As the winter snows finally melt away, many homeowners start daydreaming about sinking their bare toes into a lush, green lawn.
Of course, achieving a backyard of beautiful grass can take some work.
If you've got your heart set on a sea of green but don't know diddly about lawn care, here are some tips to make your verdant visions a reality.
TYPES OF GRASSES
Before you can cultivate the lawn of your dreams, you need to know what kind of grass you want to grow.
There are basically two types of grasses -- warm season grass and cool season grass.
Cool season grasses can survive in our neck of the woods because they will withstand both hot, humid summers and cold, snowy winters.
During spring and fall, in temperatures averaging 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, cool season grasses grow most rapidly.
Many cool season grasses go completely dormant during hot, dry weather unless watered properly. But don't worry, even if your lawn looks brown and lifeless during the deepest summer drought, it will probably burst back to life during the cool, wet fall.
The most common types of cool season grasses are: bent grass, Kentucky bluegrass, fescues and ryegrass.
Bent grass has a fine texture, forms a neat, tightly knit turf and is often used on golf courses.
Although bent grass scores top marks for its lush, manicured appearance, it requires lots of maintenance. Without frequent watering, fertilizing and aerating it will suffer.
Bent grass also requires frequent mowing; if it's allowed to grow taller than one inch, it will bend sideways (hence its name). Also, even with optimum care, bent grass is susceptible to a wide variety of diseases.
If you think you have the time, money and patience to plant a lawn of bent grass, here are some tips:
UPlant one-half to one pound of seeds for every 1,000 square feet of lawn. Seeds will germinate in six to 14 days. Plant seeds in full sun or part shade.
UMow bent grass one-fourth to one inch high with a sharp mower.
UFertilize annually at a rate of four to six pounds per 1,000 square feet of ground.
UGive bent grass at least one inch of water per week.
Kentucky bluegrass is blue-green in color, has a medium to fine texture and canoe-shaped blades. It has a shallow root system.
More than 200 varieties of Kentucky bluegrass exist, and this type of grass endures as one of the most popular choices for lawns.
Since Kentucky bluegrass dislikes drought and shade and will tolerate only moderate wear, it works best when planted with other types of grasses, such as fescues and ryegrasses.
On the plus side, Kentucky bluegrass has a high tolerance to cold and resists many diseases.
Here are tips for growing Kentucky bluegrass:
UPlant by sod or seed in full sun. Sow one to two pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet of lawn.
UMow Kentucky bluegrass one-and-three-quarters to two-and-a-half inches high.
UTo keep Kentucky bluegrass from going dormant during hot, dry weather, water it frequently.
UFertilize using four to six pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per year.
There are three main types of fine fescue grasses: chewings fescue, creeping red fescue and hard fescue.
As their name suggests, fine fescue grasses have very fine, bristly blades that are medium green or light green. They have a deep root system and range from moderate to hardy in terms of wear and tear.
Fine fescues are usually grown with Kentucky bluegrass.
Chewings fescue is a non-creeping type of fine fescue grass that has good shade and cold tolerance as well as good drought tolerance. On the downside, it is susceptible to fungal diseases during hot, wet weather, and it may go dormant during hot, dry summers. Chewings fescue may also develop thatch easily, which can create high maintenance. (Thatch is a thick layer of dead and living grass stems that collects at the soil line. Thatch is troublesome because it stops water, air and nutrients from getting to the plant's roots.)
Here are tips for grow chewings fescue grass:
UPlant four to five pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet of lawn. Seeds germinate in one to two weeks. Plant in full sun or shade.
U one-and-half to two-and-a-half inches high.
UFertilize with two to three pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn per year.
UWater deeply and infrequently. This type of grass doesn't like excess moisture.
Red fescue, or creeping red fescue, has fine-textured, narrow, deep-green blades and a deep root system. This grass will tolerate only moderate wear and recovers slowly from heavy traffic. Red fescue mixes well with Kentucky bluegrass.
Red fescue will tolerate drought and heat, as well as shade and cold better than other fescues, but will not tolerate wet, clay-like soil or an excess in nitrogen fertilizer.
Like chewings fescue, red fescue is susceptible to fungal diseases.
To grow red fescue:
UPlant three to four pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet of lawn. Seeds germinate in one to two weeks. Plant if full sun or shade.
UMow one-and-one-half to two-and-one-half inches high.
UFertilize using two pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Do not over-feed.
