10 Secrets to a Perfect Lawn . . . Golf-course professionals know how to cut their labor to the minimum with the right practices, tools and materials.
Sometimes, the grass really is greener. And thicker. And oh-so-soft underfoot. That’s because turf-grass specialists at agricultural universities and golf-course managers devote their lives to making it so.
Even with intense pressure to grow the perfect plot of grass, golf-course managers around the country are cutting down on water and chemicals with great results, says Tom Brooks, owner-superintendent of Carson Valley Golf Course in Gardnerville, Nev., who has previously supervised San Francisco’s Presidio Golf Course, recognized for leading the golf industry in environmental practices.
The no-care lawn has not yet been invented (although you can now automate your mowing with robotic lawn mowers). But turf scientists and golf course managers use these 10 secrets to trim labor to the minimum:
1. Mow frequently with sharp blades
If your hopes include a green lawn, the key is frequent cutting, which forces it to grow thick and keep out weeds. Keep mower blades sharp so the grass isn’t beat up and made vulnerable to disease.
2. Don’t go too short
Golf courses mow low for a tightly trimmed look, but grass cut short responds by growing faster. “The lower you mow, the more herbicides and water you need, and then it becomes an intensive management system,” says Pete Landschoot, professor of turf grass science at Penn State University.
So how high to cut? That depends largely on your type of grass, but Euel Coats, retired professor of weed science at Mississippi State University, preaches the “one-third rule”: Never cut more than a third of the grass’ height at a time. If your grass is three inches tall, cut an inch or less. Any deeper and you’re “scalping” the plants, which can take two or three mowing cycles to recover.
Mowing high forces grass roots to grow deep, says Roch Gaussoin, Extension turf grass specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The deeper the roots, the better it will resist disease and the less water it will require. Your lawnmower’s owner’s manual will explain how to change the blade height.
3. Don’t mow a wet lawn
Mowing when the lawn is saturated with water will compact the soil so the roots can’t breathe. When that happens, the grass dies and you’ll see bald spots in your lawn.
4. Mulch clippings into the lawn
Leave the clippings where they fall. Not only do you eliminate all the bagging and dump trips, but the clippings fertilize the soil. If you’re cutting often, the clippings are short and few and work their way back into the soil without becoming brown and messy.
5. Water deeply — and infrequently
“The No. 1 thing I see homeowners do is overwater, which builds up excess thatch (an unsightly thick mat of tangled roots between the grass blades and soil),” says Brooks. Daily watering encourages shallow roots and wastes water. Instead, water deeply, watching closely to see when more is needed.
Here are signs it’s time to water, according to Gaussoin:
The soil resists when you push a screwdriver or steel rod into the ground;
Your grass gets a slightly blue tinge; and
Footprints across the lawn remain compressed.
If you don’t have in-ground irrigation, a sprinkler works fine. Landschoot suggests giving the lawn an inch of water each time you irrigate. Measure by putting an empty tuna can on the grass. When it’s full, move the sprinkler to another spot and start measuring again. Once you know your lawn’s needs, you can put the sprinkler on a timer (they cost $10 to $60).
Poor soil — composed of too much clay or compacted from heavy traffic — won’t absorb moisture easily. If water pools up and runs onto the street or sidewalk before your tuna can’s full, try Plan B: Water just one third of an inch each night for three nights running, then hold off until it needs it again.
6. Avoid nighttime watering
Don’t put the lawn to sleep with wet feet. That means to let the grass dry out before the dew falls, since prolonged moisture invites disease. The best time to water is pre-dawn or early morning. You’ll lose water to evaporation by sprinkling in midday.
7. Don’t overdo it
Over-fertilizing stimulates very fast growth, thatch and the need for more mowing — and you don’t want that. Homeowners use far more fertilizer and pesticides than golf courses do, says Brooks. “It’s overkill.” (Excess fertilizer also is bad for the environment: It washes into streams and lakes, clogging them with algae. Sweep or blow any type of spilled fertilizer into the grass.)
