How to manage your lawn for the best results in summer
Summer time! The kids are out of school. Time to relax! Go on vacation! Have fun. On a hot weekday after a long commute home from work, you look forward to being able to relax by your pool, take a swim, soak in the hot tub, or just read a book in the comfort of your backyard. Your backyard environment is important to you. Yet, the last thing you want to think about is taking care of the lawn and landscape.
Summer is the most stressful time of the year for your lawn and landscape. The hot, dry, humid weather is the perfect weather for drought and heat stress, and insect and disease problems. Changing weather will change your lawn on a daily basis. Proper maintenance practices will help your lawn and landscape endure this stressful time while improper maintenance will turn it into a brown, crunchy, ugly mat.
Despite the dry weather, the lawn is still trying to grow. If you water it, it will grow. And, for most of us, that is exactly what we want it to do. In order to keep the lawn looking the way we want it to, we have to mow it. Most of you probably think that mowing is good for the lawn. But, if you think about it, mowing is really not good for the lawns’ health, especially during stressful times. During summer, the grass plant is using all of its energy to grow.
To manage the top growth we run a machine across it that cuts the top off. This is the reason we use perennial turfgrass species like tall fescue and bluegrass for our lawn grasses: the growing points are at the base of the plant (in an area known as the crown) and in the blade collar (which wraps around the stem). This lends them to be tolerant to mowing. When you mow, you are not damaging these growing points. Rather you are cutting off the older growth. The plants’ response to mowing is to use more of its energy to replace the parts we just cut off.
So, mowing really isn’t something that is “good” for the health of the lawn. It is a management practice we perform to keep the plant looking the way we want it to. In reality, the natural growth habit of tall fescue is for it to grow several feet tall. We force it to be 3 to 4 inches high because we want that manicured look and because of all the other benefits we receive from a well manicured lawn, including pest control.
With that said, it stands to reason that there are certain things we have to do to minimize the damage we are causing when we mow. Here are some mowing tips and “must do’s” when maintaining your summer lawn.
- mowing frequency-never let the lawn get too tall.
- As the grass plant grows, the stem elongates, pushing the collar higher. If the plant is too tall, you will cut off the blades and the collar. The stem will turn brown and die causing a “stalky” look to the lawn. Your cool season lawn should be maintained at a 3-4” height. Never remove more than 1/3 of the blade at any one mowing. This means that if you are mowing at 3 ½” you should mow when the lawn is no taller than 4 ½”. “Less is better” is a good rule of thumb. Cut to remove the least amount of the plant as is reasonable without having to mow more often than necessary.
- Confirm the height you are mowing. Use a ruler. Do not rely on the settings on your equipment.
- Never mow during the heat of the day, especially on windy days. Mowing during the heat of the day can severely dehydrate the grass and it will turn brown.
Return your clippings.
- Grass clippings are 80% water and break down readily when they contact the soil. Use a mulching mower blade to cut the clippings into tiny pieces that will return to the soil. If you bag, you are taking away the very nutrients your lawn needs to grow. Returning the clippings is like an additional application or two of fertilizer through the growing season. Lawns which have the clippings returned are thicker and greener. The only exception to this is if the lawn has a heavy thatch layer. For an explanation, see “thatch” below.
Maintain a sharp mower blade.
- A dull mower blade will shred the tips of the grass blade giving the lawn a whitish look. Also, don’t move across the lawn too fast. Running across the lawn with the mower will also shred the blades.
- Be careful not to use a large garden tractor if the soil is wet.
- Heavy equipment + wet soil = soil compaction. Lighter, walk behind machines are preferred during the summer months.
Watering the right amount is also important. In most years we water the lawn to keep it green, not necessarily to keep it alive. Only during extended drought periods (2-4 months without significant rainfall) do you have to water to keep the lawn alive. Here are some watering tips to help you keep the lawn greener this summer.
- wait until your lawn shows early signs of drought stress before you water.
- Look for dark, smoky – blue looking patches of grass.
