Now that spring is in full swing, Americans across the country are taking advantage of the warmer weather and longer days by spending more time outdoors. If your lawn isn’t quite ready for neighborhood picnics and impromptu gatherings, the following tips will help you get your grass up to par.
Tip #1: Let the lawn go brown during dry spells
It's human nature to want to water a browning plant. But in the case of grass, the color change is merely an indication that the plant is entering a natural state of dormancy designed to conserve nutrients. "From an agronomic standpoint, most grasses can easily survive a month without water," says Doug Soldat, turf scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If you can't live with brown grass, the time to water is when you leave footprints in the lawn after walking on it. But don't make the mistake of giving it a light daily watering during dry spells; that will encourage a shallow root system that does more harm than good. Instead, give the lawn a nice long soak (30 minutes' worth), at which point it should be good for another month.
Tip #2: Fertilize less frequently
Fertilizer companies recommend as many as five applications a year, but many lawns can thrive with no more than two annual applications. Memorial Day and Labor Day are the ideal times to fertilize (a bit earlier in the Deep South). If you fertilize only once, do it in September using fall fertilizer. Most high-quality products contain slow-release nitrogen, which promotes growth in the spring. "Manufacturers have made it pretty mistake-proof," says Frank Rossi, a turf expert at Cornell University. "If you buy a product that says 'lawn fertilizer,' chances are it will have the right mix of ingredients."
Tip # 3: Let the grass grow a bit longer
You probably know that cutting grass too short can compromise root development, but the long-held rule that you should never remove more than one third of the blade's total height has come under scrutiny. "It was inspired by research conducted in the 1950s by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who were evaluating Kentucky bluegrass as a forage grass," says Rossi. Most domestic grasses can thrive with 50 percent or more of the blade removed, therefore, you can let the lawn grow to about 5 inches before mowing. That might result in a shaggier lawn than you're used to, but it will reduce mowing frequency by about 25 percent. Because most mower decks have notches, not inches, setting the right height often involves trial and error. Adjust the deck a notch at a time.
Tip # 4: Mulch, don't bag
As interest in eco-friendly lawns continues to grow, the lawn-mower bag is becoming less necessary. "Ninety-nine percent of the time you're better off mulching," says Rob Golembiewski, turf-grass specialist at Oregon State University. In addition to saving time, mulching (discharging finely cut clippings back onto the turf instead of bagging them) returns nutrients to the soil, reducing your lawn's fertilizer needs by roughly 33 percent. One of the few times you need to bag clippings is when the lawn has gotten very long, usually after an extended rainy spell or a long vacation. If that happens, consider composting the clippings. You should also bag clippings during a lawn-disease outbreak, in which case they might need to be taken to the landfill instead of being added to your compost pile.
Tip #5: Live with certain weeds and pests
You might not love the look of dandelions, but they don't actually harm the lawn, and their penetrating taproots might even improve the soil structure. But you should probably cut off the heads before they go to seed. Clover, which takes nitrogen from the air and feeds it to the soil, also has benefits. Things such as moss and creeping Charlie should be left alone because they thrive in moist, shady areas where grass is unlikely to grow anyway. Other lawn problems are worth trying to eliminate. Crabgrass, for example, usually dies off at the first frost, promoting soil erosion. You might try corn-gluten meal, an organic alternative to chemical herbicides. Grubs, small beetle larvae that live in the soil and feed on grass roots, can devastate a lawn, so it's worth consulting with a professional about preventive measures, especially if you've had problems in the past. And remember that thick turf is always the best defense against lawn problems, so seed bare spots to help build up turf.
Tip #6: Give low-maintenance grasses a look
Instead of purchasing whatever seed mix is on sale, consider investing in one of the newer slow-growth, drought-resistant species. Fine fescues, including creeping red, chewings, and hard, all qualify as low- maintenance. But fine fescues don't tolerate traffic well, so if your lawn doubles as a Wiffle Ball field, consider tall fescue. It does better underfoot but is susceptible to damage from ice cover. Just remember that slow-growth fescues will take a bit longer to get established, so you'll need some patience. You'll also find plenty of shade-resistant options, though trying to establish turf under the thick foliage of a maple or other shade tree can be a waste of time.
For more information, visit www.greenerchoices.org.