As a busy, working mom, I haven't paid much attention to my lawn over the years except to notice when it needs cutting. Then it's a chore I don't relish. I usually cut it short, so I won't have to cut it again for a while. I don't have the greenest lawn on my block and there are a few weeds and bare spots, but it will come back, won't it?
Maybe not, as I've recently learned. Like other plants, lawn grasses need, air, water and food on a regular basis to survive. You can't ignore your lawn and expect it to reward you with a healthy appearance. Regular lawn maintenance is a must and should include aeration, watering and fertilizing, not just mowing.
The lawn gets a lot of abuse from children playing, pets romping and even you walking over the same space to and from the car every day. Over time the soil beneath the grass becomes compacted, unable to breath. There are two ways to aerate the soil.
One method, though not the best, is the old-fashioned way of doing it by hand. If it is just a small area of grass, you can use a garden fork to puncture and aerate the ground. However, because this method of forcing the tines into the ground further compacts the soil, it is not recommended.
A more effective method is to rent or buy a core aerator from a garden store or rental center. This device actually removes a plug of soil every few inches, allowing water and air to reach deep into the soil. Aerating in the spring and fall will help new seed get established and allow fertilizers to penetrate the soil.
Grasses need water to grow. It is true that some grasses go dormant in hot weather, but they don't look very nice. If you don't live in an area with water rationing, you may want to water your lawn regularly to keep it looking green and growing during hot spells. Always water in the morning. This gives the grass time to dry, preventing fungus and disease. Water deeply. Watering to the depth of an inch will encourage deep rooting systems, fostering a healthier lawn.
Most homeowners make the mistake of mowing too low. Three inches should be the minimum height. A good rule of thumb to follow is to never cut more than one-third the height of the grass at one time. Often we let the grass get too long because we are out of town or too busy to cut it when it really needs it, then we cut it back to the usual height. This “scalping” can shock the grass, causing it to stunt and turn yellow. For a healthier lawn, set the mower at a higher level for a first cut, then mow again a few days later at a lower level. It may seem like more work, but in the long run repairing or replacing a damaged lawn would be even more costly and time consuming.
Every lawn needs regular feeding to maintain its beauty and health. Fertilizers contain nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), potassium (K) and fillers to help with distribution. During the growing season, use a fertilizer high in nitrogen, the first number in the series. For example, a bag of fertilizer may read 10-5-5. The first number is higher than the second and third, so you know this particular fertilizer is high in nitrogen. In the fall you'll want a fertilizer with low nitrogen and higher phosphorous and potassium like 3-10-10. For a new lawn, you'll want a fertilizer high in phosphorous, such as 7-9-7. To have your lawn looking its best, fertilize it two to four times per year. If you have any questions, consult a lawn specialist.
While a healthy lawn will be able to resist most weeds, an unhealthy lawn invites trouble. In the Midwest the worst kind of trouble is called Creeping Charlie or Creeping Jenny. This insidious weed can destroy a lawn quickly if left unattended. It reproduces faster than rabbits, by seed and by layering, and roots everywhere it touches the ground. The runners slowly slither just above the soil surface spreading like wildfire. It will climb annuals, perennials or anything else in its path, smothering them until they die from lack of light, air and moisture. Pulling the vines by hand, as soon as they are spotted, is the most judicious response. However, if even one leaf is left behind or accidentally dropped on the way to the compost pile, it will live to spread wherever it falls.
Whether choosing to use pesticides or an organic method to stop the invasion of Creeping Charlie, it must be attacked with persistence and tenacity. There are several methods, besides hand pulling, for removing Creeping Charlie from your lawn. The first is to use a metal rake with tines that are very close together, raking the vines out of the grass. Repeated rakings are necessary to ensure positive results. You can also rent a power rake or dethatching machine to remove the vines. Again, it may be necessary to repeat the process before all the vines are removed.
The third method is to use a boron treatment, altering the chemical balance of the soil, which will kill the weed but not the grass. The boron stays in the soil, weakening the plant and eventually starving it to death. However, because the chemical will not break down or leach from the soil for years, it could take you more than five years to actually wipe out the weed. In addition, too much boron in the soil will prevent anything from growing, including grass, while too little will not kill the weed. Therefore, it is best to contact your local agriculture extension office for advice before applying any amount of boron to the lawn. There are several chemical controls on the market today. Each needs repeated applications to completely eradicate the weed before re-seeding the soil. Ask your local garden center for their best recommendation.
Pests can also wreak havoc on a lawn. In many parts of the country, moles have become a real nuisance. They tunnel through the lawn just below the surface, looking for food, especially white grubs. A white grub is actually the larvae stage of the June beetle. In large populations, grubs can be more damaging to your lawn than moles because they feed on grass roots. If you have dead patches of grass in your yard, dig up a square foot and flip the sod over. If you count more than 15 white grubs, you've got a serious pest problem and will likely end up with no lawn at all if left unattended. Your local garden center can recommend the latest products for killing grubs. It may take some time, however, before the moles realize the absence of grubs and move on. If you can't wait, purchase or rent a live trap for relocating the moles to a more desirable location.
With a little extra effort, anyone can have a beautiful healthy lawn.
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