Solving the Lawn Care Puzzle
What makes a lawn healthy? It’s impossible to pinpoint one element. A healthy lawn is the result of a combination of factors. It’s a complex puzzle, and in order to see the beauty of the full picture, we need to focus on each piece individually.
While there are many possible culprits, trees are the primary reason for insufficient air circulation. Simply put, your lawn needs a nice fresh breeze on a regular basis. In New England, many of our homes are completely surrounded by trees, which severely limits the air circulation. When air sits still over the lawn, it stagnates and contributes to disease problems and overall health problems in your lawn.
As with excessive shade, the best thing you can do is to have an Arborist selectively remove enough trees to allow for better air movement.
Also as with excessive shade, there are no fertilizers or chemicals that can eliminate the lawn’s need for fresh air.
It may seem odd that we’re listing “browning” of the grass as something we cannot control. It is true that certain insects and grubs can cause the lawn to die and turn brown. Those things are clearly our responsibility. Other than that though, most of the causes of lawn browning are truly out of our hands.
Poor mowing habits and dry soil are the #1 causes of browning grass. Disease (which we can treat under certain circumstances) runs third and insects and grubs are tied for 4th.
If your lawn is turning brown, we can often help determine the cause and can advise on a good course of action. If we can supply treatment ourselves, we can discuss that as well.
If a lawn is inadequately fertilized, it will turn lighter green, but not brown.
Crabgrass elimination is definitely on our annual “to do” list. IF we have performed both the first and second service for you, we are responsible. While crabgrass prevention is not foolproof and you may end up getting some anyway, we will selectively treat it at that point.
Crabgrass is wide bladed, light green, and grows close to the ground. It dies each winter after producing seed for the next season. In May/June, it begins growing.
There are many different diseases that can potentially attack your lawn in a given season. Chemically preventing each of them would be a huge expense that would be primarily without merit. Most of these diseases run their natural course with minimal damage. Some can cause significant problems.
Spraying fungicides to prevent diseases in your lawn is a bad idea. It’s bad for the environment, bad for your lawn, and bad for your wallet. If your lawn does happen to get a disease outbreak at some point and we determine that a fungicide application is the best course of action, we can discuss it with you at that point.
Because we do not believe that preventative fungicide treatments are a good idea, we do not build them into the service program, nor do we guarantee you won’t get an infestation at some point. If you do get a disease outbreak, we can generally get it under control before any serious damage is done. If you think you do have a disease problem of some sort, please let us know so we can take a look and discuss the best approach.
While we can often times offer curative applications for disease control in your lawn, we simply cannot predict which diseases will become a problem in any given year on any given lawn. This is why we do not treat preventatively, nor do we build curative applications into your service program.
If you need a curative application of fungicide, we will discuss the matter with you and provide you with a price quote beforehand if requested. We will not automatically perform the application as most disease problems simply run their course much like a common cold. If you think you have a disease problem, please touch base so we can check it out and give you our best recommendations.
Fertilizer is food for your lawn. This is one of the several things we are contracted to perform for you.
If the lawn does not have adequate fertilizer, it will take on a yellowish color, but will not typically turn brown under any normal circumstances. The yellow color reflects a lack of chlorophyll, which is the necessary component for photosynthesis to occur. Chlorophyll requires nitrogen and nitrogen is typically supplied by fertilizers.
Grubs & Insects
Grubs and insects such as the chinch bugs shown below are two pests of turfgrass that we plan to control in our normal service program. While grubs are quite easy to identify (the grass easily peels up to reveal them), chinch bugs are a bit harder to spot.
Insects cause damage in the hottest months, typically August, while grubs become more of a pest in late September.
If your lawn is browning and you have good reason to believe that either grubs or insects are responsible, please let us know ASAP. We’ll take a look and do whatever we can to remedy things.
Humid, dank air is no good for your lawn. It’s really that simple. The excess humidity contributes to excess fungal growth, causing diseases in the grass.
We can sometimes treat the disease curatively if you get one, but we can’t prevent the humidity and we cannot prevent the resulting diseases.
Lawn mowing is probably the most neglected aspect of home lawn care, but has the potential to make the biggest difference. Sure, everybody mows their lawn. But not everybody does it correctly.
This segment of our website is dedicated to showing you the four main details that you will need to remember when mowing your lawn.
1. Mowing Height
While a close-cropped golf course fairway might seem to be an elegant ideal for a home lawn, it really does not work out very well. Golf courses are populated by grass species that are naturally suited to shorter mowing heights. In addition, these courses have huge maintenance budgets that allow professional superintendents to unnaturally control the resulting natural stresses that will occur.
For a home lawn in the northeast, 3 inches is an ideal mowing height year round. Studies have shown that these lawns are exponentially better equipped for survival than lawns mowed at 2 inches or less.
