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LAWN CARE Q & A
 

Questions and Answers to some of our most frequently asked lawn maintenance problems.

 

Question: What can I do about the weeds in my yard?

Question: What are the benefits of Aeration?

Question: When and how should my lawn be mowed?

Question: What's the story on mulching?

Question: I'm confused about fertilizing my lawn. What are the facts?

Question: How do I treat lawn diseases?

Question: What things should I do in the fall to make my lawn better next year?

Question: I am starting a new lawn or restoring an old, damaged lawn. What grass(es) are best to plant?

 

 

 

 

 

 

WEEDS

Lawns, flower gardens and vegetable gardens are under a constant attack from weeds. You can never get rid of them for long. And, they keep coming back.

Most of us simply handle weeds in our lawns with a "Weed and Feed" fertilizer application once a year. If applied correctly, at the right time, and with no rain for a day or two after application, this tends to be quite effective on a wide variety of weeds.

Some persistent weeds require stronger and repeat application of weed killers. For this, there are a variety of weed killers that can be mixed in a sprayer and directly applied to problem areas. There are also spray bottles that you can use to spray individual weeds or small areas.

Part of your effective weed control program is a thick and healthy lawn. If your lawn is thick, it crowds out some weeds and does not give new weed seeds a chance. So, put your lawn in the best position to beat those weeds. You may even find that on occasion, you can skip an application as your healthy lawn is weed free!

A few of us go after persistent weeds by hand. There's that one little dandelion that pops up a couple of weeks after the weed killer was applied. Or, a small patch of ground ivy that resists the weed killer. If you are going to attack a few weeds by hand, make sure to pull out the weed and all of the roots. Take a bag of grass seed with you. Generously sprinkle some grass seed on the spot so new weeds will not be able to take over.

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AERATION

In the cycle of nature, plants and animals have an important, make that vital, interaction. Our High School science class taught us that animals and humans breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Conversely, plants take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. It's a perfect match. A lesser known fact that seems to escape us in High School is that plants need oxygen, too.

The roots of plants needs water, nutrients, and ...oxygen. Oxygen is held in the spaces between the particles of the soil. In sandy soils, there are a lot of spaces, and therefore, lots of oxygen in the soil for your plants' roots. Oxygen is plentiful in soils rich in organic matter, too.

On the far side of the spectrum, however, are clay soils, and soils that have been compacted due to high traffic, or.....lawn rollers, perhaps! In these situations, there is little oxygen in the soil. Water and nutrients have a hard time getting down through the soil to the roots of your lawn where it is needed.

The solution to this problem is aeration. The most common means of providing lawn aeration is a rolling device towed behind a garden tractor that has many spikes which pierce the soil and create thousands of small holes in your lawn's soil. Another common aerator variation is the type where the many spikes have a hole in the middle of them. As the roller goes across the lawn, the hollow spikes pick up "plugs" of turf. Both aerating machines open passageways for water, nutrients, and oxygen, all of which improve your lawn's health.

How do you know if your lawn needs aeration? The first clue is the type of soil. Lawns grown in clay soils (extremely common in SW Ohio) typically will benefit by regular aeration. Second, if water sits on your lawn for long periods of time, or drains away with little seeping in, your lawn will benefit by aeration. Third, if you are properly caring for your lawn, but it just doesn't have the color and vitality you expect, aeration is likely in order. Aeration of the soil breaks up the thatch, and allows it to decompose naturally, providing further nutrients to your lawn.

AA LAWNMAN Lawn Care recommends aeration for a healthier lawn, and we regularly provide aeration service to our customers who request it.

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MOWING

Here are some mowing tips and instructions that you will find useful, especially if you are a new homeowner:

1. Cut lawns when it reaches 2-3 inches in length.

2. Cut no more than 1/3 of the grass blade length at a cutting.

3. Alternate cuttings, going horizontally and vertically across the lawn. For a neat look, cut the lawn diagonally.

4. Leave grass clippings on the lawn to decompose. As they decompose, they provide natural, organic nitrogen to the lawn, keep moisture in, and helps to minimize weeds.

5. Always mow when the lawn is dry. This will save wear and tear on your mower,. It will also keep cut grass from clumping on the lawn, and minimize the spread of disease.

6. Check the mower blade regularly to assure a sharp cut. Dull blades will hack and chop the blade, leaving unattractive ragged, brown edges, and risking lawn damage.

