Lawn care basics
As a kid I had quite a home-based business. I think I mowed the lawn for about 15 people per week. Not realizing what a bargain I was, my fee ranged between $2 to $5 per week. Though I didn’t mow the lawns with an engineless push mower --“going backwards and uphill in a storm” like my Grandpa Mysse, it did seem like slave labor at the time. He’d say, “Boy, you’re lucky it has an engine!” He taught me all I needed to know about taking care of the lawn. I remember him having to do the “first round”. I know now that is because he wanted perfectly straight lines and didn’t want the black rubber of a lawn mower tire with an 8-year old “behind the wheel” to mark up the foundation of his house.
Each week we would switch the direction of the cut from north/south to east/west. That ensured a perfect finished product. After the work was finished we would wash the mower and he would begin his ritual of meticulously watering his lawn for the rest of the day. I would count my money and stay motivated by the combined goal of stockpiling Bubble Yum and Bubblicious gum and buying a new bike every year.
Here are some proven basic tips:
The key to a healthy, attractive lawn is a balanced approach to maintenance. A lawn that is properly watered and fertilized will have fewer problems with weeds and diseases.
Many people do not recognize the importance of proper mowing. A lawn that is mowed when necessary, to the height of 3 inches, resists invasions of weeds, insects and diseases. It also has a more lush and healthy look. Mowing infrequently, which results in removing too much grass at one time, will eventually produce a lawn with a thin, spotty or burned out appearance.
The penalty for cutting away one half or more at once results in leaf burn and root damage. Leaving the lawn too high results in deterioration of leaves at the lower levels and, more importantly, impairs the root system. Rather than a healthy deep root system, a shallow unhealthy one is produced.
Two reasons to remove clippings include the potential for unsightliness, and the possibility of too much grass being cut off at once. Instead of sifting down and decomposing, the clippings can mat on top and suffocate the grass underneath. If your mower is designed to mulch the lawn as it cuts, removing the clippings is not necessary.
How long your lawn can go between watering depends on several things. Roots grow only where there is water. If you constantly wet the top few inches of soil, roots won’t grown any deeper. Eventually, the limited size of the root system will force you to water more often. Frequent watering keeps the surface wet, which is ideal for weeds and diseases. If roots go deep into the soil, they can draw on a larger water supply and the lawn can go much longer between waterings.
Soil conditions can also affect how often you need to water. Lawns in sandy soil will need water more often than those in rich loam. Clay soil needs water less often and it should be applied at slower rates to avoid run-off.
Do not water the lawn until the grass shows signs of wilting, such as loss of color, graying or the retention of footprints. When you do water, apply 1 to 1 ½ inches each time. During the summer, every 5-7 days is a normal schedule.
Three elements are critical to good turf growth, color and winter hardiness. In addition, iron and sulfur can also be very beneficial.
Nitrogen is the most important element in the fertilizer mix. A lack of nitrogen causes a lawn to look pale and yellow.
Phosphorus is responsible for the development of strong roots; it also helps new seedlings become established.
Potassium helps in winter hardiness and overall vigor of turf plants.
“Winterized” fertilizers, which are applied in late fall, usually contain at least twice as much potassium as formulas for spring application. Proper timing of fertilization should take advantage of “cool-season” grasses, such as those found in Montana. The heat and light of mid-summer naturally slows down growth. Application of fertilizer during the heat may be wasted, as the plants will not be able to use it. It is best to fertilize in the spring and fall to achieve the best results.
The best way to control lawn weeds is to maintain a dense, vigorous growing turf. A lawn which is under stress due to improper watering, irregular fertilization, being mowed too short or has compacted soil is usually too thin. This allows weed seeds more opportunities to germinate and grow.
Jim Gainan is President of Gainan's Flowers and Garden Center in Billings.