Friday, March 25, 2011

MCG’s turf tips for a great home lawn this year!

A common question for many of our superintendents from golfers is “How can I make my home lawn look more like the golf course?” Here are a few tips that will help you in your quest to achieve that perfect lawn!

  1. Mow it high! Mow your lawn as tall as you can tolerate. I set my mower at home to the highest possible setting, about 3.5 inches. The benefits of doing this will be realized all year. 
    • Tall grass grows deep roots, much like the trees in your yard. Big trees must have an extensive root system to support themselves with vital nutrients and water from the soil. Your grass behaves in the same manner. A deep root system will help your grass withstand the extreme summer heat that is all too common in this area. When things get dry, having deep roots will allow your home lawn to access the moisture 6, 8, or 10 inches below! Roots also tend to die back in the summer, so if you start the spring with 8 inch roots, and they slough off to 3-4 inches in the summer, you will still in better shape than your neighbor who mowed his yard like a fairway this spring!
    • Tall grass helps shade out weeds. Weeds need sunlight to grow, too. When they begin to emerge in a tall canopy, your grass has a better chance of out-competing them.
  2. Get a soil test! If you are going to have the best lawn in the neighborhood, you need to ascertain exactly what the soil needs to grow good grass!
    • Here’s a great resource for finding a lab where you can send a sample:. Page 4 has a list of recommended soil testing labs.
    • It is important NOT to over-fertilize! The last thing you need is an overly lush lawn that is a perfect site for development of turf diseases! A soil test will help you determine the nutrients that are deficient in your soil.
    • Do not just put any random fertilizer on your yard, just because the bag says it will give you the perfect lawn. Knowing what the soil needs will allow you to keep the right balance!
    • Remember that if you apply fertilizer, do not apply to impervious surfaces. If you get some on your sidewalk or driveway, sweep it or blow it back onto the grass to prevent nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake Bay! 
    • Apply fertilizer in the fall, not in the spring or summer, unless you are correcting soil deficiencies. If you do fertilize in the spring for this reason, avoid high nitrogen fertilizer sources and do not apply phosphorous at all unless your soil test shows an unusual deficiency of this element.
  3. Don’t over-water! If you have an irrigation system at your house, only use it after you see your grass wilting. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen irrigation running on a home lawn in the rain. Sure, it’s easy to “set it and forget it,” but it is irresponsible use of water, a waste of money, and it’s bad for the grass! If the soil stays wet, the grass has no reason to grow roots. With shorter roots, you’ll have to water more to keep it alive, so turn that irrigation system off this spring unless it is extremely dry! Furthermore, grass that stays wet will invite more disease and end up costing you more money to re-establish what dies. 
    • If you do water, do so in the early morning or late afternoon. Watering in the middle of the day is wasteful since much of it will evaporate, and night watering encourages extended periods of leaf wetness and promotes disease.
  4. Aeration! Grass roots need oxygen! What better way to get vital oxygen into the soil than to aerate your lawn. If you rent a walk-behind aerator, run over your lawn 2-3 times to get tighter spacing on holes. 
  5. Pick the right seed! For most home lawns, tall fescue is the seed of choice that will better tolerate drought and some shade. Fine fescues (hard and sheep fescues are best) are great for shady areas, but don’t tolerate traffic well. Kentucky bluegrass is a very nice turf, but is more prone to disease and thatch development. Perennial ryegrass is quick to establish, but also prone to summer diseases. Oftentimes the best bet is a blend of about 10% ryegrass and 90% tall fescue, so you get quick establishment of ryegrass to stabilize the soil and help hold moisture for the tall fescue to germinate, and you get the added benefits of tall fescue’s resilience to drought, heat, and disease. Fall is the best time for seeding, usually between mid-August and mid-September.
    • Ultra Water Conservative? Then pick a zoysia or bermudagrass for your lawn. These grasses are dormant from November through early May, so if you can tolerate having a brown yard during the cooler months, these two grasses need virtually no water at all!
  6. Control weeds! Control grassy weeds like crabgrass and goosegrass by applying a pre-emergent in the spring. It’s best to apply before soil temperatures reach 55 degrees. However, if your yard is extremely thin and you need to do some renovations, the pre-emergent herbicide will also keep your grass from germinating. The fall is the best time for a home lawn renovation. Most pre-emergents will also prevent broadleaf weeds from germinating; however some weeds like clover and dandelion come up in the spring, and can be pulled by hand for small infestations, or spot-treated with a hand sprayer. Make sure to follow label instructions precisely! If you are using a granular post-emergent herbicide, it should be applied in a heavy dew or right after a rain for the best effect.
Here are some other resources you will find helpful:

How to Choose the Lawn Care Service that’s best for you… and the Chesapeake Bay

University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center links to hundreds of documents to help manage your lawn and garden responsibly.

Jon Lobenstine
MCG’s Director of Agronomy

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