Sunday, July 15, 2007

Dig it Man! (The lawn that is)

"Grazin' in the grass is a gas, baby, can you dig it?" Those of you over 40 might recognize that line from the summer of '69. I remember mowing the grass with a manual reel-type push mower back then. I also remember pulling it along behind me and stopping at neighbors houses to ask if they needed their yard mowed. I saved the money I made from mowing to buy plastic model cars; my favorite was the 1956 Chevy.

You don't see kids pushing those kinds of mowers today. It really is a gas today, gas powered mowers that is. I don't think I could mow my grass with a manual reel-type mower, there's just too much of it. I have enough lawn for grazing sheep or goats; could I dig it? You bet. No more mowing!

My grass has responded to the recent rains with a growth spurt, letting me know it's time to mow. And I delegate the task to my teenage son AJ, who's learned over the summer that mowing is a chore you never do voluntarily. (I wonder if a manual reel-type mower would help him unlearn his errant thoughts regarding mowing?)

Grasses, the ones we keep as lawns, don't get much respect; they're walked all over. But they serve as the best groundcover you could ever have. With only a little maintenance, our grass lawns also provide us with: a fabulous outdoor carpet, a place to put our lawn chairs, areas to grow things in, places to set things, free mulch and lawn fertilizer (grass clippings make excellent mulch and add nitrogen to the soil as cut blades of grass decompose).

Part of maintaining healthy turf grass is knowing the type of grass and when to fertilize. Here in the northeast, cool season grasses are the most dominant and the most hardy for our cold winters. The following is a partial list of some cool-season grasses.

Kentucky bluegrass is dark green, with a fine texture; it likes well-drained fertile soils, has good drought tolerance but doesn't do well in shade. Kentucky bluegrass has vigorous rhizomes making it a good choice for compacted soils. Fine fescue is medium green with a fine texture, grows good in acidic soil, is draught tolerant, and does well in dry shade.

Perennial ryegrass is perhaps the most common type of grass in Pennsylvania lawns. This is a fine textured medium green grass that grows well in moist, moderately fertile soils. Perennial ryegrass performs best on well-drained sites and is tolerant of compacted soils. One drawback to perennial ryegrass is its inability to withstand draught and high heat. My lawn is mostly perennial rye and before the cool front moved through last week it was suffering from the high temperatures and lack of moisture.

Some lawn care specialists recommend tall fescue for its ability to withstand heat. It tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, and is drought tolerant. Tall fescue is best sown in mid-August because it likes warmer temperatures when getting established.

As summer winds down, begin mowing your lawn a little higher. If you normally mow at three inches, raise the deck so that grass is mowed at four inches. Adding height to grass blades helps them transition into the dormant winter season. Always keep lawn mower blades sharp throughout the summer. Mowing with dull blades tears grass tips causing moisture loss, this is especially harmful on grasses as they begin their dormancy period.

Use a good all-purpose lawn fertilizer such as 10-6-4 (these numbers indicate a ratio by weight of 10 percent nitrogen, 6 percent phosphorous, and 4 percent potassium) at a rate of 15 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Two applications are recommended for lawns that need fertilizing. You should have applied the first application in spring, and the second application can be applied in late summer (now or the beginning of next month).

If there are bare patches in your lawn, overseeding can be done now. Be sure seed contacts the soil and has space to germinate and develop. Sod can be put down almost any time of year, but be aware if it's put down during the hot, dry months of summer, it will require lots of watering and will take longer to get established. Before you can re-seed or put down new sod, your lawn may require aeration if compaction is a problem. Do this in late summer or early fall, aerating in spring creates prime conditions in soil for weeds to germinate.

Thatch might be a problem in some lawns. Thatch is the "tightly intermingled layer of partially decomposed grass stems and roots which develops beneath the actively growing green vegetation and above the soil surface." An over abundance of thatch restricts the movement of air, water, and plant nutrients into the soil. Thatch can be removed using dethatching equipment with vertically rotating blades or aeration equipment. Penn State's "Lawn Management Through the Seasons" brochure recommends dethatching when: "thatch is greater than or equal to one inch in depth and only during periods of cool weather and adequate moisture."

The end of summer is an ideal time for lawn maintenance on cool-season grasses. It can also be a time to reflect on the many joys our lawns bring us during the warm months. Think back to the time when your child put their bare foot on grass for the very first time. Or remember the times this summer when you walked barefoot across the lush green carpet on the way to the garden.

My wife Maureen asked me how The Friends of Distinction came up with the name "Grazing in the Grass" for their song. I'm not sure, but I'd like to think they might have been watching goats or sheep lazily grazing in a pasture full of grass. Can you dig it?

Gardening Tips

· Most lawns were probably well watered by the recent rains. If yours wasn't, and you have a lawn of manageable size, set a cup on the lawn close to the sprinkler and see how long it takes to fill the cup. However long it takes is how long to keep the sprinklers going. Do this at least once a week during draught conditions (or conserve water and let your cool season grass go dormant, it'll green up again once normal rainfall returns).

· While relaxing on the lawn, take some time to think about your fall bulb plantings. Decide what you're going to plant and where you want it. And remember, mass plantings of 25 or 30 spring bulbs can astound and astonish.

· Proper soil preparation is critical to the successful establishment of a new lawn, so take a soil test as a first step. Soil test kits are available at the cooperative extension office.

· Did you see a heavy infestation of Japanese beetles this year? If so, you might consider an application of Milky Spore. Milky Spore is a naturally occurring microscopic bacteria (Bacillus popilliae) that kills Japanese beetle grubs before they can grow into ravenous adults.