UWater deeply and infrequently.
Tall fescue has a fine blade, is slow growing and is highly tolerant of both drought and shade. It does not have as deep a root system as other fescues and will grow in infertile soil. It mixes well with Kentucky bluegrasses and rye grasses.
To grow hard fescue grass:
UPlant three to four pounds of seed for every 1,000 square feet of lawn. Seeds germinate in one to two weeks. Plant in full sun or light shade.
UMow one-and-one-half to two-and-a-half inches high.
UFertilize annually using one to three pounds of nitrogen for every 1,000 square feet of lawn.
UWater infrequently and deeply.
When choosing ryegrass for your lawn, make sure to purchase the perennial variety. Perennial ryegrass has glossy, fine-textured, deep-green blades and a shallow root system. It works well in high-traffic areas, is disease resistant and mixes well with Kentucky bluegrass and fescue grasses.
To plant perennial ryegrass:
UPlant by seed or sod. Plant four to five pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet of lawn. Seeds germinate in five to 10 days. Plant in full sun or shade.
UMow one-and-a-half to two inches high.
UFertilize annually with three to four pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn.
Once you've selected the type of grass that will grace your very own green acres, you'll need to know how to plant it.
Whether you're sowing a brand-new lawn around a newly constructed home, or removing the top layer of an existing lawn and starting over from scratch, the ground should be free of weeds and debris and should be properly graded.
Grading is important for adequate runoff and drainage. A properly graded yard should slope gradually away from a home's foundation at about one quarter of an inch for every foot.
If you have depressions in your yard that need some fill dirt, make sure the topsoil you acquire isn't full of rocks or weed seeds. If you're unsure about the richness of the topsoil, add some compost.
Speaking of compost, learning more about your yard's type of soil can help you grow a better lawn.
There are basically three types of soil: Sandy, clay and loam. Grass grows best in loam soil.
Besides the type of soil, the chemistry of your soil will also affect how your grass grows.
To find out your soil's chemistry, you can buy a do-it-yourself soil testing kit that measures the soil's acidity and alkalinity, or you can hire someone from a soil-testing lab to do the job for you. (Most local cooperative extension offices provide this service.)
Soil tests scores are based on PH balance. Once you've determined a soil's PH balance, you can obtain a chart from a lawn and garden center that will tell you how much lime or sulfur to add to the soil to create the correct PH balance.
STARTING FROM SOD OR SEED
You can start a lawn from sod or seed, depending on what type of grass you choose. The best time to plant cool-season grass from sod is during early fall or early spring.
Although starting a lawn from sod offers instant gratification, for optimum results, you should plant sod immediately after it's been cut and you must care for the lawn diligently until the grass becomes established.
Planting from sod is also much more expensive than starting a lawn from seed, especially if your yard is large.
To start a lawn from seed, you will need a thin layer of mulch to cover the top layer of soil. This topdressing protects grass seeds from being eaten by hungry birds and being blow away by the wind.
Topdressing should be applied about one quarter of an inch deep. Peat moss, straw, shredded bark or aged sawdust all work well.
To sow grass seeds, you will need a seed spreader. It can be either a handheld spreader or a drop spreader.
To ensure even coverage when planting, spread the first half of the grass seed by walking in one direction and then crisscross back over the area and spread the second half of the seed.
After grass seed has been applied, roll the area with a water-filled lawn roller to press the seeds into the topdressing.
The final step is to water the newly planted grass seed. Apply the water gently to avoid washing seeds away and creating puddles and make sure to apply enough water to moisten the soil at least six to eight inches deep.
After the first watering, continue to water the seeds until they've germinated. Then keep the top inch of the seedbed consistently moist.
When planting a new lawn, it's often beneficial to add a starter fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Starter fertilizers help grass get established.
WATERING AND FERTILIZING
Proper watering is the most crucial part of lawn care. During summer, most lawns need about one to two inches of water per week to thrive.
Although this amount can vary depending on soil type, weather conditions and type of grass, there are a few general rules of thumb that apply:
UWhen watering the grass, make sure water penetrates about six to eight inches in depth. Watering less deeply will cause the lawn to dry out quickly and cause shallow root growth. To find out how deeply water is penetrating your lawn, pierce the ground with a screwdriver. The screwdriver will move easily through the wet soil and stop where the soil becomes dry.
UTo avoid drowning your lawn, allow grass to dry out partially between waterings.
