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Lawn Care Guide
Gardening Know-How

Part I: Grow a Healthy Green
Lawn All Summer Long
By Al Ubell & Label Shulman

Published April 1, 1984 - Family Circle Magazine
Updated July 10, 2005

Image: Lawn Care

Most proud property owners want their lawns to look just as green and lush as their neighbors'. To help you cultivate a healthy green lawn without breaking your back, we consulted lawn-care experts. They let us in on some unusual tricks of the trade and provided us with a fail proof maintenance program that should make your lawn-tending days easier and more rewarding.

Review Part II: Grass Types & Climate Zones.

Every landscaping pro emphasized that a well-cultivated lawn is the end product of several decisions and activities relating to specific soil and climate conditions. These include:

  1. testing your soil to determine its contents and chemistry.
  2. proper preparation of the soil before seeding.
  3. choosing the right grass (or grasses) for your particular soil conditions and climate.
  4. applying fertilizers in the right combination and amounts and applied at the proper times.
  5. appropriate and adequate watering.
  6. regular mowing at prescribed heights.
  7. using insect and weed controls, when necessary.

Testing Your Soil

This is one of the most important steps you must take to achieve a beautiful lawn. You can test the soil yourself using kits, which are sold in most garden-supply stores. Or, you can use the soil-testing services of your County Extension Service or a local college's Agricultural Extension Division. (Consult your telephone directory.) Both organizations usually charge a nominal fee. Local, private soil-testing services may also be helpful.

Having your soil tested and analyzed takes the guesswork out of deciding what kind of fertilizers and minerals you need to add in order to make the soil receptive to grass growing. Since most lawns contain one or two different soil types, you should take two samples from your property (as far apart from each other as you can). Dig down about 6 inches and remove about a pint of dry soil for each sample. Store the soil in a plastic bag or container and deliver it to the soil-testing service.

Preparing Your Soil

Turn over, rake and break up the soil as deeply as possible. Most lawn-care and seed firms recommend raking 3″ or 4″ inches deep if you're just upgrading or patching your lawn. However, if you are sodding and seeding, dig down around 12″ inches. Add the appropriate fertilizers and any other minerals and organic matter, such as manure, compost, sawdust, peat moss or shredded ground bark. Most soil also requires a certain amount of lime and/or soil sulfur to bring the soil to the right alkaline or acid levels. Careful soil preparation encourages good grass growth and increases resistance to insects and lawn disease.

After grading (leveling) and smoothing the lawn bed, add a starter fertilizer that is high in phosphorus. See package for a middle number (24-4-8) indicating phosphorus content from 3% to 5%. Check fertilizer package for proper amount and application directions. After fertilizing, it's best to wait a month before seeding. Water the soil as if you had already seeded; if weeds start to grow, consider eliminating them using environmentally friendly non-herbicidal methods. Ask any local garden supply store about weed control alternatives. Allow the soil to dry thoroughly for three or four days before applying grass seed or sod.

Seed Selection

If you are uncertain what kind of grass you would prefer, take a drive (or a healthy walk) around your neighborhood. When you find a lawn you like, ask the owners what type of grass it is. Then consult our “Lawn-Care Weather Zones” map and “Which Grass Is Best for Your Lawn?” chart (see page 66). They will help you decide on the perfect grass seed for your needs. But before buying any seed, answer the following questions:

  1. How green a lawn do you want?
  2. How durable? Is your lawn just for looks or for play?
  3. Is your lawn area predominantly sunny or shady?
  4. How much time and effort are you willing to invest in lawn care?

After you've decided on the proper type grass for your needs, purchase a quality-grade seed, but buy a bit more than you need (this extra seed will come in handy for future spot-seeding). A few extra dollars spent on quality seed wiil save you hundreds of dollars later on, since you'll have fewer problems.

When shopping for grass seed or sod, remember that no single variety is perfect. Our lawn experts recommend mixing two or three types of seed, depending upon the climate and the soil conditions where you live. You also may notice that your gardening supply center sells pre-blended packages of grass seed. The idea is to have the strengths of one variety compensate for the weaknesses of another, resulting in a grass cover that is good for all seasons. Special Tip: Check the weed content of the grass seed before you buy. The lower the percent of weed content, the better. Under one-half of one percent (.05%) is best.