7. Mowing your lawn at a longer length provides a longer grass blade to absorb sunlight and photosynthesis, helping to create a healthier lawn. High mowing, as it is called, also helps block out crabgrass and weeds.

8. If you just can't find the time to fit mowing into your schedule or for any reason you are not able to care for your lawn yourself, call us! We provide expert mowing, trimming, and driveway, sidewalk, patio and porch clipping cleanup with every mowing job, and our prices can't be beat!

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MULCHING

Copyright  ©  2003  Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
Susan H. Barrott, Horticulture Technician

"Mulching" describes the time-honored practice of covering soil with a layer of material that will provide a variety of beneficial gardening results. Mulch can limit weeds, conserve soil moisture, moderate soil temperature, decrease soil compaction and may also reduce the spread of some soil-born diseases. Mulching materials may be organic, from living sources such as wood chips, or inorganic, such as plastic sheeting. Over time, organic mulches can help build a better soil structure that pays off in healthy, vigorous plants that may be better able to live with insect and disease infestations.

No single material is the best "all-purpose" mulch for every job. The locations most often mulched include landscaped areas with trees and shrubs, perennial borders, annual flower beds and vegetable gardens. Matching materials, mulch depth and timing of application to the specific areas in your yard can ensure you get the most benefits from mulching.

The most effective landscape mulches should not require annual replacement or extensive maintenance. Trees and shrubs in landscaped areas need mulches that can reduce weeds and are easy to maintain, conserve soil moisture, reduce compaction and moderate soil temperature. Mulching can help keep equipment such as weed whippers and mowers away from trunks and stems, which in turn reduces bark injuries.

Because of their permanent nature and high visibility, more expensive materials that are slow to break down are often used in landscaped areas. Wood chips or shredded bark work well. Apply finely shredded wood chips 2 to 3 inches deep. Coarse textured bark and wood chips can be applied to a maximum depth of 6 inches; exceeding that depth will begin to block the flow of oxygen in and out of the soil. Keep mulches a few inches away from all trunks and stems so you don't provide a place for insects or diseases to begin attacking the plants.

Wood chips or shredded bark are often used on top of landscape fabric to achieve better weed control. Woven or layered landscape fabrics are made of various combinations of synthetics, such as plastics or vinyls, and allow air and water through while keeping light and weeds out. Rock can also be used to top-dress fabric, but may absorb enough sunlight to alter soil temperature unfavorably. Do not use solid plastic sheeting because it creates a barrier to the movement of air and water in and out of the soil, and bark has a tendency to slide off it in heavy rains.

Perennial borders are often located within or adjacent to landscaped areas; many of the same materials are suitable for both areas. Spread mulch 2-3 inches deep--enough cover to limit soil from splashing up onto to the undersides of the plants in order to reduce the spread of soil-borne diseases.

Annual flower beds do best with organic mulches that will break down rapidly when tilled into the soil at the end of the season. This adds organic matter to the soil, provides food for earthworms and helps builds a healthier soil structure. If annuals are directly seeded into the bed, wait until they are several inches high and you have weeded at least once before applying 1 to 2 inches of mulch. Shredded leaves, partially decomposed compost, grass clippings or cocoa bean hulls are all easy to turn in at the end of the season.

Vegetable gardens often produce larger and healthier crops when mulched at the correct time. Wait until the soil has warmed thoroughly for heat loving crops, but mulch cool season crops early in spring. Two to four inches of chipped leaves, partially decomposed compost, dry grass clippings and straw are all excellent choices for vegetable gardens. Mulched soils are less likely to compact and will stay evenly moist, which encourages root system development and can help contribute to increased yields.

Black plastic mulch is excellent for pre-warming cool spring soil for heat loving crops such as eggplant, melons, peppers, squash and tomatoes. Put the plastic in place one or two weeks before planting. Covering the plastic with a reflective material such as straw later in the season will ensure the temperatures don't get too high and "cook" the roots. You must punch holes in the plastic to allow water penetration or water adequately through the planting holes.

Mulching materials are available at your local yard and garden center and through some catalogs. Many municipalities also have compost available to the public. Compost can be made easily in your own backyard. See the Extension fact sheet AG-FS-3899 Backyard Composting, available from the Extension Distribution Center (612-625-8173), or search under "backyard composting" on our Extension website http://www.extension.umn.edu for further information on composting.

