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Essential Tips for a Healthy Lawn, Part I

Photo: Gail Hudson, Extension Communications
June is that time of year when we're assessing the health of our lawns--giving it a thumbs up or down on whether we've achieved a lush green carpet. So just how do you go about getting a healthy lawn? It begins with the question, "What type of lawn do you desire?"

Material excerpts from a 2017 presentation by former Extension Educator Sam Bauer, "10 Tips for a Healthy Lawn" 

Tip #1: Choose the most appropriate type of grass 

Do you want to spend a lot of time taking care of it? Or hardly any time at all? The grass species you have in your yard can make a big difference.

High maintenance

  • Kentucky Bluegrass: Best quality, good spreading ability, poor in shade, available as sod
  • Perennial Ryegrass: Quick germinating, poor tolerance to winter and summer stress, poor in shade

Low maintenance
  • Fine fescue species (Festuca sp.): Shade tolerant, slow growing, some salt tolerance, low fertility needs, drought tolerant; But--disease under wear, more susceptible to snow mold
  • Tall Fescue: Best wear tolerance, heat and shade tolerant, disease resistant; But--Not winter hardy under ice cover, spring seeding, some varieties have a coarse leaf texture
  • No mow mixtures: Mix of fine fescues, reasonable to mow only once a year, no ryegrass
  • Tall fescue blends are becoming more common such as Dynamic II, Gazelle II, Faith
Grasses to generally avoid

  • Annual ryegrass: Unsightly and annual
  • Rough bluegrass (Poa trivialis): Intolerant to heat, doesn't blend well
  • Common creeper
  • Certain varieties of popular species: 'Linn' perennial rye; 'Park' Kentucky Blue'; 'Kentucky-31' tall fescue

Tip #2: Healthy soil = Healthy lawn

Here's why soil is so important for a good, healthy lawn. It helps your lawn hold moisture and retain nutrients; it promotes biological activity and stability for your lawn.  

Do a soil test

A soil test will help you do the right thing when it comes to applying fertilizer, choosing the right grasses and more. At the University of Minnesota Soil Testing Lab, the tests provided  are for evaluating soil fertility, pH level, and/or problems due to excessive salts or fertilizer materials. 

Based on the test results and type of plants to be grown, you will be sent the appropriate fertilizer recommendation for good plant growth without adverse effects on the environment. 

In 2019, the cost is $17 per sample. Fill out the appropriate forms and send in your sample. For more information, click here.

Tip #3: Aerate to reduce compaction and improve infiltration

Did you know the roots of plants need both air and water to grow? Aeration improves how well the water filters through the grass and soil, helps air get to the roots and ultimately, helps roots grow.

A plug of soil is removed with an aerator machine with 1/2 inch-to-1-inch diameter tines, penetrating 3 inches-to-4 inches in depth.
In this photo, you can easily see the brown fibrous mat associated with true thatch; the mat layer just below the thatch layer which is more completely decomposed thatch and the existing soil layer.  

Here  you can tell the soil compaction is so severe that the probe would only penetrate about an inch into the soil. Regular aeration and vertical mowing would be needed to help improve these growing conditions. 

Tip #4: Water Wisely

So how much water does your turf actually need? Would you guess 1 inch a week, 1.5 inches, two inches a week? The real answer is, "it depends..." Things to consider when you're deciding how much to water include: 
  • Grass species: growth habit, growth rate and rooting depth all affect how much water to use. Fine fescues are drought tolerant, Kentucky bluegrass has medium watering needs and perennial ryegrass needs lots of water.
  • Soil type: Water runs quickly through sandy soils, and these soils don't hold moisture very well. The opposite is true for clay soils.
  • Environmental conditions: Temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, rainfall and other factors contribute to the amount of irrigation necessary to maintain a healthy lawn.
  • Desired lawn quality: This one is pretty simple! If your lawn is Kentucky bluegrass and you want it to be green, you have to water it. If you can tolerate brown or dormant turf during the middle of the summer, you can cut back on watering. Some drought-tolerant species can be green throughout the growing season without irrigation--depending on the rainfall during that year. 

What's the best way to water a lawn? 

What's your best guess: Everyday with little amounts? Or less frequent with larger amounts? If you give your lawn larger amounts of water in infrequent intervals, you'll encourage your grasses' roots to grow deeper into the soil where they'll actively seek out water.  Roots extract water from shallow depths first, then go increasingly deeper. 

This is called root conditioning and it's done most effectively in spring and fall when grass is actively growing.  You're allowing the soil to dry near the wilting points between watering.  

In the middle of summer, root systems are naturally shallower and you can water on a more frequent basis. Be forewarned: if you keep your grass constantly moist or wet, it will not encourage deeper rooting and in fact, can be a trigger for some serious turfgrass diseases. 

Strategies to cut back on watering

Here are some ways to reduce the amount of water you may need to keep your lawn in tip top shape:
  • Plant a more drought tolerant grass species. Generally, fine fescues need less water than Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass.
  • Raise the height of your mower blades to three inches or more. As mowing height decreass, rooting depth also decreases--meaning, your lawn will need more water!
  • Cut back on how often you mow. Mowing cuts the leaf ends, which means the plant will lose more water. Remember, don't let the plants grow more than one-third the desired height.
  • Aerate the soil. It leads to better water infiltration, lower thatch levels and better roots. 
  • Maintain balanced fertility. Plants that are under-fertilized have less developed root systems. If you over-fertilize your lawn, the leaves will grow excessively and need more water.
  • Install a rain sensor on your automated irrigation systems or turn your sprinklers off when it rains.
  • Smart irrigation controllers, which include rain sensors and soil moisture sensors, help balance your lawn's water needs.

Tip #5: Use proper mowing practices

So what's a good height for the grass on your lawn? Turfgrass scientists recommend 3.0 inches to 3.5 inches. And in fact, you should mow as high as possible if your lawn is in shade, return grass clippings to the lawn, and keep your mower blades sharp. Consider no-mow options, too.

By the way, don't remove more than one-third of the height of your grass at any one mowing. For example, if your grass is 3 inches, you should only remove up to 1 inch of the grass. Otherwise you'll disrupt the grasses' growth too much. Often you can mow less during the summer months, because cool season grasses slow down their growth rate in the heat and often drier conditions. 

Tips for a Healthy Lawn, Part II

Watch for our Part Two of this series, "Tips for a Healthy Lawn," in our July 2019 Yard and Garden News. We'll talk about a cure for creeping Charlie, fertilizing and more with "Five More Tips for a Healthy Lawn!



For more information about lawn maintenance and care, here's a list of resources: 
Author-editor: Gail Hudson, Extension Communications with excerpts from a 2017 presentation by former Extension Educator Sam Bauer, "10 Tips for a Healthy Lawn."

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