2. One-third Rule
When grass is regularly cut down, the plant itself adapts to the mowing. The crown (the source of new growth) stays very close to the surface of the ground. Only new leaf tissue is then cut off, and stress to the plant is minimal.
If the lawn is allowed to grow longer, the plant will be confused into thinking it is in a more natural meadow setting. This then allows the vital crown to move higher, away from the ground. When you then cut the grass short, the crown is at risk of being cut off, thereby killing that grass plant. To avoid this, never cut more than 1/3 of the length of the grass at any time. The crown will always be below the cut, and you will avoid unnecessary stress.
There is a very simple rule to lawn clippings, but there is also one very big, important exception.
Rule: Leave the clippings on the lawn. Grass blades are primarily water, but also contain vital nutrients that can be returned to the soil by leaving the clippings. They break down and decompose very quickly and contrary to popular belief, they will not add to thatch.
If the clippings are excessive enough to pile up into clumps, they need to be removed. Otherwise they will smother and kill the lawn in patches before they break down.
Think about it this way. If you needed surgery, would you prefer the surgeon use a properly sharpened scalpel or a butter knife?
Mowing your lawn with unsharpened blades is much the same as performing surgery with a butter knife. Instead of cleanly slicing the grass, the mower pulls, rips, and tears at it. The result is significant injury and jagged, torn tips. The grass becomes far weaker and more prone to other pest problems.
Sharp mower blades will cleanly slice the grass. This results in less injury, and healthier, stronger plants.
Rocks act like a brick oven. They heat up during the summer heat and subsequently burn the surrounding grass. Unfortunately this is one of those things that we simply cannot control, fix, or prevent. If the lawn is exposed to excessive heat, it will burn out and die.
If you have isolated brown patches in your lawn whenever the temperatures start heating up, take a long screwdriver and poke it into the ground in the brown spot. If you feel it hit rock an inch or so down, take that same screwdriver and poke it into a green area. If it sinks into the soil in the green area, you know the brown is probably caused by rocks near the surface.
The fix in this situation is to add topsoil on top of the area and taper it into the rest of the lawn. If you can add enough so as to give the grass a good 4 inches of soil above the rock, you should see the problem diminish in future years.
We do provide grass seed, but the amount of seeding done on your property is dependent upon what we have agreed to in your service contract. We generally recommend a seeding and aeration service to account for any and all seeding you may need. If you opt out of this service, we are more limited.
If you think you need more seeding than you are receiving, please don’t hesitate to touch base.
A few quick notes about grass seed. Speed of growth is no indication of quality. Many very poor grasses grow quickly while many very good grasses grow slowly. Seed needs water to grow, and that’s about it. If we seeded your lawn and it isn’t growing, there’s a 95% chance it just isn’t getting enough water.
Grass needs sunlight. Without enough, it will thin out through the season and eventually simply die off.
It’s very common to assume that “Shade Seed” will grow well in your shady areas. In reality, most shady areas on a home lawn are simply too dark for even the most shade tolerant grass seed. If you have areas of your lawn that will not grow grass due to excessive shade, you can have an Arborist open up the tree canopy for you, or you can look into planting alternative ground covers that are more shade tolerant.
Unfortunately, there is simply nothing we can do to keep grass from thinning out or dying due to insufficient sunlight.
Between the crown of the grass plant and the soil lies a thatch layer. This is basically the dead and/or dying parts of the plant (not the clippings though). This layer will progressively get thicker and thicker until it no longer allows nutrients and water through to the root zone. It also makes a perfect home for insects and disease causing fungi.
Core aeration will punch holes through the thatch to allow water and nutrients through. It will also help speed up decomposition of this thatch layer by bringing soil microbes to the surface (in the plugs). If you are signed up for a core aeration each season, thatch should not become a problem. If not, it very well could get worse each season.
Lawns that are core aerated each year do not experience problems with thatch. It’s really that simple. If you are not signed up, please request a price quote if you don’t already have one.
Good topsoil is the lifeblood of your lawn. It must have good structure, good texture, adequate depth, sufficient organic matter, proper CEC (cation exchange capacity), balanced pH, and many, many more characteristics.
If your soil is bad, your lawn will probably be bad when the weather becomes stressful (hot, dry, etc). No amount of fertilizer or chemicals can change that.
While there’s not much we can do within the confines of a normal program, we CAN offer additional services that will help to improve your topsoil significantly. The most popular of these services is a topdressing with Leaf Compost. This adds significantly more organic matter and structure to your soil, providing big lawn health improvements.
Lawns need water. Without it they’ll turn brown, go dormant, and possibly die. If you cannot water your lawn due to property size, well issues or other considerations, this may be something that you’ll be stuck with during dry years. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can apply to your lawn that will prevent it from turning brown due to a lack of water.
On the other hand, we CAN recommend some good Irrigation companies if you are interested in exploring the option of installing a home irrigation system. Even homes on limited wells can usually handle an irrigation system when it is designed properly.