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  Advantages Disadvantages
Mulching material Controls weeds effectively Conserves moisture Moderates soil temperature Blocks soil splash Adds organic matter Blocks rainfall High cost High annual maintenance Unsightly
Partially Decomposed compost
       
Adds plant nutrients and builds soil structure. Excellent mulch material. Highly recommended for use on annual, vegetable and perennial gardens.  
Shredded leaves
*
 
   
Provides food for earthworms and builds soil structure. Excellent mulch material. Highly recommended for use on annual and perennial gardens. *May mat and block rainfall if shredded too fine.
Cocoa bean hulls
*
 
Has a chocolate aroma when wet. Recommended for annual and perennial beds. *May mat and interfere with water penetration. Can blow away in exposed areas. May develop an unsightly but harmless white mold.
Grass clippings
   
 
Completely dry clippings can be applied at 1-2 inches. Can be used on annual, vegetable and perennial beds. Herbicide residues in clippings may injure mulched plants. Use clippings from non-treated lawns or wait three mowings before using clippings.
Pine Needles
   
 
 
Will not cause a measurable change in soil pH. Best used on perennial beds as they will last for two or three years. Removing needles annually from underneath evergreens may eventually cause nutrient deficiency in evergreens.
Mulching material Controls weeds effectively Conserves moisture Moderates soil temperature Blocks soil splash Adds organic matter Blocks rainfall High cost High annual maintenance Unsightly
Wood Chips
       
Appearance of mushrooms or other fungal growths is common, but not harmful. Has little effect on soil nitrogen when on the soil surface. Best for permanent landscape plantings. Can be used on perennial beds. Once worked into the soil, chips will soak up high amounts of available nitrogen. Compensate by adding a high nitrogen fertilizer when you incorporate it.
Shredded bark
   
 
Additional bark must be added every two or three years. Has little effect on soil nitrogen when on the soil surface. Best for perennial and landscape plantings. Will soak up large amounts of nitrogen if worked into the soil. Compensate by adding high nitrogen fertilizer when you incorporate it.
Sawdust
       
Good mulch if composted before it is applied. If applied fresh, it will cause nitrogen deficiency in the soil, which can affect plant growth. Adding excessive nitrogen to compensate may burn plants.
Straw
     
Keeps soil splash off vegetables which may decrease soil-borne diseases. Chopped straw is easier to handle and turn in at end of the season. Must be free of weeds so it doesn't introduce weed seeds into the garden.
Landscape fabric
 
 
 
 
Highly effective with low maintenance for several years after installation. Needs top dressing with more attractive material. Deteriorates after several years.
Mulching material Controls weeds effectively Conserves moisture Moderates soil temperature Blocks soil splash Adds organic matter Blocks rainfall High cost High annual maintenance Unsightly
Landscape paper
   
   
Somewhat expensive, but very effective and easy to use. Can be tilled in at end of the growing season. Expensive to use in large areas.
Newspaper
*
   
Strips of paper allow better water penetration and don't blow away as easily as large sheets. *Becomes slippery when wet for extended periods. Not recommended for paths.
Black plastic
 
 
 
 
Excellent when used to raise spring soil temperature for heat-loving crops like melons, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Punch holes in the plastic to allow water and air penetration. Soil temperature may be too high for cool-season crops like peas, cabbages, spinach and lettuce. Should be covered with a reflective material like straw mid-season to keep the soil temperature from damaging roots of all crops, including warm- season ones.
Clear plastic  
 
 
 
Works well to raise soil temperature in spring. (See disadvantages.) Not recommended as weeds will grow under the plastic and soil temperatures are likely to rise high enough to damage plant roots.
 

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FERTILIZING

Grasses require at least 16 different essential elements in their diets, most of which are available from the plants' surrounding environment. But the growth demands of today's lawn owners usually mean that homeowners must help Mother Nature along.

Even if you are committed to having a low-maintenance lawn, you will need to fertilize it with nitrogen (N) to sustain thick, vigorous turf. In addition to bringing on deep green color, nitrogen is responsible for the sturdy growth and shoot density needed to fight off weeds and to stand up to disease, insects, and traffic.

All of these positive effects can easily turn into negative ones if you use too much fertilizer or apply it at the wrong time. The common practice of fertilizing in the early spring is actually not the best time in northern climes. It not only encourages excess blade growth which means more mowing, but it also gives your weeds a boost and increases thatch! Excessive spring growth also produces thin-walled grass blade cells that are more prone to injury and disease. Late summer to early fall is the preferred time for feeding northern lawns; mid-spring in the South.

