As the fall season approaches it is time to think about taking care of the turf. Yes, I am talking about grass. It always surprises me how much people either care about their grass or see it as a burden. It is the one task of home ownership that can bring out the competitive nature in some but this does not mean the others have to work harder when it is just as effective to work smarter. Grass grows best when the season is cooler so spring and fall become the time to pay it attention. Because it can take up to three weeks for some grass seed to just germinate, seeding in advance of the start of each season means ground conditions will be favorable for the grass seed to grow at the start. So seeding in August and March is good, but by no means exclusive.
Turf is inherited with a house, whether it is existing turf, new sod, or new seed. The approach should be exactly the same with the first step being a soil test to establish the baseline. It is good to follow the rules for taking a soil test because the results will not be accurate, otherwise. There are two links provided below for taking a soil test. The one from Rutgers actually describes the physical process of taking soil samples. The second fact sheet from the University of Maryland explains about the test results. Press “control” then “left click” to get to the link page.
For the FIRST soil test, request an analysis of the soil texture and structure as well as the soil fertility and soil pH. The soil texture is a percentage of sand, silt, clay and organic material and is important to know in order to determine the types of grasses that will grow best. Soil structure analyzes the pore space and the soil's ability to hold water and to provide air circulation. If the soil texture or soil structure is poor it can be amended by aerating, spiking, or adding organic material and should be done along with reseeding. The soil test will also identify soil fertility and pH and the results will state what fertilizer and amendments are needed for maximum grass health. The test results will include recommendations for the macro-nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. It will also include ways to improve micro-nutrients and pH. It is extremely important to not over apply any of these fertilizers or amendments. You can't “undo” an “overdo” but you can “half-do” or quarter-do” and retest the soil the following year making a gradual change and not a sudden change.
Step two should take into consideration some cultural practices that are recommended in the fact sheets for improving turf and are effective to use in getting started with your lawn. Fact sheets on these are included also at the bottom of this post. Investigate the cutting height of the grass by actually measuring the length of a blade of grass after the mower passes over it. Tall fescue should measure 3 inches and Kentucky bluegrass should measure 2.5” and the only way to know which type you have is to google search images for both types and see how closely it matches or take a sample to the local cooperative extension office. Depending on which planting zone you live in, the type of turf could be Zoysia or St. Augustine. The same procedure should be followed for all of them depending on the fact sheet recommendations.
Believe it or not, it is a hard concept for the homeowner to let go of the “shorter is better” myth. The fact is that grasses do not grow well if the actual blade of grass is cut too short. It inhibits the amount of photosynthesis going on to support the plant and the grass has difficulty recovering in-between mowing events. Cutting the grass too short slows the rate of growth, which seems desirable, but by summer the weeds take over and the grass struggles through the summer heat. The fact sheets recommend that no more than one-third of the grass blade should be cut at any time to maintain optimal health and optimal photosynthesis capability.
The lawn maintenance trades typically recommend measuring the lawn mower blades from the driveway asphalt, while others say to go by the numbers on the mower itself but this stationary measurement does not consider soil compaction, tire pressure, time of year, evenness of the terrain, type of mower, all of which can affect the actual length of the blade of grass after mowing. Measuring the blade of grass is the most accurate way of preserving leaf surface for photosynthesis but the proof is in the end result. Growing grass is, after all, a science, treated scientifically by the scientists but you don't have to take their word for it. There are no “grass police” to fine you every time the grass is cut too short or too long. However, if you are not happy with the way your lawn looks and think it is ridiculous to measure a blade of grass, just change it up. Raise the wheels on the mower or raise the blades and grow it long, and see if the results are any more to your liking. These are more like guidelines than actual rules.
Recycling cut grass back into the lawn is another way of providing the turf with food. The thinking used to be that grass recycling would create a build up of thatch which would in turn create an environment for fungi, bacteria and insects to thrive. Further research has changed the thinking on this subject. A mulching mower will cut the grass into smaller bits. If clumps of grass are left behind then double cut it to cut the clumps into smaller pieces. To prevent clumps of grass, mow when the grass is drier and mow more often. Never blow grass into the street. It is not only a code enforcement violation in some areas to blow debris into the roadway it is a waste of food for the grass. Make the first few passes with the mower blowing the grass back onto the lawn and keep the cuttings out of the storm sewers and give the passing motorists a break.
Lawn weeds are inevitable and it is NOT mandatory to do anything about them. I personally love the look of dandelions in the spring. If the grass is allowed to grow higher they may not die but their appearance becomes secondary. As the grass gets taller the weeds will be crowded out and the soil will be shaded, preventing further weed seeds from germinating. Clover is actually beneficial for grass by helping it take up nitrogen from the soil. For more information on improving your lawn, links to three separate university fact sheets have been provided. Ultimately it is important to connect with the fact sheets for turf in your home state and the planting zone to determine the seed varieties that will grow best on your piece of the kingdom.
The State of Maryland has been tightening regulations on fertilizer applications because of the negative impact fertilizer runoff has on the Chesapeake Bay. There are always consequences to our actions and as good stewards of the environment that we all love to relax and play in, it is in all of our best interests to use good science to keep that impact to a minimum.
SOIL TEST FACT SHEETS
TURF IMPROVEMENT FACT SHEETS
http://www.extension.umd.edu Maryland, mowing and grasscycling