Preparing The Soil

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In starting a lawn one should consider the subsoil as well as the topsoil. The subsoil must be well drained. A sandy loam is best. If you have a heavy, clay subsoil, tile drainage may be required. The surface should be carefully graded to allow surface drainage away from the home. No pockets should be left where water will stand. Avoid unnecessary compaction of the subsoil.

At least 6 inches of topsoil should be added. This should be done in steps. First spread a 2-inch layer over the surface and roto-till it into the subsoil. This will help make a gradual transition between the topsoil and the subsoil. Next add the remaining 4 inches of topsoil and spread it evenly over the surface. Rake the surface to provide a uniform seedbed free of shallow depressions. If you saved the topsoil that was originally on the lot, reuse it. If you purchase topsoil to add to what you already have, be sure that it is a mineral soil of good quality. Black muck from old lake bottoms is not very satisfactory.

SEEDING

Before seeding, it is good to mix in some fertilizer. A fertilizer high in phosphorus and potassium, like an 0-20-20, should be added at a rate of 20-30 pounds per 1,000 square feet of surface. Work the fertilizer into the soil, using a rotovator. This gets the phosphorus and potassium into the soil, where the root system of your lawn will develop. Immediately before seeding, apply V2 pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. This can be left on the surface. If you use ammonium nitrate, 33-0-0, it will take only IV2 pounds per 1,000 square feet of surface.

You are now ready to plant your grass seed. For a sunny lawn with few trees, your grass mixture should be high in the Kentucky bluegrasses. For a shady lawn, the mixture should be high in creeping red fescue. The proportion of bluegrass to creeping red fescue can vary from 80 to 40 percent for the Kentucky bluegrass depending on the degree of shade. The amount of grass seed to be planted varies with the kind of seed and the method of seeding. If you use a mixture, you need about 4 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Less could be used if you obtain an even distribution of your seed. Seeding can be done by hand, but a better job can be done with a whirlwind type of seeder or spreader. Seeding in two directions is best to ensure even distribution. Measure the lawn area. Purchase the correct quantity of seed. Divide the seed into two equal quantities and sow a half in each direction. After seeding, rake the seed in lightly. Do not cover too deeply since bluegrass seed requires light for germination. Rolling with a lawn roller partly filled with water helps firm the soil and place the seeds in close contact with the soil particles. Water immediately, using a fine mist. Repeat as necessary to keep the surface of the soil moist. Continue watering until the grass is well established. The length of the intervals between waterings can be lengthened after the lawn shows green.

If you do not have available water, a lawn can be started by using a mulch of straw or marsh hay applied at the time of seeding. The mulch must be evenly distributed and not more than 1 inch thick.

The best time to seed a lawn is in late summer, August 15 to September 10. The second-best time is in the spring as soon as the soil can be worked. The main advantages of late-summer seeding are fewer weeds and cool nights that favor development of vigorous grass seedlings.

Mowing should start as soon as the lawn is 3'/2 inches tall. Start mowing with the mower set at 2lh inches. Gradually lower the mower until you reach the desired height, which is about IV2 inches for an average lawn or 1 inch for an elite lawn.

SODDING

If you have a steep slope or need an immediate lawn, sodding may be preferable to seeding. It is more expensive and the choice of varieties is usually more limited. The same soil preparation is required whether you seed or sod. It is important to buy freshly cut sod and to lay it immediately. Watering during the first few weeks is critical. In laying sod on a slope, place the strips parallel to the slope. Adjoining strips should touch and be staggered like bricks on a wall. This prevents erosion of the soil. Take time to lay the sod carefully with no overlapping joints. On a steep slope the sod should be held in place by wooden pegs. Start mowing as soon as new growth develops.

Care of an Established Lawn

RAKING, MOWING, AND EDGING

In the spring any debris in the lawn should be cleaned up. Use a broom type of lawn rake. Avoid using a steel rake that digs into the soil and exposes the roots. Start mowing as soon as growth starts in the spring. A good rule is to mow whenever the grass has grown 1 inch above the height set for your mower. The frequency of mowing varies greatly depending on the fertility of the soil and the amount of watering. Continue mowing in the fall as long as there is grass to mow. Tree leaves should be raked and removed from the lawn before snow comes.

A well-groomed lawn is neatly edged. An edging tool or a sharp, square-nosed shovel can be used to make a clean vertical cut. A straight line can be made by stretching a strong cord between two stakes. For a curved border use a garden hose along the edge, with the desired curves serving as a guide. The grass beyond the vertical cut can be spaded into the soil where it will soon decompose, or it can be pulled out of the ground, the soil shaken from the grass roots, and the remains put on the compost pile. Grass along a sidewalk tends to grow over the edge, giving a ragged appearance; a special edging tool or a grass shears can be used to remove this overgrowth. Another place where edging improves the appearance is around trees and specimen evergreens. It is surprising how much the edging and trimming of the lawn can improve its beauty.

