Archive for Thursday, February 22, 2001

Get primed for whipping your lawn back in shape

February 22, 2001


— Last summer our power over the lawn was usurped. If the heat and lack of rain weren't our undoing, the armyworms staged overnight coups, the grubworms worked the same kind of destruction but more slowly under the soil, and brown patch spread like pestilence.

That means a whole lot of lawn needs to be whipped back into shape.

Fall is the best time to reseed fescue lawns sometime in early October. Sooner is better than later, after temperatures cool off slightly.

Here are some questions to consider as you take control of the lawn again however long that can last.

Is it dead?

First, make sure you need to reseed. Check the crown, where the roots and blades come together and look for signs of life: green blades, white roots, hard crown (not papery and dry).

Next, determine whether you need to renovate the whole lawn or just patch up small spots. If 75 percent or more of the yard has grass, overseed the bad parts. If you're looking at half a lawn or less, till the whole thing up and start over.

You may need some equipment to do the job, especially if you're redoing the whole lawn. Rent it if you don't own it or can't borrow it.

What seed is best?

Above all things, invest in good grass seed. The price you pay for caring for the lawn will dwarf whatever you pay for the seed, especially if you use less-than-optimal blends that produce weeds and have little resistance to brown patch.

A blend of turf-type fescue is best. If it is blue-tag certified, the ingredients are guaranteed to be what the label says.

A blend is only as good as its worst ingredient, says Extension agent Tim McDonnell. Expect whatever's in there to spread.

Reading the label, look for zero noxious weed seed and an extremely low amount of "other crop seed," which can be any grassy weed like orchardgrass or bentgrass. If you bought a 50-pound bag of seed with .5 percent "other crop," that would amount to 62,500 seeds, or eight seeds per square foot when applied over 8,000 square feet. The resulting turf would be shabby-looking, Gregg Snyder of Gard'n-Wise says.

Kansas State University tests fescue for spring green-up, color, texture and brown patch resistance. The best overall performers for 1999 were Masterpiece, Millennium and PST-5E5. The best for brown patch resistance (nothing is immune to brown patch; you can't run, you can't hide) were Apache II, PST-5E5, Red Coat, Tar Heel and Titan 2.

Other high achievers for brown patch avoidance: MB 210, Crossfire II, Wolfpack, BAR FA 6D, CU9502T, CU9501T, ATF-022, ATF-253, ATF-257, Pick RT-95, PST-5TO, Bandana, R5AU, Rebel 2000, Shenandoah II, Safari, Overtime mix, BAR FA6 US6F, BAR Fa6D USA, EA 41, Genesis, Rebel Sentry, Tulsa, ISI-TF9, MB 29, Chapel Hill, Bulldawg, Coronado Gold, ISI-TF10, JSC-1, JTTFC-96 and Arid.

Snyder says that his company puts only "the latest and the greatest" types in its blend. The only variance comes when demand outstrips the amount of seed available, and then some substitutions are made, as indicated on the label. In this year's Premium Fescue Blend are Wolfpack, Apache II, Coronado, Olympic Gold (PST-5E5) and Millennium. All have what McDonnell considers acceptable or above-average levels of brown patch resistance.

Do I have to get dirty?

How you prepare the soil to accept the seed depends on the extent to which you're renovating. But prepare you must; the soil must be disturbed so the seed falls into it.

First, mow existing grass to about 1 1/2 inches high. Make sure the soil is moist but not saturated. Apply a lawn starter or garden-type fertilizer (the number in the middle of the analysis, phosphorous, should be the highest).

Then follow one of these steps:

If you're seeding only small areas, spread seed by hand as if you were seasoning a steak, using a hard-tined rake or hoe to scratch up the soil and settle the seed. No need to remove dead Bermuda or crabgrass that might be there.

A slit seeder or verticutter with a seed box is efficient: It will slice into the soil and deliver the seed at the same time, and it only takes one pass. If a verticutter does not have a seed box, use a spreader to broadcast the seed.

You may want to hand-seed small areas you think you might have missed or the tracks that the verticutter makes if you don't overlap your rows slightly. Make two passes with the verticutter if the ground is not level.

To lessen compaction in the lawn at the same time you're reseeding and especially if you have clay soil, use a core aerator (go over the turf at least two times) or a power rake (set the machine to cut grooves from 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch deep, and power-rake in two directions at right angles to each other. If the machine doesn't have a catcher, you'll have to rake up the debris). Use a spreader to add the seed and then gently rake it in.

If you're renting any of these machines, be aware that they do not fit in a car trunk. And make sure there are two people to unload them at home. They do require some strength to operate.

If you have an automatic sprinkler system, mark sprinkler heads so that the machines don't eat them.

How much seed do I use?

Err on the side of less seed rather than too much and apply the seed uniformly. Spread half of the seed in one direction and then half at right angles to the first for better and more even coverage.

The application rate on bare ground in full sun or part shade is from 6 to 8 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet. If there is less than four hours of sun a day or less than 50 percent open sunlight in the planting area or if you are overseeding patches, seed at half that rate.

When do I fertilize?

Fertilize just before or at seeding time with a starter fertilizer. Repeat with 1 pound of high-nitrogen quick-release fertilizer per 1,000 square feet four weeks after planting, three if the weather cools quickly. Then repeat with another pound in another three to four weeks, at the end of October or in November. Fertilizing in the fall puts more nutrients in the ground than fertilizing in the spring, when most of the benefits come off in mowing, McDonnell says.

How often do I water?

Keep the soil moist, using a gentle spray, until some seeds start to germinate. You'll probably have to water morning and afternoon, and maybe more often, depending on the weather. When the seed is up, you'll wean it to one watering a day, then gradually every other day, until it can take more of a routine of an established lawn.

What about the weeds?

Be careful treating weeds if you're reseeding. Broadleaf weed killers such as 2,4-D, MCCP and dicamba (the ingredients in Trimec) cannot be used any closer to seeding than one month before and can't be used afterward until the new grass has grown enough to be mowed three times. Trimec is your best defense against dandelions when applied in late October or early November.

Broad-spectrum herbicides such as Roundup can be used to kill all vegetation up to five days before reseeding. But it's often best to do at least two applications of weed killer three weeks apart to get a good kill, says Matt Fagerness, a horticulturist at K-State.

Tilling dead vegetation under will improve the texture of soil and help its ability to hold water, Fagerness says. Tilling also is another option for weed control. At the same time, you can work in organic matter such as peat moss, compost or dehydrated manure, from 6 to 12 inches deep, before seeding. Do not pulverize the soil when tilling; clods about an inch wide are fine. Hand rake the soil before planting the seed to make the new lawn look better and make it easier to mow.

Plan to apply a crabgrass preventer in April. Disturbing the soil to put in a lawn usually brings up some crabgrass even if you haven't had it before.

Is sod a good option?

Sod provides an instant lawn and doesn't require as much baby-sitting with a sprinkler as new seed does. But it usually includes bluegrass to help knit it together; a sodded lawn can end up being 50 percent bluegrass in five to six years, McDonnell says.

Bluegrass makes a pretty lawn but it is not as drought-tolerant as fescue, doesn't do as well in the shade and is more prone to disease.

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