The Grass is Greener…
Fred called the other day to say that he was worried about the coming cold temperatures and asked if he should cover his Paper Bush. We were lucky in that there was a bit of wind, which prevented frost from settling on buds and flowers. However, Fred also said he thought the cold snap seemed to take away the fragrance from his Paper Bush. As soon as we hung up I had to go outdoors and check: mine, too. Sigh. Like many things, it was good while it lasted and early March has earned yet again it’s Lion-like reputation. Today, to the casualty list, I add the Star Magnolia: what were to be blooms now look like tan tissue paper and I am sad about it.
There is a mature, weeping cherry tree in a garden in Haddonfield that I covent. There—I admit to it. The house was up for sale last year and if I were in the market for a house, and could afford that price tag, I might have bought it just for the cherry tree alone–it is that gorgeous. It has been beautifully cared for I would guess the better part of fifty years so the habit is perfect: the long, sweeping branches cascade from nearly the top of the tree down about thirty feet. When the wind blows, they swing gently. The pink blossoms are breath-taking. I get chills even writing about it. The tree is near the front porch of this grand home and I imagine sitting on that porch—or inside an adjacent window—looking out at it in bloom, watching the petals fall like pink snow. Such are the things about which a garden designer fantasizes. My point is, we sometimes think the grass is greener, plants are prettier, or things go better in someone else’s garden. The same way that food taste better when someone cooks for us. Usually, though, I think it is things are better overall when they are attended to, loved and cared for.
Turf grass is no different. Turf grass does not look great when left to its own devices; it really does need a good bit of care and maintenance. Timing is key as are the necessary ingredients. I am writing this to you at this point of the year because March is one of the key times to implement turf-grass care.
To start, turf-grass is not a native grass for us. This sets the stage for understanding that we have to help it succeed as our soil conditions won’t generally support it otherwise. Add to this the hot and humid summers, summers that can either be really wet or really dry, cold winters, snow, road salt—the list goes on and on. Turf grass loves slightly cool and evenly moist; it prefers a pH of about 6.2; it is a leaf so it needs available nitrogen; it needs sun and no competition from other plants. You can see already why there are challenges to a beautiful lawn.
How to achieve this?
Understand that if you have lots of mature trees, growing turf grass is always going to be difficult. Many clients I have are moving away from turf grass because of this and planting understory shrubs and ground covers—no more fighting. But turf provides open place for play, for dogs to run, and for “negative space–” which is a space for the eye to rest between the visually busier-looking planted beds of the garden. Turf grass does fill important needs. Next up—how much do you care about doing things organically and how much do you want the turf to look like a golf course? This is an important question because it will dictate the types of applications you will use. I am more concerned with a healthy space than a perfect, weed-free lawn so my tolerance for some weeds might be higher than yours. Still, I want it to look nice, and keeping weeds to a minimum in the lawn helps keep weeds from your plant beds; seeds do blow about. To show you that it is possible to have a pretty lawn naturally, the photo at the top of this blog is my lawn, chemical-free and without irrigation. It is also in open sun with no competition from trees and the soil is freely-draining. Anything that is applied to the lawn I do myself; the annual cost of this is about $300.00.
In March, somewhere near St. Patrick’s Day, I begin the first treatments for the year. Because air temperatures vary greatly in March, you need to know either the soil temperature or have some other visual signals. I use the full bloom of the forsythia as a guide. My neighbor has one so that makes it easy to monitor. Here’s how it works: the forsythia will bloom when the soil temperature reaches the same degree as that which makes crabgrass and other weed seeds germinate. In advance of this I purchase the needed supplies: corn gluten meal and pelletized lime, and have it ready in the shed for the forsythia signal. A soil test result will tell you the amount of lime to spread (in pounds) per square foot of lawn based on the pH. The corn gluten bag, which acts as a crabgrass preventative as well as a fertilizer, will state the volume per square foot as well. I put the lime application down first (from a broadcast spreader) then apply the corn gluten.
Here’s how the corn gluten works: once it is at the soil level, it becomes moist and swells to make a sort of paste. This prevents the crab grass seed newly germinated from pushing upwards. Cut off at the pass, so to speak. You must follow the directions on the bag precisely to get the best results. Be aware that dogs do like to lick at this, since corn gluten is an ingredient in many dog foods. My Katie will enjoy it for a few days until it becomes soggy enough that she is licking more soil than corn meal; then she stops. No issues to report.
Again, this is the natural way to go about your spring lawn care. If you would prefer the chemical method, you would still apply lime as above. Instead of the corn gluten, you will apply a product that is usually a fertilizer with crab grass preventative. Always follow the application and storage directions exactly. Try to keep your pets and children off the grass for a week or so afterwards as to not be breathing in the powder or having much contact with it, just to be on the safe side.