Dear Homeowner, did you know you frustrate lawn care experts and turf specialists? Well, you do. Here’s why. Every spring you pester them with your questions about taking care of your lawn, renovating your lawn, getting rid of weeds and on and on, all with the goal of getting that garden-book green, picture-perfect expanse of turf. When, in fact, the best time to get a lawn makeover is not spring at all, but right now, meaning late summer and into early fall. If your lawn is a shambles, your window for re-establishing a good turf is Aug. 15 through Sept. 30.
Here’s what to do:
First, get a soil test. Many lawns will benefit from the addition of lime to raise pH. A soil test will determine if you need lime and how much. The test results also will come back with a fertilizer recommendation. You undoubtedly will need nitrogen, but you may need phosphorous and potassium (the second two numbers on a fertilizer bag) as well. Your county Cooperative Extension Service can advise you on this and, in some cases, do the soil test for free or for a small fee. (Click here for an interactive map of extension offices by county.) You’ll want to spread the lime per recommendation immediately. Spreading the fertilizer can wait until October or November.
Second, choose a good grass seed. University of Kentucky specialists recommend turf-type tall fescue as the grass best adapted to Kentucky. It’s tempting to pick bluegrass because, after all, we’re the Bluegrass State, but bluegrass actually prefers the climate in the northern tier of states much better than it does ours. (Kentucky the Fescue State just doesn’t ring well, does it?) A good garden center should have several varieties of turf-type tall fescue. Get certified seed to be certain you’re not getting a dose of noxious weeds in the bag. It takes 2-3 pounds of seed to cover 1,000 square feet of lawn.
Now prepare the soil. One method is to spray the existing turf with a total-kill herbicide and then power seed the grass into the turf. Another is to till the entire area and broadcast the seed. This method works best if the lawn is relatively small (or you have access to a really large tiller). Raking up the lawn and broadcasting over existing turf will net you little gain because the emerging grass seedlings won’t compete well with existing grasses and weeds. If the soil is bare, it’s important to spread straw over the area to hold the soil while the seedlings germinate. The straw does not need to be removed after the grass is up; it will naturally decompose into the soil.
When the seedlings emerge, keep them well watered. August and September are typically dry and hot in Kentucky, and new plantings are especially vulnerable to death by drought. Keep the soil evenly moist with some sort of sprinkling system. Water gently and don’t let the water form “streams” that wash away the seeds and seedlings.
For some odd reason, folks establishing a new lawn seem to think the grass needs to get a foot high before they mow. Wrong. Mow the grass as soon as it reaches adequate height. For tall fescue, that would be about 4 inches. Then mow it back to about 3 inches. The rule is to never take off more than about a third of the grass blade at any one mowing. If the grass gets out of control, it’s best to set the mower height higher and mow once, and then again shortly after, rather than cutting off too much at one time.
Many mower jockeys also like to cut the grass as short as possible, reasoning that they will have to mow it fewer times. Wrong again. Cutting grass too short can damage its growing crown. Damaged grass allows entry to weeds, which can grow much faster and need more mowing than turf grasses. So don’t “scalp” the lawn grass. And keep your lawnmower blade sharp. A sharp blade not only gives a smoother, cleaner cut, it saves gas; a mower with a dull blade uses an average of 22 percent more gas, according to University of Kentucky specialist Dr. Gregg Munshaw.
Fall also is the best time to apply nitrogen to new or existing lawns. Lawns fertilized in the fall develop a better root system and are able to tolerate the heat of summer better than those fertilized in the spring. You want to apply about 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn. So if you’re using a bag of 10-10-10, you will use 10 pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet to get 1 pound of nitrogen because a 10-pound bag of 10-10-10 contains one pound each of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. If you use a drop spreader or broadcast spreader, it’s best to apply half of the product walking in one direction and the rest walking perpendicular to the first application. That gives you a more even application.
If all of that sounds like work, it is. The good news is that UK’s turf specialists absolve you of the need to collect grass clippings, dethatch or aerate lawns. All unnecessary, they say.
So now you have your lawn on its way to becoming an emerald isle come spring. Not that there will be nothing left to do then. You’ll still have weeds, bugs and turf diseases to fight. And then there’s mowing. And mowing and mowing. The things we do to keep up with the Joneses.
Lawns versus Trees
We love our lawns, and we love our shade trees, too.
But the two don’t go together that well. When lawns grow among shade trees, the trees will win every time. Trees’ roots suck up moisture and fertility before the grasses get a shot. And most of our turf grasses just aren’t designed to tolerate shade. Turf type tall fescue tolerates shade as well as any grass—certainly better than bluegrass, zoysia grass and Bermuda grass—but no grass will thrive in full shade.
You can limb up trees to some extent to allow more sunlight to penetrate to the grass. But probably the best approach is to plant groundcovers around the trees and don’t try to grow grasses. Pachysandra, English ivy, periwinkle, sweet woodruff and some hosta varieties make excellent groundcover choices around trees.