WATERING

Maintaining a green lawn all summer usually requires some watering. About 1 inch of water per week is needed. If it does not rain, watering to make up the deficit helps maintain a green lawn. If there is a water shortage, it is best to use the limited quantity of water available for trees, shrubs, flowers, and fruits and vegetables to keep them alive and growing. Your lawn becomes dormant during dry periods but will recover after the rains come. The important thing is to soak the soil to the depth of the grass roots each time you water. Frequent, shallow watering can be harmful by encouraging shallow rooting.

FERTILIZING

Maintaining a healthy lawn requires about 4 pounds of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per year. This should be applied at rates that do not exceed 1 pound per application, that is, at least 4 applications per year are required. You should not fertilize during July and early August, since fertilizing during hot weather favors the growth of crabgrass and other warm-season weeds. The first application in the spring should be put on about the time the grass starts growing in late April; the other applications, at 4- to 6-week intervals. The last application should be made in early October when the grass roots are still active and will take up the fertilizer. This late application will give your lawn a quick start in the spring. I try to follow this schedule: May l,June 15, August 15, and October 1.

Besides nitrogen, the lawn needs phosphorus, potassium, and the minor elements. Most lawn fertilizers are high in nitrogen, with lesser amounts of phosphorus and potassium. A 20-5-10 is an example of a good lawn fertilizer. For economic reasons you may prefer to use a farm fertilizer like a 10-10-10 for the first application in the spring and a straight nitrogen fertilizer for the other applications during the year. Ammonium nitrate and urea are examples of straight nitrogen. Check the percentage of nitrogen shown on the fertilizer bag and calculate the amount of fertilizer needed for your lawn. If your lawn area measures 10,000 square feet, you will need 10 pounds of actual nitrogen. If you are using a 20-5-10 fertilizer, this area would take 50 pounds. If you are using ammonium nitrate, which is approximately 33-0-0, it would take only 30 pounds. Use a whirlwind type of fertilizer spreader and apply the right amount. Setting the spreader at a low rate and covering the lawn in two directions gives a more even distribution of the fertilizer. Keep track of the fertilizer setting so that it will not be necessary to calibrate it each time. If you follow the recommended rate and obtain an even distribution of the fertilizer, watering immediately after the application should not be necessary. I have used straight nitrogen fertilizers containing as much as 50 percent nitrogen, with no burning. If you get an Uneven distribution or apply more than the recommended amount, watering can help prevent burning. The grass foliage should be dry when applying the fertilizer.

There has been a great deal of talk about phosphorus and its effect in polluting our lakes and streams. The best control for erosion is a healthy lawn. Unless you live near a lake or stream with a steep slope from your lawn to the water, there is little danger of phosphorus entering the water from your lawn. You may wish to have your soil tested to determine the level of available phosphorus. If the test shows adequate phosphorus, a phosphorus-free fertilizer should be used. If your soil is deficient in phosphorus, use a complete fertilizer to maintain a healthy, erosion-free lawn.

The form of the nitrogen may also be of concern to some gardeners. Organic sources of nitrogen like blood meal, sewage sludge, and soybean meal are more slowly available to plants and less likely to burn than inorganic sources of nitrogen. The release of nitrogen from organic sources is dependent on weather conditions. In cold weather the release is slow. Under warm, moist conditions the release can be rapid. Inorganic sources of nitrogen are immediately available to plants. Cost should be the determining factor in deciding the kind of fertilizer to be used. Some kinds of organic as compared with inorganic fertilizer cost as much as ten times more per pound of actual nitrogen.

WEEDING

The best control for lawn weeds is a healthy lawn. Sometimes, in spite of good care, weeds become a problem. Broad-leaved weeds like dandelions and plantain can be controlled by using a weed killer containing 2,4-D. Apply it on a still day when the weeds are actively growing and the temperature is above 60° F. Use a preparation that has a low volatility. Some broad-leaved weeds like creeping Charlie and mouse-ear chickweed are more difficult to control and may require a weed killer containing either dicamba or mecoprop (MCpp) in addition to 2,4-D. Several repeat applications may be required. Read the directions on the container and follow them carefully. Crabgrass, a low, spreading annual, is often a problem. This warm-season grass germinates about the time lilacs bloom. A preemergence crabgrass killer applied about May 15 usually provides good control.

The perennial quack grass and other coarse grasses sometimes become established in the lawn. These are objectionable. Unfortunately, there are no selective weed killers that kill these grasses without also killing the desirable grasses. Close and frequent mowing favors the shorter and more desirable grasses. Over a period of several years it is possible to starve the undesirable coarse grasses. If your lawn is heavily infested with quack grass, it may be advisable to spray the affected areas with Round Up or Kleen Up and reseed or sod as soon as the quack grass is dead.

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