From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on August 9, 2006

How's the Grass across the Fence Growing?
(Adventures with Flora continued...)

I was at a community meeting place recently when a neighbor inquired of me, "Why is my son's newly planted lawn yellowing and browning out. The questions that I responded with could have been the rehearsal for today's column.

First, I asked how often it was watered. To my astonishment, the father said it was too large to water except by Mother Nature. This was early July after quite a few hot spells with a lot less than the requisite 1 to 2 inches a week needed.

Of course, I inquired about the soil. If it was native soil, was it ever enhanced with compost or other natural organic products? The answer was an identical, "I don't know". Was any of the soil ever imported from somewhere else and tested for pH to see if any lime or sulfur were needed?

I knew I wanted to do this follow-up adventure with Flora, so one thing led to another and a column was born: a column of questions and some logical or interpretive answers. One would think the watering question to be the first and logical one. Before that, however, comes the question that I knew the answer to, but I must state it for the record. When was the lawn planted?

The preferred time to install a lawn, either new or renovated, is in the fall, especially September into October. The reasons are numerous and they all reduce the risk of failure. There is more fair weather, more uniform temperatures and precipitation over the remaining growing season and cooler temperatures at night. Also, crab grass isn't germinating. You have extra time to prepare the seed bed a few weeks before planting. Any weed seeds that do germinate can easily be removed and the soil will settle enough to do any final grading before you seed. Finally, the new grass roots will have several months to get established without the pressure of having to produce a lot of top growth.

Now back to our first question(s). How often is it watered, at what time of the day, how much is put on the soil each watering, and by what method is the water applied? The usual answers are a sprinkler system, above ground sprinkler, overhead by a hose, or rainfall only.

Newly planted grass seed needs a minimum of one inch of water a week, and that depends on the soil composition and drainage, average temperatures, wind activity, amount of sunlight, and some other variables. Two inches over fairly well drained soil may well be better. (I know I repeat myself, but an inexpensive or homemade rain gauge eliminates guesswork.) If the new lawn area is watered manually, early in the morning is the preferred time so the leaf blades have sufficient time to dry before hot sun can heat up the surface droplets. As the grass dries, there is less likelihood of any fungal diseases getting established or spreading.

The next question I might ask is "Was the lawn planted from seed, or, was sod put down?" Once the planting site is prepared and seed is put down, it needs to be rolled or tamped down to insure good soil/seed contact. That way, when germination takes place, the new seedling has soil immediately available to root into for needed moisture and nutrients.

In the case of sod lawns, there is a different bed preparation and moisture requirement. Beds should be moist when the sod is applied and then regular irrigation must follow. The variety of grass sod, of course, should be appropriate to the site and conditions.

What kinds or brands of grass seed or sod were planted? For the average homeowner, grass seed mixtures work best and offer the greatest satisfaction. Rather than specific suggestions of blends, I'll say that the higher maintenance grasses are Kentucky bluegrass blends. The lower maintenance grasses are the fine fescue blends. By maintenance, I mean the need for regular irrigation and fertilization, whether sunny or shady. Read the labels carefully. Don't but any that have listed a percent of weed seeds that exceeds .3%. Some can be found that are .1% and these would be first choice as long as the mix is appropriate. New blends of seed arrive each season.

It seems to me that many folks are forever looking for fill, free soil, topsoil, etc. I once collected a lot of what was called "ditch run". I was contemplating a garden spot. I tested the soil pH and to my utter surprise it was slightly alkaline, pH above 7.0 (neutral). I asked myself how this came about, and I surmised, that since it comes from ditch cleaning, it might be the product of run-off. Otherwise, I'd expect it to be rather acidic like our native soil. It was, if I recall correctly, silty to sandy. Sounds like run-off to me, probably from lawns and gardens that had been limed.

The above described is not the best to plant a lawn into: There didn't seem to be much organic matter incorporated into this mix. Of course, peat moss, compost and shredded bark mulches can be added. However, many homeowners aren't after the golf course look, and want some kind of green carpet, weeds or not, that can be cut and do the job of noise abatement, cooling the surrounding area, and providing the green serenity frame.

Whether you have nice topsoil or some imported mix, if you desire to plant grass, the very first thing you need to do is have the soil pH tested. This test of acidity or alkalinity is crucial to success. Grasses, grow best in nearly neutral to slightly alkaline soils. That means ph between 6.5 and 7.2. "Sour" or acidic soils can be "sweetened" toward neutral by the addition of lime. Too sweet soils can be reduced toward neutral by the addition of sulfur. Exact amounts vary depending on the soil type, drainage, etc, but are fairly specific as to the amount per hundred or thousand square feet. It is science, but earth science, not rocket science. Both lime and sulfur are readily available at garden centers.

Other questions revolve around additives or supplements. If fertilizers are applied, I'd want to know what brand, what NPK formulation, what application rate (lbs. Per 100/1000 sq. ft.), what date? There is a best time to fertilize existing lawns and these fall around three major American holidays. Memorial Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving Day. Fertilizing outside these three windows of time puts lawns at greater risk of damage and failure. All three are not necessary in the same year unless you love mowing. If the first two are skipped, don't skip the last. If the last two are skipped, try to remember the first. Once a year is usually sufficient. A well-balanced fertilizer highest in Nitrogen, as 10-6-4, is fine for existing lawns. For newly seeded areas, Phosphorous and Potassium are more important and I'd suggest 5-10-10. Are you a golf course superintendent? Things would be different.

Weeds are major pests of the cultivated and groomed lawn. They can be controlled. Has any weed killer been applied, how and when, what principal ingredient? Some are included in the fertilizers. Some are spot treatments as the frequently advertised dandelion killers. Read the labels carefully. They involve specifics about sunshine, rainfall, application rates, etc.

Yes, there are other pests of lawns. Some few are fungal; some others are insects. If fungicides are applied, I hope the culprit was properly identified, the application timely and appropriate. Same for insect pests. I hope the insect was identified accurately, was found to be a significant problem, and the insecticide was applied properly according to label directions. If not, you have wasted time and money, and we have enough chemicals in our environment already.

Ideally, home lawns should be cut high (2-1/2 to 3 inches) more often than not. If very long when cut, leaf blades that remain behind should be removed or re-mowed, unless a mulching mower was used. Leaving the clippings that are long will clump up and smother the lawn beneath it and kill it. If chopped up fine it will work its way down into the soil level and serve as an N fertilizer.

Look across the fence. Do you see what you want, there? Or, maybe on your side only. Your Flora can be as demanding or independent as you choose.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on August 9, 2006

© 2006 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.