Applying the Seed

  1. Grade and rake the soil thoroughly.
  2. Remove all surface stones.
  3. Level soil and rake smooth.
  4. Sow the seed. (Hand seeding works well for a small area, but a seed spreader allows a more even distribution, since it can be adjusted to drop the seed at recommended rates.)
  5. Divide the seed into two equal parts. Apply seed in one direction first, then seed with the second batch at right angles to the first, making sure to cover your entire lawn area.
  6. Lightly rake the area to coax some of the seed underground for better contact with the soil.
  7. Rent (or borrow) a lawn roller, and roll over the entire seeded area. This presses the seed further into the soil.
  8. Water the lawn thoroughly and gently so that the water soaks through the surface. Water two or three times every day with a fine mist spray to keep the lawn's surface from drying out. (Caution: Do not drown your lawn with too much water. This will just wash away the seeds!)
  9. When young shoots of grass emerge, reduce watering to once a day for a longer period of time. Keep soil damp to promote hardier, healthier grass.

Watering Do's & Don'ts

Because soil conditions, drainage, climate and frequency of rain vary greatly, there is no absolute rule, but landscaping experts say your best bet is to water thoroughly until the lawn is moist to a depth of 6″ to 8″ inches. (Test with a screwdriver pushed into the soil.) In most cases, watering for two hours will properly soak an area of 1,000 square feet. Watering deeply less frequently is better than frequent shallow watering.

Water lawn again when soil begins to dry out. Use this test to see if it's time to rewater: Step on the grass. If it doesn't spring back, it's probably time to water. Another, more subtle way to determine if the lawn needs watering is when you begin to notice the grass color changing from bright green to a duller blue-green.

Some experimentation will be necessary until you establish the appropriate routine for watering your lawn. During a hot spell, more frequent watering will be necessary. During a rainy period, less watering will be needed. (You might even want to shut off your sprinkler system, if you have one, to conserve water.) Contrary to popular belief, there is no best time of day to water a lawn. The only caution you should observe is not to water during the middle of a bright, sunny, hot day.

Fertilizer Facts

Select fertilizer based on the type of grass you have, the soil conditions and the climate where you live. In general, nitrogen is the most important fertilizer for established lawns. Phosphorus and potassium are less important. The best time to fertilize warm-season grasses (grasses that grow better in warm weather zones, such as the sunbelt states) is late spring. while spring, late summer and early fall are best for cool season grasses. There are basically two types of fertilizers fast-release and slow-release. Use each according to the manufacturer's instructions. Special and sparing use should be made of fast-release fertilizers, since they have a tendency to “burn” grass blades and cause discoloration.

Mowing Tips

In most instances, lawn height should be kept between 2″ and 2 1/2 inches. But keep in mind that you should never cut off more than half the height of the blades of grass. Mowing about once a week during the growing season helps promote grass growth. Keep your lawnmower blades sharp to prevent the grass from being “pulled out” instead of being cut. Don't let the grass grow too high before cutting; this can result in damage to the grass blade stalks and debilitate the lawn.

If you mow frequently, you can allow the grass cuttings to remain on the lawn with no damage to the grass. In fact, it helps to return nutrients to the soil that have been absorbed by growing grass. However, heavy grass clippings can suffocate grass, so they should be removed.

Insect And Disease Control

Problems caused by insects or disease are, fortunately, not all that frequent. An unattractive lawn may be caused by conditions other than insects or disease. Before you assume these more serious problems, though, check the following list for possible causes of grass problems and take steps to correct them:

  1. misuse of fertilizers-usually applying too much.
  2. under or overwatering.
  3. chemical spills (gasoline, oil, etc.).
  4. animals digging or urinating.
  5. chlorine spills from a swimming pool.
  6. too heavy wear-and-tear for your type of grass seed.
  7. poor mowing practices.

If you still think your lawn has bug problems or a disease, consult your local Cooperative Extension Service,, or College Agricultural Extension Division. Your local garden center can also help, since they will be familiar with the problems typical in your area.

How To Handle Watering Restrictions And Drought Conditions

Water shortages are a problem where you live, you can still take some steps to maintain a reasonable-looking lawn. The key word is “adapt.”

  1. Seed or overseed with grasses that require less water, such as fine and tall fescues.
  2. Adjust your lawnmower to a higher setting (3″ to 3 1/2 inches), since longer blades help retain the available moisture.
  3. Fertilize your lawn regularly twice a year to promote deep root growth, following manufacturer's instructions carefully.
  4. Water deeply when you are permitted (soaking soil 8″ to 12″ inches deep). This also promotes deep root growth.
  5. Water lawn during cool parts of the day to minimize evaporation.
  6. Control weeds, since they eat up water, too.

Part II: Grass Types & Climate Zones, A Reference Guide.

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Copyright © Alvin Ubell, Label Shulman & Family Circle Magazine - 1984
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