Proper irrigation in a home lawn setting seems far simpler than it actually is. Many people think that just “wetting down” the grass on a regular basis is sufficient. The truth is far different. Too much water can lead to destructive disease like Pythium, Brown Patch, or Dollar Spot. Too little water can cause the grass to dry out and become susceptible to other problems like insects or drought stress.
This also tends to be one of those tasks that the pros make look easy. If you’re playing golf one day and you see the irrigation system running, you might be tempted to think that the grass looks good in part because the sprinklers keep it wet. In reality, golf course superintendents measure water precisely and adjust constantly in order to walk the incredibly precise balance. Without the professional experience and knowledge, many homeowners will throw their hands up in frustration when the results aren’t nearly as impressive.
How Much to Water?
People often think of water amounts in terms of time. For example, “should I water my lawn 1/2 hour or 45 minutes in the summer?” This is a little bit like asking “How long should I drink water for?” We don’t measure our own water intake by how long we are drinking, we measure it by how much water we consume. The same should go for your lawn.
Your water pressure depends upon whether you are on a well or city water. Even then, different homes have far different levels of pressure. Because of this, if you water your lawn for 1/2 hour, you may actually be putting twice as much water on the grass as your neighbor who also waters for 1/2 hour.
Instead of thinking in terms of time, think in terms of amount by measuring inches. You just need to place a few containers around the lawn when you water. They will collect the water, which you can measure afterward.
Once you have collected the water, measure how much you collected in a 1/2 hour period of time. Imagine you collected 1/4 inch of water. NOW you can begin to use time as a guide since you know that your sprinklers will put out 1/4 inch of water every 30 minutes. One hour should yield 1/2 inch (as seen below), etc.
Since an average lawn needs about 1 inch of water per week, watering for 1/2 hour 4 days per week is a great starting point. Space the waterings out so that you water no less than 1/8 inch at any one time, and no more than 1/2 inch.
If your soil is rich with organic matter and partially shaded, it will remain moist much longer than sandy lawns that experience full sun. Calibrating your sprinklers is an important first step, but you will need to continue to adjust your system according to the specifics of your property. This can get a little tricky, but you should be able to do it with some diligence. Begin by watering the lawn at the recommended 1 inch per week, then keep a close eye on it. If the lawn appears to be drying out, increase to 1 1/2 inches per week and see how that works. If the lawn stays moist and lush, reduce the water to 3/4 inch per week. After some continued tweaking, you should be able to zero in on the ideal amount for your lawn.
Since rain is largely unpredictable (long term), you really cannot plan ahead for any specific amounts. Suffice it to say, keep an eye on the rain, and check a weather service to find out specific amounts that have fallen in recent days. You can adjust your watering accordingly.
It is very common for people to assume that we’ve had “plenty of rain” only to watch their lawn turn inexplicably brown. While they thought that the recent rains had been plenty, they really did not amount to much at all. This is not an area of property care that should be left up to your gut instinct. Check with weather services to find out about actual amounts in your area, then adjust accordingly.
Automatic System or Manual Sprinklers?
It should come as no surprise at all that an automatic, installed sprinkler system can take a huge amount of work and effort out of proper lawn watering. If it is done well, and by a reputable company, a good irrigation system can be the final piece in the puzzle for your landscape.
That said, an automatic irrigation system will not take ALL the guesswork and planning out of your life. Like any other complex tools, it will require regular maintenance and frequent checkups to make sure everything is working properly. In addition, you will still need to calibrate it, set the programming clocks, and continually adjust it based on weather conditions.
Once you have done the planning and setup though, an automatic system will largely run without need for any work on your part for as long as you let it go. Just remember to check up on the lawn and watch the weather to see if any adjustments need to be made.
Even if you are Mr. Fixit at your house (or Ms./Mrs. Fixit), we strongly recommend hiring a professional to winterize your system if you live in an area of the country that freezes during the winter. If this is not done properly, the winter freezes can cause huge amounts of damage that will far exceed the cost of having it winterized in the first place.
Wear and Tear
Is your backyard a virtual soccer field? Do you have an energetic dog who enjoys chasing sticks, balls and squirrels?
Lawns can only take so much wear and tear. Many municipal sports fields have moved over to artificial turf fields out of sheer necessity. While real grass would be far preferable, the artificial stuff is preferable to bare, rocky dirt.
The only remedy to this problem is to limit the amount of activity on the lawn. It’s that simple. More fertilizer and chemicals simply won’t be enough to counteract the damage.
With a few notable exceptions, weeds cannot really be prevented. Luckily, they can be eliminated once they’ve grown in.
This is why we typically schedule your second annual service as a weed control service. After the weeds get growing in April, we knock them out in May with a selective herbicide. This product is deadly to weeds, but safe for the grass. Weeds will continually re-infest, and we should be continually treating on an as needed basis. If you see weeds on the lawn that do not appear to be dying, please give us a call.