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Is the Grass Always Greener on the Other Side?

Whenever you looked at your neighbor’s yard last summer, perhaps you couldn't help but think, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” Well, don’t despair. I have some tips for growing green lawns, including the proper use of lawn fertilizers, that will make it easy for you to gain some respect for your own grass. Of course, assuming that it is only green grass -- and grass of good pedigree -- that you wish to see carpeting your yard in emerald splendor, weed control is necessarily a part of any collection of tips for growing green lawns. Most homeowners intent on having green lawns will tolerate nary a dandelion weed nor tuft of crabgrass, regardless of its greenery.

Fortunately, applying lawn fertilizers and practicing weed control can be integrated into the same chore – if you play your cards right!

So why do some yards exhibit beautiful green lawns, while in others the greenery always seems to be losing out to encroaching brown spots – rather like a human head of hair succumbing to graying? In a nutshell, all else being the same, the secret of having a green lawn lies in providing sufficient nutrients, practicing effective lawn weed control and following the proper mowing regimen. Of course, the devil is in the details, into which we’ll delve on Page 3. But let me begin by elaborating on that ominous-sounding little clause, “all else being the same.” For it’s important to start out with an even playing field.

First of all, disabuse yourself of any notion you may have that grass is simply grass, and that’s all there is to it. In fact, there’s a lot more to it than that. People grow many different types of grasses in their lawns, and these grasses have different growing requirements. Many factors go into the selection of a type of grass for a particular lawn.

One of the overriding factors is your local climate. The so-called “warm-season” grasses are ideal for the southernmost states in the U.S., whereas “cool-season” grasses predominate in the North and in Canada. In between, for the Eastern U.S., lies the so-called “transition zone,” comprised of zones 6-7. This is a problematic area for growing grass: too hot for some grasses, too cold for others.

Common cool-season grasses include:

  • Bentgrasses
  • Bluegrasses
  • Fescues
  • Ryegrasses

Among the common warm-season grasses are:

  • Bermudagrass
  • Buffalograss
  • Zoysiagrass
  • Centipedegrass
  • Bahiagrass
  • St. Augustinegrass

Note, too, that lawns are not always composed of just one type of grass, but rather of a mixture, to take advantage of the strengths of each type.

The following are examples of other factors that go into your selection of grass type, in addition to local climate (these examples pertain to lawns in the Northern zone and in the transition zone):

  • Shady areas are notorious obstacles to having green lawns. Among cool-season grasses, fine fescues are the most tolerant of shade.
  • Lawn areas with heavy foot traffic require a tough grass. A mix of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye will fill the bill here.
  • Some regions are more prone to drought than others. The new, improved strains of Kentucky bluegrass are relatively drought-tolerant.
But in addition to grass-type selection, there are other factors to consider to ensure that you start with a level playing field as you strive to unseat your neighbor for "green lawn" bragging rights.

Watering Lawns, Removing Lawn Thatch

So you're intent on growing grass that stays green? Well, in addition to selecting the right type of grass for your yard, two more preliminary questions focus on lawn thatch and watering lawns. Let's consider watering lawns first.

What's the yearly rainfall to be expected in your region? In dry climates, installing an irrigation system is practically de rigueur for growing grass successfully. Meanwhile, in the misty Pacific Northwest, it is understandable that many choose to entrust watering lawns to Mother Nature. For most of the rest of us, the decision of whether or not to have an irrigation system for watering lawns will not be so clear-cut. Cost will be a consideration, but keep in mind that, in the long run, an automatic irrigation system may save you money.

One way or the other, your grass must have sufficient water on a consistent schedule in order for you to achieve the goal of a lush green lawn. If your neighbors are watering lawns with an automatic irrigation system -– and you aren’t -- you’re not starting out with an even playing field. For more information, please consult my FAQ on Irrigation Systems.

Lawn Thatch: Nemesis of Growing Grass Well

Finally, check that your grass isn’t saddled with lawn thatch.

  • If your lawn thatch layer is ½” or less, you may proceed to the tips below.
  • However, much of your effort in implementing the tips supplied below will go for naught, unless you first dethatch (i.e., remove lawn thatch from) a yard with a lawn thatch build-up that exceeds approximately ½”. If you fail to dethatch, you’re not starting out with an even playing field. Why?

    • Because the lawn thatch layer will prevent water from getting to the roots of your grass, effectively nullifying efforts at watering lawns faithfully…
    • and because the lawn thatch layer also furnishes cover for unwanted insect pests.

  • If your lawn thatch build-up is right around ½”, you have a minor lawn thatch problem, for which I present easy solutions in my FAQ on Lawn Thatch. This FAQ also introduces readers to the related issue of core aeration, and to the equipment needed to perform the task.
  • But if you’re lawn thatch layer is, say, ¾” or more, you have a major lawn thatch problem, for which you’ll need the aid of a vertical mower. Vertical mowers can be rented from your local rental center.
With the above preliminary considerations out of the way, we may proceed to the tips for growing grass that will be the envy of the neighborhood. These next tips are much easier to implement than the advice on the present page. With the proper groundwork laid (grass-type selection, irrigation and removal of excessive lawn thatch), the rest is a breeze.

A Schedule for Applying Lawn Fertilizers

We finished looking at some of the preliminary concerns of lawn care. It is now time to get to the heart of the matter. As I stated earlier, the secret of having a green lawn lies in providing sufficient nutrients (lawn fertilizers), practicing effective lawn weed control and following the proper mowing regimen. Since it is sometimes possible to apply lawn fertilizers and practice lawn weed control simultaneously, I'll deal with these two tips first, on the present page. On Page 4, we'll take a look at mowing strategies and the reasons behind them.

