Bartlett on Gardening: Greener Grass

Grass is not interesting to photograph. It just lies there. That's why master gardener Ann Bartlett took this photograph of grass adorned with a cow sculpture in Vienne on her recent horticultural tour of la belle France.

Don’t you wish grass would grow as well in the lawn as it does in the flowerbeds?

I’ve read and heard that all it takes to grow great grass is water and fertilizer. But when I lived across the street from a golf course, I saw groundskeeping crews out daily at first light. I’ve no idea what they were doing, but I never saw them water, fertilize or mow. The dawn patrol had a routine that was way out of the homeowners’ league.

Getting back to the fundamentals of water and fertilizer, I confess that I lavish more of both on my flowers. But grass needs them, too. Kentucky bluegrass can use 1.1 to 1.9 inches of water weekly during the growing season. Tall fescue can use 2 to 3.5 inches of water weekly. Grasses take up water through their root systems. If water is below the roots, it isn’t doing the lawn any good.

(Photo: What did we tell you?)

During the cooler months, turf roots run deep. However, during the hottest months, the root zone shortens dramatically. For practical purposes, this means that when rain falls short of the lawn’s needs, a good soak is beneficial in the spring, but frequent shallow watering is best in the dog days of summer.

If you only fertilize the lawn once a year, do so in late fall. As the top is going dormant, the roots will take in the nutrients in preparation for a strong spring growth period. Whether you have fescue or bluegrass, this late fall application should contain one third of your lawn’s annual nitrogen needs. In the case of bluegrass, this would be 1.33 pounds per 1000 square feet. Fescue needs one pound per thousand square feet. Being arithmetically challenged, I have to get help translating these recommendations into bags of fertilizer. Fortunately, the manufacturers have helpful information on the labels.

We generally see the last of Jack Frost in mid-April. This is a good time for an application of one half pound of nitrogen per thousand square feet to both fescue and bluegrass turf. Do not apply fertilizer to either of these lawns during the stressful heat of summer when they naturally slow down in growth. They do benefit from an application of one pound of nitrogen per thousand square feet around Labor Day.

Throughout the lawn-mowing season, never take off more than one third of the grass blade length and leave the clippings on the lawn. Research has shown that these decompose in four days. This practice does not promote thatch buildup. It does give your lawn one quarter of its annual nitrogen requirement with no added effort or expense to you.

(Photo: Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil, reducing need for fertilizer.)

Research has demonstrated that mowing height is directly related to root depth. To promote deeper roots, mow the lawn on the tall side. A fescue lawn would be mowed at a height of 2.5 to 4 inches, while bluegrass would be 2 to 3 inches tall. There are additional advantages to this practice. One is ​​that the grass needs to be mowed less often. The taller turf shades the roots, reducing ​​water evaporation while preventing weeds from getting the light they need to grow.

Welcome to of another season of turf care. You can count on me to mow high and violate the one-third rule!

Master gardener Ann Bartlett recently returned from a European trip--she wanted to see if the grass was greener on the other side of the Atlantic--to find that her lawn needed mowing.

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