the light green leafed warm season annual that we call crabgrass. Unlike the lawn grasses that grow straight and tall, crabgrass grows in a more horizontal direction.

Here is the setup; as temperatures rise lawn growth slows down allowing us the luxury of cutting the grass only once a week. Then, going into dormancy, it browns out and gets replaced by the crabgrass. We either don’t cut it at all or just once in a while because it doesn’t look like it needs to be cut. By the time we do get around to cutting it the grass has gone to seed ensuring more weeds next year.

Many people minimize this problem by using a weed killer either separately, or mixed with fertilizer. I try to limit the used of chemicals around my yard, and with respect to annual weeds like crabgrass I know that all I have to do is prevent them from going to seed. That means just continue to cut the grass through the hot summer days. In the cooler end of August weather the crabgrass will die, never having produces seed and the lawn grass will come out of dormancy.

I am not suggesting that you take the heat stroke challenge and cut the grass mid afternoon. It is hot outside, but a single crabgrass plant can produce tens of thousands of seed. If you don’t prevent it from going to seed you will be kicking yourself next year like I am doing now. So cut it early in the morning or late afternoon when it is cooler.

Speaking of annuals, don’t forget to deadhead the marigolds, zinnia, and all of the other annuals you planted back in April. The same rules apply for all annuals, weed or flower; they want to complete their life cycle in one growing season.

If you leave the spent blooms on the plant the focus will be on storing energy in the seeds contained in the spent blooms, not in the production of new blooms. You need to trick the plant into believing it still has work to do, and you do that by deadheading. It forces the plant to keep producing blooms and seed for next year’s growing season.

Don’t forget that vegetables are annuals too. Pick the fruit just before or as soon as it ripens. Yellow and red peppers are green before ripening; pick them just as they begin to show color. Cucumbers are the laziest, as soon as just one fruit ripens it stops producing. Pick cucumbers while they are still green, before they reach their mature size.

July 10 – Summer, when the heat and humidity is just too oppressive for us to go outside and take care of the yard. As a result the annual weeds that thrive under those weather conditions are able to complete their life cycle; going to seed and spreading their offspring all over the yard. Now, we are paying big time in the flower beds and lawn for a problem that could have been avoided by simply pulling the weeds and cutting the grass last year.

The end of July and early August is when our perennial cool season lawn grasses; the ryes, fescues and blue, go dormant. They are replaced by the light green leafed warm season annual that we call crabgrass. Unlike the lawn grasses that grow straight and tall, crabgrass grows in a more horizontal direction.

Here is the setup; as temperatures rise lawn growth slows down allowing us the luxury of cutting the grass only once a week. Then, going into dormancy, it browns out and gets replaced by the crabgrass. We either don’t cut it at all or just once in a while because it doesn’t look like it needs to be cut. By the time we do get around to cutting it the grass has gone to seed ensuring more weeds next year.

Many people minimize this problem by using a weed killer either separately, or mixed with fertilizer. I try to limit the used of chemicals around my yard, and with respect to annual weeds like crabgrass I know that all I have to do is prevent them from going to seed. That means just continue to cut the grass through the hot summer days. In the cooler end of August weather the crabgrass will die, never having produces seed and the lawn grass will come out of dormancy.

I am not suggesting that you take the heat stroke challenge and cut the grass mid afternoon. It is hot outside, but a single crabgrass plant can produce tens of thousands of seed. If you don’t prevent it from going to seed you will be kicking yourself next year like I am doing now. So cut it early in the morning or late afternoon when it is cooler.

Speaking of annuals, don’t forget to deadhead the marigolds, zinnia, and all of the other annuals you planted back in April. The same rules apply for all annuals, weed or flower; they want to complete their life cycle in one growing season.

If you leave the spent blooms on the plant the focus will be on storing energy in the seeds contained in the spent blooms, not in the production of new blooms. You need to trick the plant into believing it still has work to do, and you do that by deadheading. It forces the plant to keep producing blooms and seed for next year’s growing season.

Don’t forget that vegetables are annuals too. Pick the fruit just before or as soon as it ripens. Yellow and red peppers are green before ripening; pick them just as they begin to show color. Cucumbers are the laziest, as soon as just one fruit ripens it stops producing. Pick cucumbers while they are still green, before they reach their mature size.

Fertilizer – Have you noticed that just about every fertilizer manufacturer now offers their version of a four step lawn application process? Essentially, step one contains equal amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, and some herbicide to prevent crabgrass. Step two almost doubles the amount of nitrogen, significantly reduces the amount of phosphorus, and adds some herbicide to kill broadleaf weeds. Step three maintains the same amount of nutrients and substitutes the herbicide with pesticide; and step four is just nutrients and filler material.

Each package contains directions on how and when to apply the fertilizer. That is really funny, because everyone knows that real men don’t read directions. Where would the fun be if we read the directions? “What; wait for a windless day? Wear a dust mask, goggles and gloves? The pesticide kills bugs, not people.” Hey, I’m on your side. If the manufacturers wanted us to read the directions they shouldn’t put them right behind the spot on the box where it says “Don’t cut here.” So, what I am offering here is my four step lawn care direction suggestion.

Step one – Pull out all of your lawn equipment and inspect, clean, sharpen, repair or replace everything. If you do this up front, then you only have to go to the hardware store once, all summer. Why go through the aggravation of stopping in the middle of a project on a hot summer day just because you forgot to replace the _____ you were going to buy last fall. Throwing the broadcast spreader across the yard will not fix it; besides, being proactive means you get to claim that you reduced your gardening carbon footprint. That may be an oxymoron, but don’t worry about it.

