by Lanette Erby
After years of living in dormitories, apartments and rental units, new homeowners often struggle with the proper way to care for their lawn. My personal preference is to convert the sunniest areas for vegetables, fruits and herbs, while also converting as much turf as possible to native perennial flower gardens to draw good insects and birds that help reduce pests in your food gardens. That being said, it’s also nice having a bit of soft grass on which you can lay down a blanket and read, or put a fire pit in the middle of for those cool autumn nights with good beer and good friends. And of course I want that turf to be as healthy and weed free as possible without spending a lot of money or using chemicals that will harm my dog, the environment, and the food we eat from our little urban farm.
Some lawn issues in which homeowners make investments to fix are weeds, insects, fungus, thatch and drought damage. Fortunately, most of these problems can be halted before they even start. Improper mowing encourages weeds like dandelion, crabgrass and purslane to spring up seemingly overnight. Over-fertilization and over-watering cause insects, fungus, thatch, and weakness to drought conditions.
Chemicals that harm the environment and are unsafe for pets, children and food gardens are utilized as fixes to most of these issues, but these “solutions” only provide short-term benefits that often do more damage to your lawn in the long run. For example, many fertilization companies will come out six or seven times a season to fertilize. Fertilization encourages a fast leafy top-growth without encouraging root growth. This promotes root growth near the soil surface, which causes thatch. Thatch is a primary food source for white grubs. Furthermore, your lawn may be nice and green after all this fertilization, but when drought hits, your roots may not be healthy enough for your turf to survive the stress, which means you’ll have to spend even more loot re-seeding bare spots come fall.
Following are instructions for managing your turf for a healthy lawn all year round without the use of harmful products and without putting a big dent in your wallet.
Managing Turf Pests: White Grubs. Purdue University Turfgrass Program. http://www.agry.purdue.edu/turf/factsheet/2010/062010_grubs.html
Turf 101: Thatch. Purdue University Turfgrass Program. http://www.agry.purdue.edu/turf/tips/2003/thatch514.htm
The Mower’s Mantra: Mow high, mow often, keep blade sharp, leave clippings
Mow grass shoots no shorter than 3″, but preferably 3” to 3.5″. This long growth shades out seeds of common annual weeds, like crabgrass, on the soil surface. Also, every time you mow, it’s like pruning your plants, so cutting some off the top encourages deep root growth. Mowing with a dull blade can leave ragged cuts that stunt your turf’s ability to collect nutrients from the sun. Finally, leaving your clippings does not cause thatch! It actually provides organic material and nitrogen to your soil and feeds your grass. Over-fertilization and over-watering cause thatch. We can’t stress this enough.
Mowing, Dethatching, Aerifying and Rolling Turf. Purdue University Turfgrass Program. http://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/AY/AY-8-W.pdf
The Water Mantra: Infrequently, Deeply, and in the dark
Each lawn is different in each season. Watering should not be done on a set schedule, but rather should vary with the season, soil type, grass type and slope of the lawn. The general guideline for water is 1 inch to 1.5 inches each week, but is only necessary during the dry summer months. All of this water should be applied in one day around 4 a.m. to avoid immediate evaporation, but evenings are also good if you don’t want to buy a timer or fancy irrigation system. The deep watering encourages deep root growth; whereas, a lawn watered every day for 20 minutes encourages roots to grow closer to the surface where the water is. This surface root growth eventually becomes a thick layer of thatch that draws in white grubs and can cost hundreds of dollars to remove and treat. To determine how long to run your sprinkler, place a bucket on your lawn during watering and time how long it takes for the bucket to collect 1” of water. Want to save money on water? It’s technically not necessary to water your lawn at all. Your turf may turn brown in August, but it is only dormant and will return when the rain does as long as you have practiced building strong roots.
Irrigation Practices for Homelawns. Purdue Universtiy Turfgrass Program. http://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/AY/AY-7-W.pdf
The Fertilizer Mantra: Don’t listen to anyone that tells you your lawn needs fertilized six times
Even turfgrass scientists and master gardeners recommend only four applications, and a total of 4 pounds of nitrogen annually for a high maintenance lawn. We Gals recommend two applications of 2 pounds of nitrogen of corn gluten meal. Corn gluten meal (CGM) was patented by Iowa State University in 1991 and is a by-product of the corn wet milling process. Studies show that applying CGM at this rate and timed appropriately, once in spring and once in fall, will act as a pre-emergent herbicide to control unwanted weeds. It is safe for pets, garden vegetables, and the environment. This fertilization does not account for the phosphate and potassium your lawn may need, but adequate amounts of these nutrients are usually already present in the soil. A quick field soil test by the Greenscape Gals can determine the additional nutrients that may need applied. It is important to note that CGM alone does not provide the same quick weed control that chemical pre-emergents will provide, but when combined with proper mowing and watering, you can absolutely have a weed-free lawn within a couple years of adopting these organic approaches. Besides, not only is clover a nitrogen fixer desirable in small amounts on your lawn, but what’s a few weeds here and there while you patiently not poison your turf to beautification?
Fertilizing Established Lawns. Purdue University Turfgrass Program. http://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/AY/AY-22-W.pdf
Corn Gluten Meal Research. Iowa State University Department of Horticulture. http://www.hort.iastate.edu/research/gluten
These are the very important basics of turf maintenance, but if you want additional advice or have questions, call 317-801-5833 or email email@example.com. Lanette not only gets master gardener volunteer hours for offering free education, but we also get the satisfaction of knowing that we helped at least one person to care for their lawn the pet-friendly and environmentally-safe way.