- Footprints or other tracks in the lawn visible for several minutes (or longer) after they are made are signs of drought stress.
- Concentrate your watering in these areas. If the rest of the lawn is green and certain areas are stressed, water just the stressed areas. Watering after the lawn turns brown will not be as beneficial.
- Try to water as early in the morning as possible, just as the sun is coming up. Be sure to finish watering when the sun gets high. If morning watering is inconvenient, early evening watering (4:30PM to 6:30PM) is ok. Just be sure to stop in time for the lawn to dry before it gets dark. If early evening watering is preferred, be sure to let the hose run for a few minutes before you hook up and run the sprinkler. If the hose has been lying out all day long, it is more than likely filled with hot water.
DO NOT WATER AT NIGHT
- When nighttime temperatures rise above 68 degrees and there is high relative humidity, DO NOT WATER AT NIGHT!
- The predisposing factor for the development of brown patch disease and crabgrass is wet conditions at night during the hot, humid periods of the summer. Deep and infrequent watering is preferred over frequent shallow, watering. Watering deeply, (only when the lawn shows signs of stress) forces a deeper-rooted plant. Therefore, it will be able to access subsurface moisture and require less irrigation.
- Watering should be thorough, so that the water penetrates at least 3” into the soil. Because the soil composition in different areas varies so much, it is difficult to tell you how long you have to water to accomplish this. It’s best for you to check the soil penetration by actual inspection until you have a good sense of how much water it will take for moisture to reach the proper depth in your particular lawn. Use a nail or screwdriver. If you can easily push these into the soil to 3”, you have probably watered enough.
Thatch can be defined as the intermingled layer of living and dead plant parts that accumulates between the soil surface and the green part of the grass plant. In order to see the thatch layer, you have to dig out a square of sod with a spade, or pull a core with a probe. It is that dark area just above the soil. Thatch is a natural bi-product of a healthy lawn. A light layer of thatch (less than ½”) is beneficial and actually important. It increases wear tolerance and reduces soil compaction by providing a cushioning effect, acts like mulch and helps the soil to retain moisture, and helps to keep the soil temperature cooler. However, a thatch layer that is greater than ½” can cause problems. The adverse effects of a heavy thatch layer are:
- Decreased turf vigor
- Restricted movement of air, water and nutrients into the soil
- Decreased tolerance to temperature and drought stress
- Increased safe habitat for insects and disease
- Good conditions for the decomposition of organic matter are essential for the management of thatch build up. Proper fertilization, proper pH, good drainage and good conditions for microorganisms and earthworms that breakdown organic matter is important to limit excessive accumulation of thatch.
Core Aeration in the fall can help reduce thatch. Every lawn should be aerated once every 2-3 years; more often in heavy clay soils and newly established turf. Aeration is the process by which a power driven machine removes cores of soil about 2-3” apart and deposits them back onto the soil surface.
This effectively top dresses the thatch layer with soil, and brings with it microorganisms which helps organic matter breakdown. Aeration also improves air, water and nutrient penetration to the root zone. Along with aeration, it is a good idea to apply a top-dressing of compost or other organic matter. Compost topdressing with core aeration will further aid the breakdown of thatch, and will add nutrients and microorganisms necessary to enrich the soil and replenish vital organic matter and beneficial microorganisms essential for the establishment of a beautiful lawn. MRW Lawns, Inc can provide these and other seeding services to help revitalize your lawn after the long hot summer.
There are many benefits we receive from maintaining a healthy, beautiful lawn and landscape. Peace of mind, quiet enjoyment of our home environment, pest control, among others. It seems just when we get things looking “perfect”, Mother Nature has a different opinion on how things should look. While following the above maintenance recommendations will help you keep the lawn healthy during stressful times, the “perfect” summer lawn is probably an unrealistic expectation. So, just do the best you can (or want to). Enjoy the summertime while it lasts. The cooler weather and rains of fall are only a few months away, and, Mother Nature will help to rejuvenate the lawn. Of course, we are here to help your lawn through the dog days of summer. Don’t hesitate to call should you have questions or concerns.
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