UIf you use a sprinkler, make sure that water isn't running off faster than the lawn can absorb it.
UWater the lawn in the early morning. This gives the lawn a chance to dry before evening when cool, moist conditions can promote pests and disease.
Although fertilizing is not as crucial to lawn survival as watering, fertilizing keeps a lawn growing vigorously and keeps it looking lush and green.
How you fertilize your lawn and how often you fertilize will depend on your lifestyle and the way you want your lawn to look.
As a general rule of thumb, lawns should be fertilized one time every six to eight weeks during their active growth period. Thus cool season grasses should be fertilized during fall and spring.
It is particularly important to feed cool season grasses during the fall because this provides them with the reserve they need to get through the winter. It also provides a boost of growth come springtime.
Cool season grasses should not be fertilized during hot summer weather. Growth naturally slows down during this time and applying fertilizer can harm the lawn.
Nitrogen is the most important element in lawn fertilizer, and without nitrogen, grass will grow slowly and look sparse, pale and yellow.
Of course, applying too much nitrogen can also present problems. Nitrogen overloads can burn lawns or cause diseases.
Most lawn fertilizers contain two forms of nitrogen, quick release and slow release.
Lawns respond promptly to quick release forms of nitrogen, which are inexpensive and often water-soluble.
However, quick-release forms of nitrogen produce short-lived results and are more likely to burn the lawn, leach through the soil and cause pollution to ground water.
Although slow release forms of nitrogen are more expensive, are not water-soluble and produce slower results, slow release forms of nitrogen are less likely to burn the lawn and leach through the soil. They also provide long-lasting results.
Keep in mind that the type of soil you have will also affect how your lawn responds to fertilizer. For example, if your soil is very sandy, fertilizers will leach through it quickly and you will probably need to fertilize more often and apply less with each application.
Here are a few additional tips:
ULawn fertilizer can be applied with either a drop spreader or handheld spreader. Take care to apply fertilizer evenly. Move at your normal walking speed and overlap your path to avoid missing spots.
UDo not apply fertilizer to a dry lawn. Always water the lawn before and after feeding.
UDon't fertilizer during hot weather.
UIf you spill fertilizer on your lawn, sweep up as much as possible and then flood the area with water.
UCalibrate fertilizers properly to ensure you're not applying too much fertilizer.
WHEN TO AERATE
Besides watering and fertilizing, lawns also require occasional aeration, especially lawns with excessive thatch.
Thatch is a tightly woven layer of living and dead grass particles that collects at the soil line and prevents air, water and nutrients from getting to the roots of the plant.
Some grasses are more likely to develop thatch than others, but thatch is often caused by frequent, shallow watering, too much fertilizer, infrequent mowing, too many pesticides, improper soil PH and heavy clay soil.
If your lawn has thatch that is more than one-half inch thick, it's time to aerate it.
Aerating is the process of punching small holes all over the lawn. It breaks down the layer of thatch, which allows air, water and nutrients to penetrate the soil.
You can aerate your lawn with a gas-powered machine called a core aerator, or you can use various hand-operated aerating gadgets. Either way, aerate when soil is slightly moist and strive for three-to-four inch spacing between holes.
Signs that your lawn needs aerating include: worn areas, water puddles and/or water runoff.
It's a chore many of us grumble about, but with every lush, green lawn comes the inevitable chore of cutting the grass.
How often a lawn needs mowed will depend upon on the time of year, how often the lawn is fertilized and how often it is watered.
The biggest no-no, of course, is letting grass grow too tall. Not only is this unsightly, it can also be harmful. That's because cutting tall grass can shock the roots of the plant and cause the lower parts of the blade that were once shaded from the sun to suffer sunburn. And everybody knows that mowing an overgrown lawn creates a messy sea of grass clumps that litter the lawn and stick to the bottoms of shoes.
To make the most of your mowing, follow these tips:
UKeep mower blades sharp. Dull blades cut with a ragged edge and can give the grass a brownish look. How often you should sharpen the blades will depend on how large your yard is and how often you mow.
UAlternate the direction you mow. This will prevent compacted soil. Try mowing at a 45- or 90-degree angle over your last pattern.
UDon't cut wet grass. Not only is it messy, it also promotes disease.
UKeep the mower deck clean. Debris caked within the mower deck decreases the efficiency of the mower. Always clean the deck after you cut the grass.
XSource: "Lawn Care for Dummies" by Lance Walheim.