Garden Variety: Renovate to keep your lawn in good shape

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Healthy lawns reduce erosion, require less mowing than weedy ones and are an easy way to cover an expanse of outdoor space. Many people think healthy lawns require a lot of inputs and maintenance, but they really only need a little extra care at certain times of the year. In the Lawrence area, the best time for that extra care for fescue and bluegrass lawns is late summer and early fall.

Fescue and bluegrass are the most common turfgrasses grown in lawns in the Midwest. They are collectively referred to as cool-season grasses and thrive in spring and fall when temperatures are generally mild. Ryegrass is also a cool-season grass but is a poor choice for the Lawrence area because of its disease susceptibility. The following recommendations apply to fescue and bluegrass lawns only.

For minimal lawn renovation, plan to plant more grass seed and apply fertilizer. Additional grass seed should cover any bare spots and patches where desirable grass is thin. Fertilize the entire lawn. There are organic fertilizer options as well as conventional ones.

For full-scale lawn renovation, plan to dethatch/verticut and core aerate before planting more grass seed and fertilizing. These two actions require special equipment, which can be rented from hardware and equipment rental stores. Most lawn care companies can also do this work for you, but you should call now to get on the schedule, as this is a busy season for them.

When shopping for new grass seed, pay careful attention to the seed label. All grass seed that is sold is required to have a label showing exactly what types of seed it contains, the origin and other valuable information.

Look for low percentages of weed seed (yes, grass seed often contains weed seed), high germination percentages and local origins (preferably Midwest instead of Northwest).

Turf-type tall fescues perform best in the Lawrence area, and the best options are blends of three to four types of turf-type tall fescue.

There are too many varieties to list that grow well here. The important thing is choosing turf-type tall fescue over bluegrass, ryegrass, and other miscellaneous fescues. Also, locally sourced seed generally performs better than seed sourced from other regions of the U.S.

When planting new grass seed, loosen the soil surface in some way first to ensure that the newly planted grass seed can root into the soil. Use a rake or similar tool to break up the soil surface. Dethatching/verticutting takes care of this step for you.

When shopping for fertilizer, pay attention to the chemical breakdown indicated by three numbers on the bag. The numbers might be 12-12-12, 27-3-3, or something similar. The numbers represent the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, respectively. Look for a product that contains high nitrogen and low phosphorus and potassium unless you have had a recent soil test indicating that phosphorus or potassium are needed.

Price points can be hard to compare with grass seed and fertilizer. For most of it, you get what you pay for in terms of quality. With fertilizer, remember that a product with a higher percentage of nitrogen costs more than one with a low percentage, but you will be applying less product to get the same effect.

Apply grass seed and fertilizer at rates recommended on the labels.

For those who choose to dethatch/verticut and core aerate, both processes reduce compaction and let air and water into the root zone. This makes healthier plants overall. Dethatching/verticutting also removes thatch (the vegetative layer between actively growing grass and the soil surface). Dethatching is usually only needed on thick lawns, but the vertical blades of the machine also help to break up the soil surface for overseeding. You may wish to only do one or the other, depending on the current state of the lawn.

If dethatching/verticutting, you (or your lawn care provider) will need to rake the thatch and plant debris that are pulled to the surface. Use a leaf rake and remove this material from the lawn.

Proper core aerating requires going over the lawn twice, at perpendicular angles. The machine has a roller with hollow spikes that pull up cores of soil and deposit them back on the lawn. It looks messy immediately after doing it, but the soil cores quickly break down and become unnoticeable.

One final option is to use sod. This is ideal for getting a great lawn in a short period of time and filling in problem areas. If you plan to use sod, kill out any existing vegetation in the area now by placing plastic over the area or using a herbicide. Till or otherwise break up the soil surface before laying sod to ensure the grass can root down into the existing soil.

Lawns with the warm-season grasses bermudagrass, buffalograss and zoysiagrass should be renovated in June.

— Jennifer Smith works in regulatory horticulture and has worked as a horticulturist for various government entities. She has experience in landscape design and maintenance and as an educator.


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