Good-looking lawns don’t just happen. Even if you don’t crave perfect, weed-free turfgrass, you can still make a difference if you do more than just cut your grass every week. Investing some time, effort, and a few dollars can make a huge difference and ultimately save you lots of work in the long run.
At our own farm, we “finish mow” several acres of lawn and maintain many more as pasture. We started with pastureland years ago, and by simply mowing it weekly we have discouraged the field weeds and encouraged field fescue and clover. Most of what we have couldn’t be called lawn; it’s simply field grass cut short. So what is the difference between “grass” and “lawn”?
Field grasses are mostly coarse fescues, which are tough, drought-tolerant, clumpy, fast-growing and deep-rooted. This type of grass works fine for large rough areas where you don’t need to walk. It holds the soil, preventing erosion, and looks okay as long as you keep it cut. Weekly mowing during the season will benefit course fescues, and white clover will often supplement the fescue. One way to maintain this type of rough area grass in good condition is to allow it to go to seed once every few years. We simply let it grow for long enough that seeds form and mature, and then “bush-hog” it back down. This way the grasses re-seed themselves.
Lawn areas closer to your house, where you want to walk and play, will need more attention. Course fescues are clumpy and grow too fast for a fine lawn. If you want to convert course fescue areas into fine turf, you’ll actually have to kill the existing grass first. This is because course fescues and white clover will choke out finer lawn grasses, replacing them with unsightly big clumps of course-bladed grass. The only way to really control course fescue is to kill it with an herbicide like Roundup, and establish a good thick stand of fine lawn grass before the field grasses can re-establish themselves.
We recommend premium turf-type tall fescue grass seed. Turf-type tall fescue makes an elegant dark green lawn that is drought tolerant and rugged. It is a fine-bladed, deep-rooted grass that spreads underground, forming clumps that fill in bare spots. Turf-type tall fescue tolerates shade better than bluegrass or rye, and requires half as much fertilizer and water to look good. Using a blend hedges your bets against insects and diseases; over time the healthiest grass will crowd out the others.
Once you’ve killed off the field fescue and weeds, spread grass seed at the rate of 5 pounds per 1000 square feet, and apply fertilizer. The next step is to aerate the entire lawn with a core aerator, or “plugger”. We like to run the plugger over the lawn several times in different directions, to really perforate and break up the compacted soil. The new seed and fertilizer will wash into the plug holes, where it stays moist, and get established there. The thatch from the dead field grass will also protect the new grass, like straw.
In a week you’ll see the first new grass. Daily watering at this stage is critical. All you have to do is keep the soil most until your new grass is several inches tall. A light watering each day should be enough. Don’t mow until the new grass is six inches tall, and make sure your blade is newly sharpened. Set your mower at 4 inches (and leave it there from this point forward; scalping the lawn is a huge contributor to weed problems, since it allows sunlight to reach the soil surface and encourages weeds to sprout).
Remember that the seeds of field fescue and perennial weeds will sprout and try to take your new lawn back. You need to spot kill fescue clumps with Roundup, and most likely you’ll need to spray a 2-4-D herbicide every summer to discourage weeds like dandelion. Cutting your turf at four inches helps control weeds. Regular fertilization and watering help the desirable grasses compete.
The bottom line is that unless you introduce quality turfgrass into your yard, the weeds and field grasses will dominate and you’ll be cutting a weed patch instead of a lawn.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.