Yawn about Lawns

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When I went to UCONN for my horticulture studies, I included a course on turfgrass science and management in my curriculum because I thought I should know something about lawns.  However, I find grass extremely boring.  Trying to decipher the different varieties by examining each blade was painful. You don’t even want to know what a ligule is!  They all looked the same to me.

As a non-traditional student (a polite way of meaning older than the rest of them), I was completely different from the typical student in this class. My turf classroom was filled with ambitious young guys with clean-cut haircuts and sharp-edged baseball hats.  All had hopes of maintaining the golf courses of their dreams.  A very rewarding career choice indeed.  I knew this was not my tribe but they were fun to be around, treated me with kindness, and were serious about their turfgrass studies.

Today we are seeing more and more lawns being replaced by low-maintenance ground covers.  This is good news in my book.  Partly because I enjoy other plants more than grass.  And because lawns can be highly intensive for care, requiring routine mowings, fertilizer (usually over fertilization not always needed) and time (taken away from more fun summer activities), especially if you are looking to achieve perfection. 

For homeowners who absolutely adore a green lush lawn, the effort is worth it to them, and I get that – somewhat. It adds curb-appeal to the landscape, can increase the value to a home, and is a source of pride for some — but still – it should be done with thought and some good planning. 

Lawns don’t have to be all that time-consuming to look good, or I should say, “good enough.”  Unlike golf courses, which require a high level of care to achieve smooth putting surfaces, lawns don’t have to be flawless if you are willing to practice acceptance.

My husband, Steve, and I are not big into the perfect green lawn look.  Our yard is roughly 6.5 acres so to manage it that intensely is kind of overwhelming.  Steve’s comment is, “If it grows, it mows!”  And years ago, he meant that as he mowed some of my perennials down.  It took some coaching but he eventually learned to not do that again, or to hit my precious trees with his huge five foot wide mower attached to his tractor. 

Right now, as I look out my window, our lawn looks awful.  But as soon as it greens up a bit, and Steve’s first mow is done, it will be decent enough for us.  We ignore the weeds, not bothering with chemicals to kill them.  We turn a blind eye to the crabgrass or dandelions.  In autumn, we don’t bother to rake up our leaves either.  Steve mows them into bits, and I let him know he is doing the right thing.  This practice returns nutrients to the soil.   Our non-desire to make a perfect lawn ends up being helpful to our environment too.  Our home is surrounded by wetlands leading to a river and some streams.  No worries about fertilizer run-off here. 

Other people who want perfection will start right about now, in early spring, to consider how to improve their lawns as warmer temperatures approach.  As they walk around picking up debris from the winter, some homeowners start to ponder the dream of achieving a perfect green lawn.  One non-intensive practice is to follow the recommendation of not removing more than one-third of the grass blades per mow.  And allow the grass clippings to return to the lawn, just like we do with our fall leaves.  “Small” clippings help return some nutrients to your soils.  Every “little bit” helps to reduce the reliance on fertilizers, which can be a problem to our environment when overused or unnecessarily applied. 

Another good non-intensive tip is to not apply fertilizer to your lawns until you do a soil test through your Cooperative Extension program.  If you haven’t tested your soil in the past, give it a try.  In CT, you can go through UCONN’s Soil Lab in Storrs, CT.  You dig a sample, bag it and mail it.  It is that easy, and costs only $8 bucks.  You can have it tested anytime the ground is not frozen.  Just go to this link to learn how to, complete with details: http://www.soiltest.uconn.edu/factsheets/HomeGrounds.pdf . The test results mailed back to you will help you decide the amount of fertilizer needed, or if you need limestone added to correct or adjust your soil’s pH.  

The soil’s pH must be at the proper level to take up nutrients, and when it’s too high or too low, microorganisms that break down organic matter are less active.  Some people think limestone (made by grinding limestone rock into fine powder) is primarily a fertilizer, but its main purpose is to raise the pH if it is too low so that the nutrients you add will work.  When the pH is off, nutrients are not doing much good to your soil because they become “locked up”.  Appropriate pH holds the key to releasing them.  Lime does give some plant nutrients if it has calcium and magnesium, which many sources do.  Overall, it is important to realize different plants need different pH levels to enjoy the best of the nutrients you apply. Most turfgrasses grow well in a soil with a pH of 6.0 and 7.0. 

In addition to soil testing, the UCONN site is an excellent resource on many topics on soil fertility.  There are excellent Fact Sheets on Home Composting, Fertilizing House Plants, Lead in Garden Soils, Compost Tea, and many other related topics.  In fact, during my studies, I worked at the lab for a short time where I met Dawn Pettinelli.  She is the manager on-site and a soil expert.  She is amazingly well-versed in the subject and often writes articles for various publications.  I did very little time there, sifting soil samples, running them through a process for testing, and getting an idea about soil overall.  Ironically, I loved looking at soil samples, seeing the texture of silt, clay and sand, and the colors of different soil samples sent to the lab was interesting to me. 

Soil testing is one of the most important steps you can take if you want to apply the right amount of fertilizer at the right time.  This holds true for gardens too, doing a soil test enables you to enhance the soil appropriately especially if you find your plants are not doing well or constantly suffering, or when establishing a brand new garden bed. 

And if you want to say even more time, be sure to add some organic matter to the ground before you seed a brand new lawn.  This will improve the plants success and give it a boost upfront.  Then once established, only you can decide of you want to go for the best look or accept it as is.  Since I tend to yawn about lawns, I’ll stick with the latter.  Cathy T

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