Grass roots campaign for getting your lawn going in the right direction

THINKING GREEN A

March 23, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Your lawn had a generally wet and warm winter and may look a shade sere about now, but there are steps you can take to help ensure a healthy spring and summer of growth.

The trick is to recognize that a lawn goes through up and down phases and doesn't necessarily respond to the same stereotyped, week-in, week-out cutting and watering treatment. The weather really counts.

For Maryland, it was the warmest winter on record, as well as one of the wettest, with rapid runoffs but not the long, soaking rains that gardens favor. The fact that Christmas wasn't white -- and neither was Maryland most of the season -- may indicate lawn treatment. Up to this weekend, the state had gotten less than half of its average quota of 22 inches of snow, and the warm, windy weather promoted the drying out of all dormant greenery, not just grass.

The warmth and the lack of slowly melting snow could mean problems for lawns in the region.

"Farm people say you have got to have a couple of good snows to really get the water table up," says Ken Shaver, a forecaster with the National Weather Service. He notes that February, with less than one inch of rain, was abnormally dry, but that March seems to be getting its share of showers.

Acting right away will get your lawn off to a good start. Here, as they say, is the drill.

Spring things to do

Dead lawn grass that is clustered around the new growth should be cleared periodically with a rake or machinery, and spring is a good time to start. The "thatch" that builds up like plaque on a tooth can block moisture to new roots and promote insects and disease. Small areas can be cleared of thatch with rakes. Big lawns need power equipment, a rented dethatching machine or vertical cutter to clean out the dead material. Popular Kentucky bluegrass and Bermuda grass are notably susceptible to heavy thatching. The rule of thumb is that if your grass has a half inch of dead material under the new blades, it's time to clear. Thatch, by the way, is not good compost; it doesn't decompose fast.

If the lawn does have bare spots, early spring is the best time to patch, because the ground is generally moist. Actually, patching can be done any time, if you're willing to ensure the constant moisture needed to get the seeds growing. A light misting will do it, but you may gave to repeat it as often as twice a day, if nature doesn't provide. All-over seeding can be done in early spring, but if your lawn has a pretty good cover of grass already, it's not necessary.

No one should take on continuous lawn care without first considering two great imponderables, namely: How often should water?

If you're like most amateur gardeners, you should water less often, and longer, preferably in the hours before and just after dawn. Water should be the equal of one inch of surface rain, enough to reach four or five inches into the topsoil and the grass roots. Casual, frequent sprinkling of areas accomplishes little and can actually be detrimental. Yet too much watering too frequently can cause shallow rooting, a situation to be avoided.

Some horticultural guides recommend that lawns in the mid-Atlantic region not be watered before June 1. General guidelines on the water question include avoiding midday heat watering. The exception is when you are patching or seeding new areas, in which case several light sprinklings daily may be necessary.

No one should take on continuous lawn care without first considering two great imponderables, namely:

How often should I water? If you're like most amateur gardeners, you should water less often, and longer, preferably in the hours before and just after dawn. Water should be the equal of one inch of surface rain, enough to reach four or five inches into the topsoil and the grass roots. Casual, frequent sprinkling of areas accomplishes little and can actually be detrimental. Yet too much watering too frequently can cause shallow rooting, a situation to be avoided.

Some horticultural guides recommend that lawns in the mid-Atlantic region not be watered before June 1. General guidelines on the water question include avoiding midday heat watering. The exception is when you are patching or seeding new areas, in which case several light sprinklings daily may be necessary.

How short should I cut? Answering this question seems to be more a matter of intuition than anything else. The late James Underwood Crockett, Massachusetts horticulturalist and author of 20 gardening guides, used to recommend that "the higher you keep your grass, particularly in the summer months, the stronger it is likely to be and the better able to survive drought."

Yet our next-door neighbor, a Briton, achieves golf-tee beauty by cutting his lawn so short that it's the horticultural equivalent of a skinhead. Biweekly cuttings, medium high, on my lot don't equal the Bermuda-grass look he achieves.

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