Lawns: Dream or Nightmare?

The days are longer, the grass is beginning to grow.  Is this a dream or a nightmare for you? Maybe you dread the coming season of endless mowing and lawn care. Maybe you dream of a beautiful expanse of green.  No matter what your perspective, ask yourself these questions, and don’t let your dream become a nightmare.

Do I even want a lawn?

Consider exploring whether you need or want a lawn (setting aside homeowner association requirements). Lawns came into vogue as a way to emulate the wealthy British aristocrats who could afford to maintain unproductive land. Perhaps you’d rather use your land to grow more plants, flowers, or vegetables. Lawns are largely an ecological wasteland, and perhaps you’d like to provide more habitat for birds, insects, and wildlife. 

Don’t feel bound to carry on a tradition that may have little value to you. Consider examining what function a lawn has in your landscape. Perhaps it mainly serves as a passageway and can be reduced in size, as shown above. Perhaps a smaller play area would function just as well as a large expanse. 

After exploring the role of the lawn in your landscape, you will be better prepared to care for whatever amount of lawn you wish to maintain.

What kind of grass do you have? 

For the Northern Piedmont and Blue Ridge region, you’re likely to have a “cool-season” grass.  If your grass stays green through the winter, then you have a cool-season grass.  Cool-season grass mixes may contain Kentucky bluegrass, a variety of fescues, and some perennial and/or annual rye.  

For the Southern Piedmont, you’re likely to have a “warm-season” grass, which tolerates the heat and humidity of that area.  If your lawn goes brown during the winter, you have a warm-season lawn.  Warm-season grass mixes may contain zoysia and Bermuda grass, as well as tall fescue.  

Knowing your grass is key to creating your dream lawn. Taking the wrong steps will waste your time, your money, and may do more harm than good.

Should you fertilize now?

After a cold winter, nothing feels more useful than to pump some fertilizer into the lawn to help it “green up.”  DON’T! The best time to fertilize your lawn is when it’s actively growing.  For warm-season lawns, the best time is in June, July, or August.  For cool-season lawns, the best time is in September, October, or early November.  

Before applying any fertilizers or amendments, get a soil test. Local companies may offer it, or you can get a test kit from your local Cooperative Extension Service office. Here in Virginia, Virginia Tech will analyze your soil for about $10 and make recommendations if any corrective actions are needed. If a soil test reveals that your lawn is low in certain nutrients, then a light spring feeding may be appropriate. Feeding your lawn improperly in the spring may force top growth at the expense of an overall strong, healthy lawn.

Proper technique is important to avoid wasting your money.  Read the label carefully and apply only the recommended amount.  Be sure to sweep any residue from driveways and sidewalks back onto the lawn to prevent it from going down the drain and polluting our watershed.

Even better for the lawn is to add a “top-dressing” in the fall. Spreading about an inch of rotted compost or well-rotted manure will improve your soil structure, allowing better root formation. It will also add a small amount of nutrients to the soil. Dump a pile on your lawn and use a hoe or rake to spread the pile in every direction.

What about those weeds?

Those “weed and feed” bags in the lawn aisle are sure tempting, aren’t they?  Before you succumb to the advertising, ask yourself some questions.

Can I live with a few weeds? A lawn with some weeds still looks good if kept mowed.  A mixed lawn is more resilient to weather stress and provides a benefit for insects. Those native purple violets in your lawn? They are the host plant for certain fritillary butterflies. (For more on violets, see Dandelions? A food source for pollen beetles and bees. White clover? Adds nitrogen into the soil.  But if you’d like to have fewer non-grass species in your lawn, consider some proper techniques first:

Can I improve the overall quality of my grass to crowd out weeds?  Tending to your soil, mowing and watering properly, and fertilizing properly may reduce your need for herbicides.

Can I “spot-treat” the most visible areas instead of treating the entire lawn?  Consider hand-removing weeds in visible areas, using herbicides as a last resort.  Crab grass, which sticks up in a nice lawn like a bad haircut, grows from seed every year. If you can keep it mowed so no seed is produced, it will eventually die out.  Or you can use “pre-emergent” products, both chemical products and organic corn gluten meal, to prevent seeds from sprouting when applied at the proper time. Apply any product only on a windless day, protect any neighboring plants, and follow the instructions carefully.

Am I mowing properly? 

Keep your mower blades sharp and mow high to prevent stress.  A recommended height is around three inches.  Mow regularly, when the grass is dry, so as to cut no more than one-third off the top of your grass.  But how often should you mow? After the spring flush of growth, your grass will slow down when the summer heat sets in. You can save time and money by mowing less often. Every 10 – 14 days will likely be adequate. If you mow every week, you may be “scalping” your lawn, leaving the root zone exposed to the drying summer heat. And be sure to leave the clippings on the lawn as a free source of nitrogen.  

Am I watering properly? 

There’s something satisfying about watching that sprinkler and seeing the water drops on the blades of grass. But frequent watering can be detrimental to the health of your lawn. First, the roots will stay closer to the surface, instead of growing deep for moisture. Second, constant moisture contributes to fungal diseases. Instead, water deeply only if necessary. Lawn grasses are adapted to periods of dry weather. The grass may change color and curl, but the color and vigor will return with the rain. By allowing your lawn to react and adapt to natural weather cycles, you will save yourself time and money and can still have a lovely lawn.

Sharon Burnham

Clover in lawn is beneficial: it adds nitrogen and provides a nectar source for insects.

For a nominal fee, you can have your soil tested using an easy kit.

When your garden is finished, I hope it will be more beautiful than you anticipated, require less care than you expected, and have cost only a little more than you had planned.

Thomas D. Church

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