In addition to needing nitrogen, your lawn may need phosphorus (P) and potassium(K). Depending on where you live, your soil may naturally contain adequate levels of these elements. Aiding in root growth and improving establishment rates, phosphorus is needed in small amounts and tends to remain in the soil. Potassium plays an important role in enhancing your grass's resistance to cold, disease, drought, and wear and is more prone to leaching from the soil. A soil test will help you determine which nutrients your soil needs.

A fertilizer with the designation "complete" contains all three of these nutritional elements. The percentage of the bag's contents made up respectively of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, can be found by looking at the fertilizer grade. These three prominent numbers also tell you the percentage of nitrogen to phosphorus to potassium. For example, in a 50 pound bag of 20-10-10 grade, the ratio is 2:1:1, which means that 20 percent of the 50 pounds, or 10 pounds of the bag, is actual nitrogen; 10 percent (5 pounds) is phosphorous; and 10 percent (5 pounds) is potassium. The remaining 30 pounds of material in the bag may consist of additional elements such as iron and sulfur, as well as inert "filler" ingredients. Fillers are used to help ensure even distribution of the product and are frequently made from organic materials such as finely ground corn cobs.

Ratios are helpful in choosing which fertilizer to use for specific purposes. Those with a 1:2:2 ratio, such as a 6-12-12 fertilizer, are lower in nitrogen but higher in the nutrients desired when planting new grass or renovating old lawns. Fertilizers with high-nitrogen ratios of 2:1:1, 4:1:2, or 3:1:2 are frequently used for maintenance applications. They contain N, P, and K quantities closer to the plant's ongoing needs and are available in grades of 12-6-6, 16-8-8, 20-10-10, and so on.

While considering which bag of fertilizer is most appropriate for your yard, be sure to read the back label for the guaranteed analysis of the contents. If your soil test indicates that you don't need to add phosphorus or potassium, choose a bag with a low numeral or zero for that element. For example, a bag of 20-0-5 would have no phosphorus. In addition to checking the grade, you should also determine what type of nitrogen has been used, "water-soluble" or "water-insoluble."

Water-soluble nitrogen, once watered into the soil, can be immediately used by grass plants. Ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, and urea are examples of this quick-release form of nitrogen. These provide a rapid green-up, but they also have drawbacks.

Water-insoluble nitrogen, found in slow-release fertilizers, must first be broken down by soil microbes into forms grass plants can use. These slow-release sources include synthetic organics, like ureaforms, or those derived from natural organic materials, such as composted manures. To spread the release of nitrogen over time, fertilizer companies can also manipulate the size of particles and sometimes coat them as well. Because these forms take longer to dissolve, they release nitrogen at varying rates. Common examples are isobutylidene diurea (IBDU) and sulfur-coated ureas.

When buying fertilizer, opt for the water-insoluble types or other slow-release forms. Using slow-release fertilizers will allow you to reduce the amount of time you spend behind your spreader. They last much longer and don't have to be applied as frequently as quick-release fertilizers, saving you money as well as time. Determine the type of fertilizer you have by reading the guaranteed analysis on the bag. Note: Many fertilizers have a combination of both fast-release and slow-release types of nitrogen. You should check carefully to find products that derive a majority of their nitrogen from slow-release sources.

The optimal time to apply fertilizers is when the grass roots and blades are actively growing. In the North this growth season occurs during the early to mid fall, when weed competition is minimal and fertilizing produces healthy root growth. This timing also allows plants to build up needed carbohydrate stores with just a moderate amount of topgrowth. For northern lawns, you should divide the annual amount of fertilizer and apply two-thirds in early fall and the remainder in mid to late spring, after the lawn's initial green-up. Because the grasses in southern lawns have a larger blade size and grow more vigorously, they will need at least two applications of fertilizer each year. Do the first about three weeks after the initial spring green-up; then fertilize again in late summer. You can add supplemental quick-release nitrogen between these times if weak growth and poor color indicate that it's needed.