Lawn Fertilizers and Lawn Weed Control

We know we have to fertilize the tomato plants in our gardens, or the houseplants on our window sills. But it's easy to overlook the necessity of spreading lawn fertilizers over our grass.

Perhaps it is because the individual grass plants toil in anonymity, forming, en masse, an entity we know as "the lawn." We tend to take the grass in our yards for granted, as if it's just supposed to be there -- an outdoor carpet that just gets a trim every once in awhile. But it would be more accurate to think in terms of millions of individual plants craving periodic feedings.

It is best to meet this need for periodic feedings by using lawn fertilizers that are "slow-release" in nature. You'll find such products at your local home improvement store. Because these lawn fertilizers release their nutrients over time, rather than all at once, you're essentially stretching out the feeding. As nutrients are released, the root system of your grass fills in any bare patches. This in itself promotes lawn weed control, depriving weed seeds of a place to germinate. But in addition, there are lawn fertilizers that promote lawn weed control at the same time. Effective lawn weed control should, after all, go hand-in-hand with the application of lawn fertilizers: if the weeds suck up some of the nutrients that you're supplying, those are nutrients being wasted, as they are not going to your grass.

Scotts suggests a four-part schedule for providing periodic feedings of lawn fertilizer. The schedule will depend on where you live and your grass-type; but, as an example, here’s the schedule for a Northern lawn composed of a mixture of bluegrass, ryegrass and fescue:

  • Apply a lawn fertilizer called, “Scotts Turf Builder With Halts Crabgrass Preventer” in May.
  • “Scotts Turf Builder With PLUS 2 Weed Control” can be applied in June. This lawn fertilizer fills the need for additional lawn weed control, as the herbicide component fights everything from ground ivy to purslane to white clover.
  • In July or August, apply “Scotts Super Turf Builder with SummerGuard.” This lawn fertilizer is billed by Scotts as a product that “strengthens and summer-proofs your lawn while combating a spectrum of harsh seasonal threats like insects, heat and drought.”
  • Finally, “Scotts Winterizer Fall Lawn Fertilizer” should be applied in fall. This lawn fertilizer will not only prepare grass for winter, but also give you a head start towards achieving that green lawn you’ll want next spring – bringing us full circle.

Before buying these or any other lawn fertilizers, read the instructions on the bag carefully (or ask someone at the store for details). A particular product may not be suitable for your type of grass. Likewise, when applying lawn fertilizers, follow directions explicitly, concerning how much to apply, how often they should be applied, and under what conditions they should be applied.

Lawn fertilizers are best applied with spreaders. Be advised not to fill the applicator with the spreader parked on the lawn. Doing so invites grass-burn, as you may accidentally discharge too much while loading. Instead, fill the applicator somewhere else, then wheel the spreader onto the lawn.

But there's still one prominent component of growing greener lawns to cover. Next, we'll see how your mowing regimen affects the health of your grass.

What to do With Grass Clippings

Would you be surprised to learn that your incentive for mowing the lawn -- and mowing it properly -- goes beyond impressing the neighbors with that "clean-cut" look? Learning from the mowing tips on this page can promote lawn health and help give you a lawn that looks not merely well-kept, but lush. One of the best investments to that end would be in a mulching mower.

Using mulching mowers can not only cut down on your yard maintenance, but also make your grass greener. Otherwise, you may end up either raking or bagging your grass clippings -- which in turn means disposing of those grass clippings or recycling them. All extra work. Besides, hauling away your grass clippings means depriving your lawn of a natural fertilizer that can make your grass greener.


Mowing Height and Grass Clippings

So how long should you wait before cutting the lawn? And how short should you cut the lawn (which is another way of asking, At exactly what mowing height should you set lawnmowers?)? According to the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, cutting the lawn with a lawnmower set at a proper mowing height can save you from having to bag your grass clippings, even if you don't own a mulching mower. The rule of thumb suggested by the Cornell Extension is, "Mow when your grass is dry and 3 to 3-1/2 inches tall. Never cut it shorter then 2 to 2-1/2 inches or remove more than one third of the leaf surface at any one mowing."

The premise behind this mowing tip is that the valuable nutrients in the grass clippings can do your lawn some good, left right where they lie after cutting -- as long as their bulk is kept at a minimum. By following this rule of thumb and cutting only about an inch off the top of your lawn at any one time, the bulk of the grass clippings is kept low.

Employing this mowing tip will entail more frequent cutting, to be sure. But the result will be a healthier lawn, fed by nutrients that you would otherwise be hauling away. Besides, cutting a lawn too short can stress it out, especially during periods of hot weather. In addition, cutting the lawn stimulates growth and increases thickness. Again, think of the lawn not as an amorphous mass but as a vast garden of individual plants. Those plants can profit from "pinching," as can many houseplants or garden flowers.

Note that with mulching mowers, you don't need to be quite so careful about the height at which you cut the lawn, since the grass clippings are shredded up more finely. This works much better for those of us who don't generally walk around with tape measures on our belts! For more information, please consult my product review of mulching mowers

Mowing Tips on "The Cutting Edge": When and How to Mow

  • "The cutting edge": Be sure to keep lawnmower blades sharp. Sharp lawnmower blades produce clean cuts, and clean cuts promote better grass health. Dull lawnmower blades, by contrast, produce rougher cuts that make the grass more susceptible to disease.
  • When to mow: It puts less stress on the lawn to mow in the evening than to mow when the sun is pounding down in the afternoon.
  • How to mow: Alternate the direction in which you mow each lawnmowing session. Using this mowing tip, you will prevent your grass from "getting into a rut" (literally). If your lawnmower wheels pass over the same area in the same direction each time you mow, they'll form ruts over time.


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