Thursday, August 20, 2009

Home Lawns Part II: Five keys to a healthy lawn

Maintaining a home lawn can be relatively easy if the home owner consistently follows a few basic rules. I honestly put very little work into my lawn. After a full day at the golf course going home to mow is not that appealing. However, the lawn looks good because I consistently give it what it needs, no more, no less. I don't have to work too hard and I get a thick and full lawn with no weeds. Here are some checkpoints for your own lawn care. If you haven't been following the proceeding suggestions, implementing them will improve your lawn.

1. Always mow with a sharp blade

I cannot over emphasize the importance of a sharp blade when cutting turf on a golf course. Your lawn will also appreciate a clean cut when you give it a trim. Dull blades will tear the end of the grass leaving a frayed tip. This poor cut is an avenue for disease and for water loss. The leaf can also turn light brown, diminishing the aesthetics of your lawn. If you have never sharpened a mower blade, consult the Internet to find many tutorials that will lead you step by step. It is not very difficult and a fresh cutting surface will save you water and effort in your lawn chores.

2. Maintain the proper height for your species of grass

First step for this tip is to find out what type of grass is growing in your yard. The previous 'home lawn' post referenced a website hosted by the University of California: This is a good starting point to identify your species and its recommended growing height. Once you know the height that your lawn prefers, all you need to do is put in the work to keep it near that height. A basic rule is not to cut any more than 1/3 of the leaf. So if you are mowing at 2.5 inches, it is possible to wait to mow until your grass is 3.75 inches. Some grasses will tolerate infrequent mowing quite well. My lawn is a tall fescue blend and I only mow every three weeks at most. My strategy is not to fertilize any more than I need to and avoid fertilizer when the plant does not need it. That brings us to our next tip.

3. Fertilize with proper amounts at the proper time

A pet peeve of mine is the annual 'spring green-up' commercials that entice homeowners to kick start their lawn. You are being advised to hammer your lawn with fertilizer at a time when all of that nitrogen will go to leaf growth. Get ready to mow twice a week, because that is what you just paid for. A better time to spend that money is in the fall when turf is programmed to carb load that energy in the roots. This will build a stronger plant that can survive the harsh conditions of winter and be ready to grow in spring. The stored energy will release as temperatures rise and spring green-up fertilizer is not really necessary. I was taught to put down 2/3 of my nitrogen in the fall when dealing with cool season grasses like perennial rye, bluegrass, and fescue. Bermuda is a different animal and fertilizer should be applied during the warmer growing months of summer.

4. Return those clippings to your yard

If you bag your clippings, you are removing free nutrients that need to be replaced by store-bought fertilizer. Clippings are over 80% water and do not contribute to thatch. By recycling the clippings into the yard you will reduce the labor and cost of maintaining your lawn. To avoid clumps, always try to mow when the grass is dry.

5. Water wisely

These tips are not in order of importance so do not take this one lightly. As a Superintendent in warm Stockton, CA, water is the most important input I apply to the course. As a homeowner, water is also important, especially considering it is a domestic water supply and we are currently in a drought. Every morning when I leave for work at 4:15 am, I see water streaming down my neighbors' sidewalks and down into the gutter. I've turned off a valve before, but I felt bad when their lawn turned brown after a week without water. On the bright side, I bet their water bill was a little lower than the month before.
Lawns do not need to be watered every single day. Every other day should work fine in the middle of summer and every third day when it cools down. Please turn off your water when it is raining. I am amazed at how many home lawns, municipalities, and commercial properties still have their irrigation running during a rain event.
Irrigation timing is also very important. Never water in mid-day heat. This can damage your lawn by transferring the heat of the sun to the root system. Water is a great conductor and you don't want to boil your grass. Additionally, much of the water will be lost to evaporation when you water during the day. The best time to water is just before sunrise when the plant is covered with dew and about to be dried off by the morning sun. This limits leaf wetness to a handful of hours in the morning and decreases your chances for disease.

Does it seem odd that a Golf Course Superintendent is telling you to conserve water. After all, aren't golf courses the biggest wasters of water in the world? Actually, that is a very common misperception. The truth is golf courses are the most efficient irrigators of all. Systems normally do not leak any more than 2-3% which is unheard of compared to agricultural settings and city plumbing. Check out this article from New York Times about Golf Course Superintendents teaching their states how to water wisely.

If you actually made it all the way through this gigantic post, I congratulate you for sticking with it and apologize for assigning homework at the end. As always, thanks for reading.