For low-maintenance lawns, you should be applying 2 pounds of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per year in the North and 2-4 pounds in the South. This may require an adjustment, given your specific growing environment, soil test results, the lawn's condition, and the type of fertilizer you use, whether slow- or fast-release. You can consult your Cooperative Extension Service for local recommendations. Quick-release fertilizers are usually applied at a rate of 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Slow-release fertilizers usually require a higher rate of application to deliver their nitrogen. Follow the manufacturer's instructions and check the calibration of your spreader, as well as the square footage of your lawn, to ensure that you are applying the right amount. Remember, more is not necessarily better with fertilizers. Applying too much may "burn" your lawn and promote thatch formation and disease.

Keep in mind that lawns kept under irrigation throughout the summer or located in areas receiving heavy rainfall will require more nitrogen than their unwatered counterparts. Sandy soils are more prone to leach nutrients, but using water-insoluble fertilizers will help nutrients remain in the soil longer. Leaving grass clippings on the lawn over the course of a year will add about 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet, so you can figure accordingly. The total amount of nitrogen that you'll need per year also varies with the type of grass you are growing. For example, Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrasses require more fertilizer than the fescues, while in the South, Bermudagrass, zoysiagrass, and St. Augustinegrass need more than bahiagrass, centipedegrass, or carpetgrass.

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LAWN DISEASE

Fungicides Fungicides have been the traditional means of treating lawn diseases. While fungicides do clear up certain problems, they unfortunately may make turf vulnerable to new ones. This happens primarily because fungicides kill off the beneficial, disease-suppressing microorganisms and fungi as well as targeted organisms. If your disease symptoms continue unabated and you feel the need to use a fungicide, use it sparingly and follow the package directions. Of the mineral-based fungicides, elemental sulfur is considered the least toxic to humans and is available in a wide range of products.

Look at the Future Nonprofit organizations, such as the Bio-Integral Resource Center (BIRC) www.birc.org in Berkeley, Calif., are studying nontraditional ways of preventing and resolving lawn diseases. These include using neem oil (which contains sulfur compounds), biological fungicides, and fungicidal soaps. Scientists are also investigating the potential for disease-prevention roles of fungi and other microorganisms. Another avenue of research involves the positive correlation between soil nutrients, such as calcium, and a grass's resistance to disease. There is much to learn, but we do know that keeping the complex ecosystem of our lawn in balance is key.

Management Practices

1. Choose recommended grass seed mixtures. Then if lawn disease does develop, not all grass types will be affected.

2. Look for improved or disease-resistant cultivars when renovating or starting new lawns.

3. Water your lawn only early in the day, from sunrise until 11 A.M.

4. Water only when needed, and then to a depth of 6 to 8 inches.

5. Maintain adequate lawn aeration and drainage.

6. Never cut off more than one-third of the grass length at one time.

7. Keep mower blades sharp.

8. Keep thatch to 1/2 inch in height.

9. Apply appropriate fertilizer, and correct nutrient deficiencies, especially calcium.

10. Prune and thin trees and tall shrubs to increase air circulation and sunlight exposure.

Using Compost: Research has shown that microorganisms present in at least one-year-old organic compost can suppress turf grass diseases. Scientists at Cornell University note that effective control of dollar spot, brown patch, and gray snow mold can be achieved with monthly applications of such "suppressive" compost. Additionally, regular topdressing also lessens the severity of pythium blight and necrotic spot infections.

Although the theory is still under investigation, plant pathologists believe that the presence of "antagonistic" microorganisms in these aged organic materials are what help them to suppress disease. Usually fungi, they are called antagonistic because they have an adverse impact on disease-causing microorganisms. They kill them, damage them, or out-compete them for food and habitat resources.

Recommended suppressive topdressings include composted manures, pulverized tree bark, leaf compost, composted garden debris, sludge (such as Milorganite), or agricultural wastes. Amending mature organic composts with commercial "innoculants" that contain beneficial microorganisms yields even greater disease suppression. Current researchers are working to identify which microorganisms fight which pathogens in hopes of creating products formulated to ward off specific diseases. In the meantime, topdressing with a 1/4-inch layer of well-aged compost one in early spring and again in fall may not only help to decrease your thatch layer, it might also give your lawn the added nutrients and microorganisms it needs to keep disease at bay.

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FALL LAWN CARE TIPS

While many homeowners look forward to less time behind their mower at the end of the summer, fall provides an opportunity to set the conditions that will give your lawn a head start come next spring. Cool-season lawns benefit the most from fall activities such as fertilization and aeration while moderate fertilization and weed control help increase spring vitality for warm-season grasses.

