Whether you like to putter around the lawn or manicure your yard to perfection, the act of caring for your lawn can be therapeutic. By tending to your yard, you¹re creating an environment that suits the needs of your family and lifestyle and one that can handle all the wear and tear that you, your pets, and a neighborhood ball game can dish out.
Great lawns aren't made; they're grown. And it's up to you to keep them that way by watering and fertilizing—the two maintenance chores that separate okay lawns from truly great ones.
When to Water
Your lawn will let you know when it needs water: As blades of grass curl lengthwise to conserve moisture, the grass loses its green luster and turns a blue-gray color. Your lawn will also lose its ability to bounce back when you walk on it, and it may develop brownish patches. These signs appear very fast during hot, dry weather, so keep your eyes open for them.
An established lawn needs to be watered only when it becomes dry, rather than on a regular watering schedule. Different weather conditions, such as temperature, humidity, rainfall, and wind, will affect the water needs of your lawn. If you water once a week just because somebody once said you should, you could be needlessly wasting water and damaging your lawn. How often you water also depends on your soil type. Sandy soils don't hold water well, so the grass will need to be watered more frequently. Clay soil holds water better, so less frequent watering is necessary.
Without a doubt, early morning watering is best. Morning weather is generally cooler, with gentler winds, so the water has a better chance of reaching the roots instead of drying up too quickly on the blades or being blown off course. The grass will also have plenty of time to dry before nightfall, which helps reduce lawn disease.
Don't forget to watch shady areas for dryness, too. Grass growing near trees is especially vulnerable—the roots of a tree will soak up any available moisture, leaving your poor grass with little or no moisture. The foliage on trees can also keep rain from falling directly on the grass underneath.
How Much to Water
There are two words to remember when determining how to water your lawn: deeply and infrequently. The roots are where all the action is, so you need to water enough to encourage healthy root growth without wasting precious water.
If you water your lawn only a little bit every three or four days, the roots will be shallow, because the water only penetrates the top of the soil. When the hot, dry summer weather comes, shallow-rooted lawns won't be able to extract moisture from deep in the soil. If you over-water, on the other hand, the water will go farther down into the soil than the roots need, and you'll waste water and possibly kill the grass by depriving your lawn of much-needed oxygen. Water your lawn until the moisture soaks 6 to 8 inches into the soil. You can check this by poking a long screwdriver into the soil after watering.
Unless you have an underground sprinkler system that can water the entire lawn at one time, make sure your sprinkler patterns overlap. To test whether your sprinklers water the target area evenly, place one coffee or food can about a foot away from the center of the sprinkler, another three feet away, and a third at the edge of the watering area. This will tell you which areas get the most water. You can then decide where you have to overlap to get full and even coverage.
Turfgrass needs about 1 to 2 inches of water a week, including rainfall. Use a rain gauge to determine how much rain has fallen so you can supplement that water with your sprinklers. If there is no rainfall, you'll have to water the full amount with the sprinkler.
Feeding Your Lawn
There are 16 different elements your lawn (or any other plant, for that matter) needs to grow. Some—carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen—are plentiful in the air and water. Others are found in the soil, and some will need to be fed to your lawn with fertilizer. Luckily, many of the elements are needed only in trace amounts, so you don't have to provide every last one of them.
These elements (excluding oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon) fall into three categories in order of importance‹macronutrients, secondary nutrients, and micronutrients.
The macronutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—are the most important because your lawn uses them in the greatest quantities. Those big numbers you see on all the fertilizer bags, like 15-5-10, represent the product's ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium by weight.
The secondary nutrients—calcium, magnesium, and sulfur—can usually be found in sufficient quantities in the soil. If your lawn's pH is out of whack, apply lime to supply calcium and magnesium and raise the pH, or apply sulfur to lower it. Micronutrients such as iron, zinc, manganese, copper, molybdenum, boron, and chlorine are also available from the soil. An iron deficiency will turn your grass yellow and is most likely to occur in soils with a high pH.