To find out your lawn’s particular needs, test the soil every three or four years by sending a sample to a local lab. A test costs $20 or less and reveals the contents, including salts, organic matter, phosphorus, nitrates and nitrogen, lime and texture. Then take the results to your local garden shop for help deciding which fertilizers and amendments to apply.
Most fertilizer comes in dry grains or pellets. Distribute it evenly using a hand-held fertilizer spreader (roughly $13 to $80) for small areas, or a wheeled spreader ($90 and up).
Natural fertilizers — sometimes called “organic” — work slowly because they need heat and water to break down so grass can absorb them. The USDA doesn’t regulate the term “organic” as it does with food, so ignore label claims and identify products by reading the key ingredients. Ingredient names you’d recognize from a chemistry book — ammonium nitrate, say — are a clue the product is probably synthetic. Organics use stuff in the forms found in nature — dried manure, kelp, blood and bone meal, feather meal or poultry waste, for instance. Both types are applied in spring and again in fall. (You can learn more about natural lawn management from the Maine-based organization SafeLawns.)
Synthetics can cost a bit less. For example, two 40-pound bags of Milorganite, an organic brand, will cover the average 5,000-square-foot lawn for around $18.40 purchased online. You get three times that much coverage from Scotts Lawn Pro fertilizer for about $30.
8. Don’t mix your fertilizers
Regardless of which type of fertilizer you choose, stick with only one. Mixing natural and synthetic gives poor results, says Scott Meyer, editor of Organic Gardening magazine.
9. Grow thick grass — and stay on top of your weeds
The best defense against pests — weeds and diseases — is to grow thick, vigorous turf. If you’ve only got a few weeds, pull them by hand or use a dandelion weeder ($8-$10), a tool with a forked metal end. Pay your kids or someone else’s for every weed they pull.
By observing your lawn closely, you may let a problem resolve itself or stay contained without treatment, just as golf-course professionals do. “If we have a little bit of disease on a green, we let it go unless we get to the point where we could lose some serious putting quality,” says Brooks.
10. Choose the right herbicide
If you decide you need extra help with weeds, there are two types of herbicides to choose from:
“Pre-emergents” prevent weed seeds from germinating and are often applied once a year.
“Post-emergents” are used after the weed is visible to control broadleaf weeds, such as dandelions and chickweed, or grassy pests such as crab grass, quack grass or even wild varieties of rye or bluegrass that aren’t controlled by mowing or hand-pulling.
Most herbicides are synthetic. Natural approaches mostly involve beefing up the soil to prevent infestation, although corn gluten does both fertilize and stop seed germination and is used as a natural pre-emergent. (See University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaigne’s lawn problem solver site for identifying weeds.)
“Weed-and-feed” mixes of fertilizer and synthetic herbicides are popular post-emergents because they seem like an efficient way to get two jobs done at once. But Gaussoin recommends against them because they spread herbicides over the entire lawn instead of just on problem spots.
“Most of these products, when used properly, are not as toxic as some of the press would have you believe. But there’s no reason to overapply them or apply them where there is no pest. That’s just not reasonable from an environmental standpoint,” says Gaussoin.
If you’ve decided on synthetic herbicides, first try the least-toxic product recommended for the problem you’re treating. Look up each product’s MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) online before purchasing and compare its LD50 (lethal dose for 50% of test animals) rating with that of other similar products. According to the EPA, the lower the LD50 rating, the more toxic the pesticide. Use a small tank sprayer, mix up the minimum amount and walk around the lawn, spot spraying only on the trouble areas.
If you’ve followed all these tips and your yard is brown, dying or not thriving, you could have a disease or insect infestation. Treating diseases and insects is a complex task requiring accurate identification before taking action. Cut a sample of the affected grass, including plenty of roots and some healthy plant tissue, too. Put it in a sandwich bag and take the evidence to a local Extension service or garden center for help in identifying the culprit and choosing an approach.