Blades Of Glory

When it comes to lawns, homeowners need to take the long view and think about spring now


The perfect lawn lies just outside your door. But it takes work - now, not next spring - to bring it forth.

It is hard to believe that the stressed out, balding thatch that surrounds your home has the makings of next summer's thick, green carpet, but it does.

"You couldn't ask for a better time," said Gene Sumi, education coordinator for Homestead Gardens, a nursery in Davidsonville.

While a couple of cool weeks and the recent good soakings may have perked up the grass, homeowners should still consider reseeding, Sumi said.

"The soil is still warm, and the weather is cooling. Once your grass is up, it will thrive in the cold weather," said Sumi

It is counterintuitive, but it is true. The variety of grass recommended for the Mid-Atlantic, turf-style tall fescue, will really take hold during the region's milder winters.

If you try to reseed in early spring, the cold ground will delay germination. That means young seedlings will have to face the blast furnace of a Maryland summer, and they won't survive.

Said Bruce Augustin, director of environmental agronomy at Scotts Miracle-Gro, "Fall is the best time to repair your lawn and get it as healthy as possible. The success rate is very high."

The window of time is wide, but it is closing. If you just plan to feed your grass and kill some weeds, you have plenty of time.

But if you want to give seed time to germinate before the temperatures drop significantly, reseeding needs to be done by the middle of October.

"You will need a root system and you will need to mow it a few times before winter," said Augustin.

Even if your lawn is not brown or bare, it makes sense to reseed because of the tremendous improvement in the vitality of the latest seed.

The fact is, your grass is as "old" as the last time it was seeded. For some homeowners, that might be a decade or more.

"Buy the best grass seed you can find on the market," said Augustin. "Not the cheap stuff. The latest varieties have the advanced characteristics - great color, more tolerant of pests and disease, requiring less water.

"These grasses are light years ahead of what was available 20 years ago. You really need to think about over-seeding to get these new varieties in."

Don't bother with the bag of seed that's been sitting in your garage for a year. The summer's heat has

probably killed it. Spring for a bag of seed that has been recently tested.

Jon Traunfeld, a regional specialist with the University of Maryland's extension service, recommends turf-type tall fescue for central Maryland, a region where neither northern nor southern grasses do particularly well.

"This is a fairly resilient grass. It goes dormant in drought, but it doesn't die," he said.

"It is good for traffic and it is pretty easy to manage."

Traunfeld recommends the Rebel variety, but his office provides a fact sheet listing a number of good varieties.

"Over-seeding is a good way to strengthen your lawn. You are thickening up the turf and giving it a better chance to compete against the weeds," said Traunfeld.

But over-seeding doesn't work if you layer the seed on the lawn as thick as icing on a cake. Seed sparingly.

"Most people think that if a little grass seed is good, a lot is better," said Sumi.

"The rule of thumb is 11 seeds per square inch," said Augustin. "Like pepper on your scrambled eggs."

Seeds need contact with warm, moist soil to germinate. Too thick a layer and the seeds on the bottom suffocate while the ones on top dry out.

Before seeding, take time to prepare the soil, a series of steps most homeowners skip.

Too many homeowners don't want to take the time to aerate, a procedure that does more than punch holes in the yard for the grass seed. It literally breaks the surface tension and allows the soil to accept water, air and nutrients.

"It is like punching lots of holes in an inner tube," said Sumi. "It becomes easier to stretch."

And most homeowners don't take the time to de-thatch, either. Grass seed has no hope of germinating when a dense layer of organic matter - dead grass, leaves and debris - prevents contact with the soil.

Cover the newly seeded areas with straw, Sumi advises, to maintain moisture and soil temperature, to discourage birds and also to deflect heavy rain that might wash the seed away.

Aerating, de-thatching and dressing your yard with compost or lawn soil take time and energy - at a time when many homeowners are bored with their yards or are busy raking leaves.

But effort made now will produce a lush, green lawn that is the perfect backdrop for landscaping and will make gardens look better.

Grass also conserves water, prevents the erosion of top soil, cleans the air and cools the environment around the house.

And a beautiful yard improves the curb appeal of the home - and makes us feel good about ourselves, Augustin said.

But the lawn is often a homeowner's biggest headache.

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