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A Beautiful Lawn is More than Meets the Eye

A broad expanse of lush, cool green grass, uniformly cut, cries out for bare feet and self-satisfaction. Throughout the hot Summer months, the cool green blanket frames our homes and gardens, and provides relief from information overload. Carefully nurtured expanses of verdant softness create the desire within us to surround ourselves and play in the gentle embrace of the lawn. Well-maintained lawns provide security from fire and pests, and raise the perceived value of our largest investment, our homes.

Trying to achieve this easy-on-the-eye miracle requires a plan and some commitment and effort. Understanding what you are planting and the needs of the grass; knowing the timing of each step; investing in preparation, and committing to a definite series of steps is necessary in order to achieve a picture-perfect look. Your lawn is your attempt to hold back the natural progression of things, and you will have to invest time and resources in order to keep nature at bay.

The long hot Summer with little rain has left many with a dormant expanse of dust and crabgrass interspersed with dried-up clover and sleeping dandelions, unless you have turned on the sprinklers or the rains have come. Using precious water without a plan has left you with a bigger water bill and more problems than you might think. Disease, insect proliferation, and stressed turf come from random waves of water—worse from everyday artificial deluges from automatic sprinkler systems. And, of course, the summer weeds thrive from attempts to “do good.”

To establish a lawn you need some information about grass types and plant needs (including the role soil plays), a simple timeline of actions, and some amount of work and resources. The general information about grass plant types is easy, the information about soil and its role is important, the time-line directs the work and eliminates procrastination; the work provides exercise, and the resources include tools, fertilizers, soil amendments, and project accessories. Establishing a lawn and maintaining it is akin to using a recipe to bake a pie. Making sure you have everything you need, from the right tools to the correct ingredients, before you start, is the key to success.

Soil is the single most important factor in determining the success of your lawn. Soil that does not contain microbiological life is simply dirt and is dead, as will be the lawn sooner or later. It is critical that soil have at minimum organic matter content of at least 2%. Remember this is a minimum! Soil should have 5% or more organic matter for optimal performance. Organic matter is habitat for beneficial microorganisms. The organic matter habitat is food as well as home. Beneficial microorganisms eat organic matter and release nutrients to the grass, while antagonizing pests and diseases. Additionally, beneficial microorganisms promote good soil structure which relieves compaction, and keeps the root system thriving and working for greener and healthier blades of grass.

All plants depend on beneficial microorganisms to: deliver nutrients and water from the soil to plants; protect plants from pests and disease; and build good soil structure so air and water reach roots in proper proportion. My grandfather, Albert Behnke, told me that “a plantsman spends a nickel on the plant and a dollar on the hole (soil).”

Grass plants derive energy from sunlight. Although we sell it as “plant food,” fertilizers are actually sources of elements that plants need to make proteins and tissues, like the calcium and zinc in your vitamin and mineral supplements. Some plants need relatively little light: we call them shade plants. Your lawn is not one of them. Turfgrass species prefer full sun, although sometimes you can coax a stand of grass to thrive in partial shade. Much trouble, aggravation and cost comes from trying to have a traditional lawn in the shade.

Grass species used in the Washington, DC area fall into two broad types: cool season and warm season. Most of us have cool-season grasses; a few have chosen the warm-season approach: zoysia grass. It is simple to know which you have. If your lawn greens up when the temperatures of late Spring turn hot, and stays green with little water and little mowing until cool weather returns in Fall, you have a warm-season grass.

Drought-tolerant zoysia grows in full sun, out-competes weeds and welcomes comparably short mowing. Its shortfall is that, from October until May, the lawn is dormant (brown). The most important thing to remember is that your prime fertilizing time is in late May, as this is when your grass is actively growing. The Maryland Co-operative Extension is a good resource for zoysia lawn care and other detailed lawn care information.*

The majority of us have some assortment of cool-season grasses. Some try bluegrass, others have found that fescues work quite well, especially when the lawn is in active use. I recommend you avoid ryegrass as its rapid germination is not enough to compensate for its disease problems and general appearance.

Cool-season grasses grow actively in the cool of Autumn even when we think it is too cold to be outside; cool season lawns establish much easier when the seed is sown in the Fall rather than the Spring. When the heat of Summer comes and rainfall is sporadic, these grasses go dormant—they go to “sleep,” allowing undesirable vegetation to move in. The trick is to prepare the soil well, to add microbial life to well-aerated, non-compacted soils, to fertilize using the proper amount at the right time, and to mow high in the heat of Summer.