Fertilize Responsibly: Cool-season grasses benefit the most from fall fertilization, as the turf is busy storing energy during this time that will help the lawn over winter and spur spring growth. Dr. Van Cline, agronomist for The Toro Company, recommends applying two thirds of the annual nitrogen fertilizer requirement during the fall season for cool-season lawns.

The opposite is true for warm-season grasses, as they require greater quantities of nutrients during late spring and early summer when they are most actively growing. Cooler fall temperatures provide warm-season grasses the opportunity to increase root production while overall shoot and leaf development rates decline. While nitrogen fertilization is recommended for warm season grass in the fall, it should be limited to quantities that will keep the plant active, but not generate succulent growth that has the potential to foster winterkill.

Your local cooperative extension agent or a garden center expert can help provide you with the tools necessary to test your soil fertility and recommend a fertility program that will optimize your fertilizer applications throughout the year.

Aeration stimulates root growth and improves nutrient uptake. Fall is the best time to aerate cool-season turf, as the grass plants will quickly heal from the coring action of the aerator – especially with the help of fall fertilization and irrigation programs. Aeration allows oxygen, water, and nutrients to penetrate further into the soil, encouraging deeper root and reducing soil compaction that restricts root growth – especially during the hot summer months when healthy roots are needed to help cool-season grass survive stress conditions.

For warm-season turf, aeration is best performed in the late spring to early summer in conjunction with increased fertilizer application that help support its active warm weather growth habit.

One of the drawbacks from aeration is the production of cores that will litter your lawn. While the cores will break down over time, the use of a mulching mower will help break up the cores more quickly and provide a ‘topdressing’ for your lawn.

Some weeds are better controlled in the fall. Common, yet troublesome winter annual weeds such as henbit and chickweed germinate during the fall and over-winter as juvenile plants. By applying a post-emergent herbicide in the fall, winter annual weeds are more easily controlled and won’t have the chance to mature come springtime.

Likewise, perennial broadleaf weeds such as dandelion and clover will also have a flush of vegetative growth during periods of cooler temperatures. Controlling these weeds in the fall will help improve overall turf density while reducing spring weed populations.

Remember that not all herbicides are lawn-safe. Choose a herbicide that is effective against the types of weeds present in your lawn. The product label is your guide to effectiveness, application rate and timing and, most importantly, safe use and disposal guidelines.

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WHAT KIND OF GRASS SHOULD I PLANT?

 

Choosing the right grass for your yard can make the difference between having a low-maintenance, environmentally-friendly lawn and one that is susceptible to disease, pests, and weed invasion, and that requires a lot of upkeep. The type of seed you choose for either a new or restored lawn should depend on several factors.

1. What do you want your lawn to look like? Grasses vary in color, leaf width, habit (characteristic appearance), and density of growth.

2. How much time and money are you realistically willing to spend tending your lawn. Higher-maintenance grasses mean higher cost and time commitments.

3. Your seed choice will be affected by your site's growing conditions: the amount of sun and shade your site gets, the soil type and its level of fertility and dryness or wetness, and your climate.

4. Consider how your lawn will be used: for decorative landscaping, for erosion control, or as a play area.

Purchasing Seed
There are two ways to purchase grass seed. You can visit the garden section of a retain store and pick out a package labeled with intended use, such as "Shade mix." Or, you can buy the latest cultivars and make up your own mix. For this you will need to nose around, starting with a good nursery. If the nursery doesn't carry what you want, staff there can probably suggest where to shop. Calling the customer service departments of the large seed producers should also yield results. Either way, you will still need to know the basics about purchasing seed, beginning with the terms species and cultivar.

The word species refers to a group of closely related plants that differ from one another in only minor ways. Tall fescues are one species of lawn grass. The various members of a species are called varieties (which originally occurred in nature) or cultivars (variations that came about in cultivation, as a result of deliberate breeding). In common usage the terms variety and cultivar are often interchanged, but there is a difference between them. Grass cultivars include old standbys, such as the tall fescues, 'Alta' or 'Kentucky 31', as well as new and improved types that have been bred and chosen for superior characteristics. Newer grass cultivars, in most cases, are highly recommended.

Many people are familiar with common grass names such as Kentucky bluegrass. In addition, grass plants (like all plants) have two-part botanical names. While the mere use of such scientific names makes most people tune out, the fact is, they can be helpful, even to nonscientists.

