Monday, March 17, 2014

A year-round plan for the perfect lawn

By Evan Rothman of Popular Mechanics

A year-round plan for the perfect lawn (© Chris Buck)
When asked to define a perfect lawn, Peter J. Landschoot, director of the Center for Turfgrass Science at Penn State University, speaks like a philosophy professor. "There is no perfect lawn," Landschoot says. "It depends on the user's expectations, the lawn's environment and the owner's sense of aesthetics and lifestyle. It's personal."

Nevertheless, there remains a committed breed of homeowners eager to give perfection a try. Take David Cira, a 32-year-old paramedic with the New York City Fire Department. He grew up in a condo in Queens but spent countless happy weekends at his grandfather's home nearby, where the lawn was always just so. "Nothing thrilled me more than mowing the lawn and helping in the garden," Cira says. "I was good at it from an early age, and it was a passion I never got away from."

Today, Cira maintains his parents' pristine lawn in Mineola, N.Y. He has taught summer adult-education classes on turf care, and he has consulted for a landscape designer. To his friends and neighbors, he's an oracle of lawn wisdom. "With a beautiful lawn, you get more out than you could ever put in," he says.

On the other hand, perhaps you've loved your grass but it hasn't loved you back. We understand. We've been there. Lawn enthusiasts such as Cira and Landschoot know that it's a year-round relationship, not just a summer fling. That's why we worked with them to develop a four-season guide to the perfect lawn.


Spring (© Mint Images/Tim Pannell/Getty Images)1. Test the soil
For a healthy lawn, you must work your way up from the bottom. Start each spring with a soil test. Grass grows best in soil with a neutral pH — about 6.5 on the pH scale — and a region-appropriate amount of phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium salts, aka potash. "If your soil isn't the greatest from the get-go, you're going to have problems all year," Cira says. You're also going to waste money on fertilizer and other soil amendments that won't work properly because the soil is too acidic or too alkaline. "I know a lot of people who put down lime annually because they feel they should," Landschoot says. "If your soil has a good pH and adequate phosphorus and potassium, all you need to do is put down nitrogen fertilizer every once in a while, which is easy to do and relatively inexpensive." Home soil tests cost around $10, but some nurseries do the test for free.

2. Wake up your lawn
There is no better way to jump-start your lawn than with a proper mowing and edging. That's a given. In the age-old debate about whether it's better to mow before trimming or trim before mowing, Cira puts himself firmly in the latter camp: "This way, you mow your trimmings. It looks neater."

Become a lawn journalist

Become a lawn journalist (© Image Source/Getty Images)
One of Cira's most effective tools to help him keep his lawn looking pristine is a journal. In the spring, he makes notations about weather and rainfall and takes digital photos. He also chronicles the products he uses and what battles he fought and won — or lost.
You can forget a lot just a month later, and you're certainly likely to forget from one year to the next. For example, if you had a lawn problem and bought a product that didn't work, but two years later the same thing happens, you don't want to waste money on that product again. A journal may seem obsessive, but lawns respond best to obsessive behavior.

Summer (© Kris Hanke/Getty Images)


1. Water wisely
As temperatures increase, so does lawn stress. Under normal conditions, a lawn needs about an inch of water a week. But when conditions are hot and dry — or worse, hot and windy — you need to add water to replace what has evaporated. Depending on rainfall, you may need to go from watering every five or six days to every four or five days. Buy yourself a water gauge. It's especially important for homeowners served by municipal water systems, not wells. "A lot of towns have lower water pressure in the summer because of pools and carwashes," Cira says. "Just 5 psi less can equal half-inch less water per session, so increase its time to compensate."
Water has to have a chance to soak in so it reaches the roots. Each watering session should provide 1 inch of water. Avoid brief watering sessions, which contribute to shallow rooting. For the gearhead there are all manner of toys to eliminate guesswork, such as temperature-sensing weather stations that connect wirelessly to your computer. Yet Cira is partial to simple devices, such as a cup-style rain collector. "The techie stuff can be helpful, but I still like the old-school stuff the best," he says.


1. Snatch the thatch
Thatch, a mat of yellowish dead grass that can block air and moisture, must be removed. If you slacked on the dethatching in spring, now is the time, but don't go at it too aggressively. If you set the tines too deep on a power rake, you can destroy the lawn. "You're better off making three or four shallow passes, in which you increase the depth of the tines, than going too deep in one pass," Cira says. Likewise, use small flags to mark sprinkler heads to avoid collateral damage.
Don't rent a dirty dethatcher. It's always a bad sign when rental equipment is beat up and dirty, but more so if it's lawn gear. Dirt and debris from a previous customer can spread disease and weed seed from the rental machine to your lawn. Choose your rental center carefully. Look for clean, well-maintained equipment.
2. Go to seed
True lawn lovers know that early fall is the season to reboot. If you need to reseed, Cira advises using proprietary turf-grass seed, available at nurseries, online and from landscape-supply houses. Turf-grass breeders constantly improve their seed, and many produce specific regional types. Although this seed is more expensive than what's sold at home centers, it's also more vigorous. Cira quotes the adage that a cheap tool is an expensive tool. "You might pay a few dollars more for a proprietary seed, but the results are tremendous, and you don't have to keep constantly reseeding," he says.

Pick up sticks (© Dirk Anschutz/Getty Images)

Pick up sticks

Autumn would be easier if leaves were all that fell, but it's also the season of seed pods, branches, nutshells, husks and rotten, unpicked fruit that has fallen out of the trees. Careful tree pruning can reduce the problem but not eliminate it. You're going to need something more powerful than your handheld leaf blower to deal with this bulky, prickly mess. Backpack and walk-behind leaf blowers are far better than handheld blowers for moving difficult debris off the lawn or at least into piles that can be gathered. If you can afford it, consider a pro-quality lawn vacuum, which typically costs $900 to $1,500.


1. Hit the books
You finally have a little breather. Take some final notes and start poring over your journal. It's as important to study what went wrong as what went right. Visit sources online. "Look for information based on research, and try to stay with local sources," Landschoot says. "Grasses are managed differently in different parts of the country. I'm obviously a biased source, but university websites are a good place to start."

Universities with turf-care and horticulture programs and cooperative extension services often post weed-identification pictures online. If you know your enemy, what prompts its growth and to what it's vulnerable, the battle is halfway won.

2. Prepare for spring
Now is the time to clean and repair equipment. Remove grass clippings and dirt that hold moisture, which can cause rust. Cira even disinfects under the mower deck using a dilute 10:1 water-bleach solution, followed by a rinse.

Next, remove the spark plug and air filter on four-cycle and two-stroke machines. Drain and replace the engine oil on four-cycle equipment and sharpen or replace the mower blade. Clean the string-trimmer head and wind fresh line on it. Finally, install a new, properly gapped spark plug in your mower, trimmer and blower.

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