Step two – Take a pencil, paper and tape measure outside and accurately calculate the amount of lawn you really have. A 10,000 square foot lot does not equal a 10,000 square foot lawn. Little things like the house footprint, driveway, walkways, swimming pool, shed, deck, patio and planting beds add up. Know what the square footage of your lawn is before you purchase the fertilizer.

Step Three – Eliminate the biggest gardening pest from the maintenance list before the season starts. That would be you. I don’t make this stuff up; in order the top three pest problems in our yard are: us, our children and our pets. So, remove the grass from around the tree trunks for at least two feet, and do the same just beyond the drip line of all of the shrubs; add soil over exposed tree roots, and remove large rocks.

Sure, you can tilt the lawnmower against the tree trunk and let it slide down the bark, and you can push it into the shrub; but all you are accomplishing is permanent damage to the plants. Hit a tree root or rock with the lawnmower and you will be replacing more than just a blade.

Step Four – Keep it simple. If your idea of a successful gardening season is a perfect lawn, that is okay; just don’t go overboard with artificial life support. Fertilizer is good, too much fertilizer is bad; lawns need one-inch of water per week, not per day; and a few weeds popping up along the sidewalk does not mean the entire lawn needs an herbicide spray. Get more exercise by mowing at least twice a week during the growing season, and use a mulching mower.

Lawn grasses have survived for millions of years without our help; they can make it through the summer. What you need to do is pour a drink, sit down, and read the gas grill assembly instructions.

April 23; Less is Best

This is the time of the year when we feed our lawns, sparing no expense; after all when it comes to fertilizer more is better, right? Well not quite, not even almost right; no, it’s wrong.

We all want to have that deep green weed free lawn that looks just like the outfield at a major league ballpark, who doesn’t? A lot of work goes in to maintaining lawns at ballparks and golf courses; fulltime crews check and water the grounds daily, and mow every other day. If you think gardening is work, then you are not going to embrace lawn maintenance.

Fertilizer recommended for spring application contains over thirty percent nitrogen. This primary element of plant protein is responsible for those green blades and fast growth. When you consider that there are over 1,100 grass plants in a square-foot of lawn, or 8 plants per square inch; then it makes sense that there is a lot of competition for nutrients. So, okay you should fertilize; but do you need to use up the whole bag? And there’s your problem.

There are a whole lot of microbes that dedicate their lives to processing nitrogen gas in the soil into something the grass can absorb. In exchange, the grass provides them with some of the excess sugar stored in its’ roots. When we use fertilizer we throw that relationship out of balance; so less is best.

I am not saying don’t fertilize; but before you do, measure your lawn. No, really, grab your tape measure and figure out how many square feet you actually have. I guaranty you that it is less than you think. So you probably don’t need a 15,000 sq-ft bag, and you certainly don’t need to empty it all in one application.

Cut that Grass – (July 2011) Remember last summer when the heat and humidity were just too oppressive for us to go outside and take care of the yard? As a result the annual weeds that thrive under those weather conditions were able to complete their life cycle; going to seed and spreading their offspring all over the yard. Now, I am paying big time in the flower beds and lawn for a problem that could have been avoided last year by me simply pulling the weeds and cutting the grass.

The end of July and early August is when our perennial cool season lawn grasses; the ryes, fescues and blue, go dormant. They are replaced by the light green leafed warm season annual that we call crabgrass. Unlike the lawn grasses that grow straight and tall, crabgrass grows in a more horizontal direction.

Here is the setup; as temperatures rise lawn growth slows down allowing us the luxury of cutting the grass only once a week. Then, going into dormancy, it browns out and gets replaced by the crabgrass. We either don’t cut it at all or just once in a while because it doesn’t look like it needs to be cut. By the time we do get around to cutting it the grass has gone to seed ensuring more weeds next year.

Many people minimize this problem by using a weed killer either separately, or mixed with fertilizer. I try to limit the used of chemicals around my yard, and with respect to annual weeds like crabgrass I know that all I have to do is prevent them from going to seed. That means just continue to cut the grass through the hot summer days. In the cooler end of August weather the crabgrass will die, never having produces seed and the lawn grass will come out of dormancy.

I am not suggesting that you take the heat stroke challenge and cut the grass mid afternoon. It is hot outside, but a single crabgrass plant can produce tens of thousands of seed. If you don’t prevent it from going to seed you will be kicking yourself next year like I am doing now. So cut it early in the morning or late afternoon when it is cooler.

Speaking of annuals, don’t forget to deadhead the marigolds, zinnia, and all of the other annuals you planted back in April. The same rules apply for all annuals, weed or flower; they want to complete their life cycle in one growing season.

If you leave the spent blooms on the plant the focus will be on storing energy in the seeds contained in the spent blooms, not in the production of new blooms. You need to trick the plant into believing it still has work to do, and you do that by deadheading. It forces the plant to keep producing blooms and seed for next year’s growing season.

Don’t forget that vegetables are annuals too. Pick the fruit just before or as soon as it ripens. Yellow and red peppers are green before ripening; pick them just as they begin to show color. Cucumbers are the laziest, as soon as just one fruit ripens it stops producing. Pick cucumbers while they are still green, before they reach their mature size.

Do you have a gardening question? Send it to mastergardener@rcn.com. Peter Coppola is a principle master gardener and gardening advocate; he teaches and lectures on the subject in the Burlington area.

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