First, botanical names pop out because they are usually italicized or underlined. The first italicized word, the genus, is capitalized and indicates a group of species that have similar structural parts. The second italicized word is the species, which is not capitalized, and indicates similar plants that can interbreed true to their parents. Knowing that Kentucky bluegrass is also called Poa pratensis allows you to identify other plants from the same genus and species. This is because their botanical names will also include the genus, Poa, and the species, pratensis.

Botanists take plant names one step further by assigning individual plants a third name that shows if they are a variety or cultivar. Varietal plants develop in nature, through natural selection. The varietal name follows the genus and species and is frequently seen italicized after the abbreviation var. For example, Poa pratensis var. Park is another name for Park, one of the original Kentucky bluegrasses.

With today's push to create improved grasses, you are more apt to come across plants that are cultivars, meaning they were created through deliberate breeding. Cultivar names also follow the genus and species but are enclosed in single quotes and are not italicized or underlined. If you were to see Poa pratensis 'America', you would know that you were dealing with a cultivar of Kentucky bluegrass called America.

Cool-season grasses are frequently packaged in either a mixture or a blend. Mixtures have two or more species of grass, and blends contain two or more cultivars of the same species. There are many advantages to planting a mixture or blend. For one thing, the turf will be more resistant to diseases and pests, because each cultivar or species has its own strengths and weaknesses. And since most lawns have a variety of growing conditions, the different grasses can grow where they are best adapted within your lawn.

In a typical mixture containing bluegrass, ryegrass, and fine fescue, the fescues will thrive in the shady portion of the lawn, while the bluegrass will do best in the sunny areas. If conditions should turn adverse for one of the grasses, you won't lose the entire lawn, just the part that's made up of the susceptible grass.

Unlike cool-season grasses, warm-season ones tend to be planted as monostands, meaning that a single type of seed is planted, not a mixture. Their growth via stolons and rhizomes makes them so vigorous that other grasses cannot compete. Because of their distinctive appearance, some grasses, such as the original tall fescues and most native grasses, also look better planted alone.

Thanks to the passage of the Federal Seed Act of 1936, grass-seed labeling must meet certain requirements. This allows you to know at a glance what is in any given box, including what percentage of the seed will germinate. When you shop for seed, it pays to compare brands closely and to remember the adage, "the lawn you grow is no better than the seed you buy". The extra expense for higher-quality seed is usually worth it. Check the labels and try to avoid mixtures containing lower-quality grasses, like timothy, meadow fescue, orchard grass, tall oatgrass, and annual ryegrass. Look also for cultivars recommended for your area by your Cooperative Extension Service.

While unused grass seed may remain viable for years, its rate of germination will decrease over time. Be sure to keep seed stored in a cool, dry environment. To maintain optimum viability, the rule of thumb for storage is that the temperature and the relative humidity added together should be less than 100.

Every grass seed package is required to have a label listing the contents. Here are some tips to help you understand the terms:

  • Species and Variety
    The label will list the species, or types, of grass seed in the bag by the common species name as well as by the specific variety name within the species. For example, "Midnight Kentucky Bluegrass" is the variety Midnight from the species Kentucky Bluegrass. A mixture of grass seed will often contain more than one species as well as more than one variety from a given species. Check with your county extension service or the experts at your local garden center to see what species mixture is best suited for your specific lawn conditions.
  • Purity
    The number listed next to the grass seed variety name indicates the purity of the seed. Purity refers to the percent, by weight, of each lawn seed in the mixture. You should look for packages with the pure seed percentage totaling 90% or more.
  • Germination
    The germination figure on the label it indicates the percent of pure seed that has been tested and should grow when planted. The germination figure should be at least 80%.
  • Crop Seed
    The crop seed number refers to the percentage of the mixture that is grown as a cash crop. It is best to find seed with less than .5% crop seed, as it may lower the quality of your lawn.
  • Inert Matter
    The inert matter on a grass seed label indicates the amount of the mixture that is incapable of growth. Think of this as “filler.” High-quality grass seed contains little inert matter.
  • Weed Seed
    The weed seed that is listed on the label indicates the percentage of weeds in the package. It is best to choose mixtures with less than .5% weed seed. Noxious weeds are extremely problematic for proper lawn growth and maintenance. To ensure quality lawns, avoid packages with noxious weeds.
  • Test Date
    Finally, the test date refers when the seed was last tested. It is best to choose seed tested within the past nine to 12 months.

 

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