I am amazed at the degree to which I continue to lose to the the rodent population in my suburban garden. The asters I planted this spring? Bunny chewed one of the three down to the ground so many times it won’t bloom this year. The festival light string that illuminates the arbor? Squirrel must have a dietary plastic deficiency as he has chewed through the wiring, even though it was sprayed with a hefty dose of Bitter Apple. The list could go on but you get the point. More problematic than B/S this summer is we are water deprived. Turf grass is stressed. When I look back at the photo of my June lawn, comparing it to what it is now, I sigh a big sigh and think a four letter word–not “lawn.” Considering the dry, it my lawn isn’t bad at all, really–I think I am just ready for the season to change over to where the temperatures and condition are more comfortable for turf and for me. The condition and appearance of my turf has held up well to this challenging summer because of how I have cared for it over the years. It is easy and you can do it yourself, I promise.

Many of us love lawn for several reasons–myself included. We love lawn because it is a place for us, for our children and pets to run and play–ball games, badminton, croquet and corn hole. We can have parties with tables spread throughout the lawn area in the summer. When we have a solid span of even green, we have what designers call “negative space,” a place for the eye to rest adjacent to other busier components of the composition. The gentle curve of my lawn is an ellipse, a luscious rounded shape that lies between planting beds and softens what otherwise would be a very rectilinear space.

On our wish list for the garden we want to be able to take care of lawn in the easiest, healthiest, way. This is possible without irrigation and lots of chemical applications. First start off, start with analyzing your site conditions. Turf grass requires: open light without competition from tree shade or roots; healthy soil with a near neutral pH; consistent water. In our area most plants prefer an inch of natural rainfall per week for best growth and turf grass is no exception. Turf also prefers moderate temperatures (unless you have Zoysia grass, which is a different beast all together. For the purpose here I will talk about fescue blends, which is what you see in my photo). If you don’t have these conditions, turf grass will probably not thrive and other plant choices should happen. Over the years clients have told me about their frustrated attempts to establish lawn under trees, piling on topsoil and seeding, again and again and again. Time to put up the white flag.

Autumn is the time to begin to improve your turf. I will say this quietly: I believe the temperatures have dropped and that perhaps more rain is coming to start this process. I normally being this early September but our conditions this year were awful so that would have been pointless. Since it’s time now, here’s the drill:
1. Soil test for pH. Contact the Rutgers Cooperative Extension office for your county. Penn State for our PA friends. Be sure to note on the test application that this is for a turf grass area. You will receive instructions as to how much pelletized lime to apply per square foot to your turf grass area;
2. Lawn aeration. Hire this out. A crew will drive a machine over your lawn area that pulls plugs of soil out, allowing more oxygen to reach the turf roots and to help break-up soil compaction;
3. Apply a thin layer of compost. Spread this over you existing turf–as in “sprinkle.” Or apply an organic lawn “starter” fertilizer for turf grass;
4. Seed application. Fresh turf grass seed every fall helps to rejuvenate the lawn. I use a seed that has a decent component of rye seed in it, not as fine as a fescue, but it holds up better to hotter and drier temperatures. If your lawn crew seeds at the same time as they aerate, apply the compost or fertilizer first before this step;
5. Maybe some sprinkler action. Mostly I don’t bother with this unless it is very dry;
6. If your leaves begin to drop, very carefully rake them away once the grass sprouts. It is imperative to keep leaves off the turf; that is death for a lawn.

If you have areas of crabgrass or weeds, it is best to hard rake these away in order that the new grass seed doesn’t have so much competition from them.

These steps are done annually, usually early September, when the temperatures drop and consistent rainfall happens. You want the turf to establish strong, deep roots from now and over winter so it will grow with vigor next spring. My lawn is not irrigated nor treated with any chemical applications. Granted, it is not completely free of weeds, but I am ok with that. I am interested in the health first–for the turf, for Katie, for us, and for the community outside the gate. 

Masses of Grasses...
Fall into Autumn...