Updated: Oct 13, 2018
RULES FOR A HEALTHIER LAWN
By Lucy Harrell, Texas Certified Nursery Professional, and a specialist on demanding environments.
What is a healthy lawn? One that covers the soil like a thick carpet. Yet most of us only dream about having a lawn like that. If your turf is failing to live up to its full potential, it’s likely that you need to address one or more of these seven crucial areas.
1: It is a good variety of lawn grass for this climate.
There are a number of good lawn choices for North Texas, including Zoysia, Buffalo Grass, and Fescue. But the two most commonly planted types are Saint Augustine and Bermuda. This article focuses on these two most popular grasses, but the 7 rules discussed here apply to any grass you choose to plant. (See Marshall Grain’s Turf Grass Comparison Chart: turfgrass-comparison-chart.)
For Saint Augustine, I recommend the Raleigh variety for its cold hardiness and resistance to Saint Augustine Decline (SAD). Healthy Saint Augustine is better at crowding out weeds than Bermuda, plus it starts growing again earlier in the spring. Saint Augustine only needs to be watered once a week in clay soils and every 5 days in sandy soils.
Common Bermuda is a low maintenance lawn choice that you can start from seed. Saint Augustine must be propagated using plugs or sod squares, which is a more expensive method. Common Bermuda is extremely hardy and very drought tolerant. Both types of grass should be treated with Corn Gluten Meal in both the spring and fall to control weeds.
2: It receives the correct amount of sun or shade.
Raleigh Saint Augustine tolerates more shade than most other lawn grasses, so it can stay healthy even after trees grow and bring shade into the area. Bermuda grass needs lots of sun — at least 6 hours of direct exposure.
3: It is watered correctly and the coverage is even.
Both Saint Augustine and Bermuda grasses do well on a 5 to 7 day watering schedule if watered properly. (See 4 Watering Mistakes That Can Doom Your Plants.) Bermuda grass can go longer without water and can survive true drought conditions and recover after watering or rainfall occurs.
Your lawn should be on a watering schedule that provides enough moisture to get the soil wet down to at least 6 inches deep at the time of watering. This requires that you water long enough to apply one inch of water.
The best way to measure the amount of water applied is to save up some empty cans (tuna cans or cat food cans work best). Place these around your yard then turn on your sprinklers. Time how long it takes for one inch of water to build up in your cans. This works for oscillating sprinklers too. Once you know that number, you can set your irrigation system accordingly. Remember to adjust for rainfall. Texas A&M offers a detailed watering guide for Texas landscapes.
Sprinklers and other watering methods should provide even coverage.
Your soil should be allowed to dry out and let air into that space before watering again. Roots need air as well as water (keep in mind that these elements are sharing the same space in the soil). Chronically over-watered soil has no way to allow air in. Water logged soils encourage disease and eventually can cause the lawn to die.
Water coverage should be even. Uneven coverage is another chronic problem that I run into on sites. If we notice that a spot is looking dry, most of us respond by watering the entire lawn more often instead of adding water to the dry spot. This is often how chronic over-watering gets started. Don’t fall into that trap. Take the time to adjust your sprinklers to get even coverage.
4: Do you need to enrich the soil?
If you’ve ever watched the rain fall on a Texas yard, you’ve probably noticed that more water runs off onto the streets and sidewalks than what penetrates the ground. This is partly because the rain is often falling faster than it can soak in. However, it can also be due to soil compaction. Especially if you live in an area with heavy clay soil, it can be difficult for the water to penetrate through the clay. If this is the case, improve your soil as much as possible.
Aerate your lawn
Just use a pitch fork. Or go whole hog and rent an aerating machine. Opening up your soil allows moisture and organic matter to penetrate more deeply into the ground.
Aerating your lawn will help reduce compaction and allow moisture and organic matter to penetrate more deeply.
Add Soil Conditioners
Top dressing with a high-quality organic compost, as well as Lava Sand, Texas Greensand and other soil amendments will also help to open up your soil and increase microbial activity required to break down organic matter. Apply them at least twice a year. Unlike some soil amendments, these can be applied as a top dressing in a fertilizer spreader, making it pretty much a “no-brainer.” (Read about our Top 5 Soil Amendments.)
5: The area is graded properly to allow good drainage.
If your lawn has low spots where water stands after a rain or after watering, you could be inviting problems. Low spots are usually where roots rot and fungal problems start. This is an important and easy thing to take care of. Simply fill in those spots with topsoil to make the areas level. It’s best to do this in early spring because they will be quickly be covered by grass as soon as the warm weather starts your lawn growing again. Any bare spots should be covered lightly with Corn Gluten Meal to keep weed seeds from settling in on those areas. Wet the Corn Gluten Meal lightly to keep it from blowing away and help it bond with the soil.
6: It is fertilized with organic products from my approved list.
My Basic Organic Program (available at Marshall Grain) will help you build up your soil to a point where regular fertilizations will no longer be necessary. Follow my program (either all-granular or granular and liquid combination) for the first one to three years. One day you will realize that your program has been built and you can stop fertilizing as often. Use only the products that you need and don’t over do it.
7: It is mowed and maintained at the proper height.
Saint Augustine should be kept at a height of 2.5 to 3 inches. Bermuda should be kept at 2 to 2.5 inches. You should try to maintain this height without ever cutting off more than 1/3 of the height of the grass blade. This is important for several reasons.
First of all the nutrient of the grass blade is stored in the top of the blade. Cutting the grass blade too drastically robs your lawn of nutrients.
Cutting your lawn too short can rob it of nutrients and shade.
Secondly, cutting too much of the grass blade off at once allows the part of the blade that has been shaded from sunlight to be suddenly exposed to hot sun. Have you ever mowed so short that the next day the lawn turned brown or looked really sad and wondered what happened? Now you know! The higher mowing height allows the grass to shade the soil, which reduces heat stress. The reduced stress also means your lawn will use less water and it will be harder for weed seeds to settle in.
Note: Lucy’s “Pick Your Program” handout and “Lucy’s Picks” design CD at Marshall Grain
Love & Luck, Lucy
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