I recommend having your soil tested before you fertilize your lawn. A soil test will tell you the levels of pH, phosphorous, potassium, and organic matter in your soil, as well as the percentage of sand, silt, and clay. Your local agricultural extension or a nearby university can usually perform a professional soil test for a modest fee. Private labs provide the same service, but with a higher price tag.
Look for private labs in your local phone book under "Soil Analysis," "Soil Testing,"or "Laboratories Testing." The home soil-test kits available at garden centers and nurseries tell you only the pH of your soil, so laying out a few bucks for a professional test is really your best bet.
When to Feed
The best time of day to fertilize is when the grass is dry. Fertilize the lawn, then water it to knock off the fertilizer from the blades of grass and put it into the soil. Don't fertilize on wet grass‹as the grass dries, the fertilizer left on the blades can burn the grass in the hot sun.
Next comes the tricky part—what times of year you should fertilize.
Fertilization times depend on what type of grass you're growing. You can follow one general rule of thumb: Fertilize before your grass enters its period of active growth. For cool-season grasses, this is usually in the spring and fall. Warm-season grasses will benefit from a feeding in the late spring through the summer.
How often should you fertilize? This is where personal preference comes in. You'll probably need to fertilize your lawn at least once a season to keep it alive, but it¹s up to you to decide how much growth you really want. Low-maintenance lawns will need to be fertilized only once or twice a year, while high-maintenance ones will need feeding once a month during the active growing season. Either way, you¹ll have a healthy lawn. The low- maintenance lawn just won't be as lush and green as a high-maintenance one. Get to know your grass‹what type of nutrients it needs, how much it needs, and when it needs water. With a little time and care, your lawn will be able to withstand pretty much anything Mother Nature can throw at it.
Organic fertilizers are made up of animal or plant waste. Manure, Milorganite (sludge), compost, seaweed, and rock powders are just a few. When you use organic fertilizer, you're feeding both the grass and the soil.
These fertilizers encourage the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the soil. And the nitrogen in organic matter is water insoluble, meaning it's released slowly so your lawn gets a steady supply of food throughout the growing season.
There are downsides to organic fertilizers, too. The level of nitrogen in organic matter is much lower than in synthetic fertilizers, so you have to apply a lot more organic fertilizer to get the right amount of nitrogen into your grass. It¹s more expensive than synthetic fertilizer, too. The nitrogen in organic fertilizer is temperature sensitive—the soil temperature must be over 50°F to activate the microorganisms that digest the organic matter and release the nitrogen. So your fertilizer may sit there doing nothing until the weather warms up.
How Long Should You Go?
Every time you cut a blade of grass, its root system temporarily stops growing, which limits the plant¹s ability to absorb water and nutrients. If you cut too short, you weaken the root system‹and a weak plant is a target for weeds, disease, and drought.
How do you know how short to cut your grass?
The One-Third Rule asserts that you should never cut off more than one third of the grass plant. So if your type of grass is best at a height of 2 inches, cut it when it's 3 inches high. If it's best at 3 inches, cut it when it reaches 4 1/2 inches. Once you determine the optimum height for cutting, take a measure of this height against your shoe and remember where it hits. If the grass is taller than the swoosh on your sneaker (or whatever), it's time to mow.
The list below outlines the optimum height ranges for the most common types of grass. Lean toward the low end of the range when the grass is healthy and growing. When the lawn is stressed by heat, drought, disease, shade, pests, or traffic, stick to the higher end of the range.
Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis): 2 to 3 inches
Perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne): 2 to 3 inches
Fescue, fine (Festuca rubra): 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches
Fescue, tall (Festuca arundinacea): 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches
Creeping bent grass (Agrostis stolonifera): 1/4 to 3/4 inch
Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon): 1/2 to 1 inch
Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides): 2 to 3 inches
(David R. Mellor is master groundskeeper at Fenway Park, the Boston Red Sox¹s ballpark)