The plan of action for cool season grasses starts in early Summer with an assessment performed from May to July. Assuming that you are not installing a lawn from scratch, but trying to renovate an existing lawn, your assessment is one of broad estimations of the percentage of desirable grass versus weeds. You will need to determine the types of weeds.

Broadleaf weeds such as dandelion and clover, versus grassy weeds like nutsedge and crabgrass are noted, as you will need to attack them with different products. The removal of unwanted plants provides a challenge if you are trying to have a completely organic lawn, and may require an initial application of synthetic chemicals to speed your renovation.

The ultimate goal, however, should be the establishment of an organic lawn with no synthetic additives. There is a broad spectrum of care from completely organic to massive chemical applications. Usually the chemical route is mandated by compacted, “dead” soils which require environmentally unhealthy amounts of fertilizers and pesticides to maintain the struggling grass plants.

Weeds should be attacked throughout this period of time, and the complete removal of unwanted species should be completed by the end of August. Mike Bader, our garden shop buyer, recommends Bonide Weed Beater Ultra® for broadleaf weeds and Monterey Nutgrass ‘Nihilator’® for nutsedge. If you have a crabgrass infestation because you did not apply a (preventative) pre-emergent herbicide in Spring, Mike suggests a crabgrass killer such as Bonide MSMA Crabgrass Killer® or Ortho Weed-B-Gon Crabgrass Killer for Lawns®. Applications of pesticides can and will pollute our waterways if not used correctly. If you must go this route, follow the directions to the letter.

Labor Day signals the next step in renovation. Mow the lawn short, and, if you have bluegrass you will want to dethatch with a hard rake or power dethatcher. Also, to improve air and water infiltration to compacted soil, consider renting a core aerator which pokes dime-sized holes to a depth of around four inches. You must have moist soil, which means you may have to water the lawn thoroughly first. Lightly break up the corings with a rake, and leave them on the lawn.

Apply the grass seed of your choice (e.g., “Behnke’s Best” grass seed mixes) following directions on the package, and then broadcast organic matter to a depth of not more than 1/8″ over top. This would be an excellent time to set up the habitat for the soil food web with broadcast spreader applications of Behnke’s Pogo Organics Beneficial Micro-Organisms Granular Compost®. Spreading the granular compost and a light layer of Leaf Gro® to keep the grass seed from drying would be a good solution for a large area.

The hardest part of lawn seeding is keeping the seed moist for ten to fourteen days. If it rains and stays cloudy for a week, you will be fortunate; however, bright, hot September days require a light watering in the morning and perhaps midday and again in the early afternoon. The seed cannot dry out, not can it sit in water, so a light syringing is the order of the week, until the grass germinates and is up and an inch tall. Watch out for days with low humidity and/or wind, for this will dry out your planting faster than you will expect.

An application of fertilizer is appropriate for the formerly untended lawn at this point (say, early October). Having already introduced beneficial microorganisms with the Pogo Granular Compost, you can continue down the organic path with Organica’s Kelp Booster: Step Two.® A non-organic option is to apply Turf Trust® slow-release fertilizer at half rate. In November fertilize the lawn with Organica’s Step One: Lawn Booster 8-1-1® or Turf Trust®, per label instructions. Mow for the first time when the grass is about 3 inches tall, removing about a half inch. Thereafter, mow no lower than three inches. Throughout the Fall, apply one inch of water per week if there is no rain.

In Spring, when the forsythias are half-through blooming, apply Cock-A-Doodle-DOO® brand corn gluten as a pre-emergent herbicide for the organic lawn program, or Dimension® for crabgrass control for a longer period of time. (Do not sow additional grass seed at this time if you have applied these herbicides, as it will kill your germinating grass seed.) Apply the Granular Compost again in Spring so that the soil life can work in partnership with your grass.

Through next Summer add one inch of water once every seven to ten days. Mow the grass high during the Summer; at least three inches for cool season grasses. Correct mowing with sharp blades and correct water rates and amounts will reduce or eliminate your need for fungicides and insecticides. Remember: healthy plants can fight their own battles if placed in the right place with the right help.

by John Peter Thompson

*For more information on zoysia and other lawn grasses: https://extension.umd.edu

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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