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written by joseph cash

The very basics-- All green plants need several elements to grow and flourish. Lawns are made up of thousands of grass plants, usually all of one species and variety.

lawn grasses

 Sun - Lawns need a six hours of direct sunlight in the growing season. In the southern US, five hours is enough. Some grasses are called "shade grasses" and can grow satisfactorily with a little less light.

 There are several ways to deal with insufficient light. If trees are shading the area, trim some of the branches, any that are damaged, too close together, or hang near the ground. A tree with low limbs casts more intense shade.

  If you plan on planting a tree where it will shade the yard, choose one with a more open canopy that will cast only mottled shade.

  If the shade is due to a fence, replace it with one that lets more sun through, at least through the upper section.

  Some lawn areas can benefit from reflected sunlight. The north side of my house would have low light levels except for the next door neighbor's three large, south-facing windows which cast considerable reflected light on the area.

  In a few situations you might be able to reflect a modest amount of light on a lawn area by painting nearby structures such as a wooden fence white instead of black. The painted wall would have to be in direct sun for a good part of the day to reflect much light. Using landscape lights to help grow grass would probably not be practical.

 You can give the grass in a marginal area the best chance possible by reducing all other factors that might be stressing it. Water the grass when needed, raise the mowing height, and take care of pest, disease, and weed problems. You can eliminate the problem of foot traffic by installing stepping stones or concrete paving blocks. Lay them out about a foot apart, draw the outline in the turf with a garden trowel, then remove the soil within the outlines so that the top of each stepping stone is at ground level and can be easily mowed over.

 Try shade grass mixtures where other grasses won't work. (See grass types below.)

  If you have an area that receives less than a couple of hours of direct sun, you should try growing something other than grass in that area-- a ground cover or a "shade flower garden", or cover the area in mulch.

  Of course, the amount of shade casts by a tree or structure changes with the seasons and the angle of the sun. Trees that lose their leaves have less shade in the fall, winter, and spring. In June when the sun is the highest in the northern hemisphere, noon shadows are shorter and the intensity of the light is stronger supporting more plant growth. To calculate solar angles: Solar Angle Calculator.

 Soil - The dirt in which the grass is rooted is the source for the minerals and water that plants need every day. A thick, fertile soil promotes plant growth, keeping the yard grasses healthy and looking good. Thick, healthy grass crowds out weeds and discourages or minimizes the damage insects and diseases may cause.

 You can improve your soil by adding top soil to your yard or adding compost or other organic amendments to your lawn soil. It is best to use sterile top soil from a garden center since dirt from most sources will introduce weed seeds to your yard. You can add about an inch of soil to growing grass without smothering the grass if you rake it in and wash it off the leaves then delay mowing for a couple of weeks. The same can be done with sand though you can not leave a pile of sand sitting long if you live in a windy area.

You can order top soil by the truckload if you need a lot. Raking into the entire yard can be a considerable amount of work.

  To get the most out of your lawn, get the soil tested by the local agricultural extension service. The test can tell you what nutrients are lacking and whether you need to make the soil less acid by adding lime. Testing Garden Soil  

  •  Water - Lawn grasses use a lot of water, usually about an inch a week in summer.  If rainfall does not provide enough moisture, watering is necessary to keep the grass from turning brown and becoming dormant or even dying out. Watering is best done in the cool parts of the day when there is less evaporation, preferably when there is no wind.

      Most people use overhead sprinklers attached to a water hose to provide the necessary water. The sprinkler is moved about to cover the entire yard.

     Fertilizers - The chemicals that are most needed for the growth of plants are fertilizers; they supplement the minerals in the soil. Organic fertilizers are naturally occurring materials such as compost or manure that contain a small to moderate amount of these chemicals. They act over a longer period of time.

      Chemical fertilizers are commonly available manufactured materials that usually give a quick boost to plant growth.

      Lawn fertilizers are usually granular and are distributed with drop spreaders. The user pushers the spreader across the yard as the fertilizer drops out the bottom. Settings on the spreader tell the user how thickly to drop the fertilizer. Lawn fertilizers contain mostly nitrogen, the element needed for leaf growth.

     Lawn fertilizers typically contain approximately 30 per cent nitrogen. Some lawn fertilizers also contain herbicides to control weeds making them convenient, if more expensive. It is common to fertilize in the spring when the grass starts growing and about every two months afterwards.

    lawn grasses
    Air - All grass roots need air in the soil to grow. Soil that has been compacted by foot or vehicle traffic has little room for air, and the roots have a harder time growing than in loose soil. Vehicles running over a lawn can also leave ruts which may make mowing difficult. Loose soils absorb more water and have less runoff during heavy rains. All soils can become compacted but clay soils have the greatest problem.

    Walking on grass also directly damages the leaves and crown, the center of the plant from which new leaves grow. Of course, turf grasses have much more tolerance for being stepped on than any other kind of plant. However, bare spots will eventually form whenever the damage is too great or too frequent. You can fortify the grass by keeping it watered and fertilized and by not mowing it too closely. Some types of grass, such as Bermuda, can stand more wear than others.

    The best solution is to redirect foot traffic, if possible. Otherwise, it may be necessary to put in a sidewalk or stepping stones.

    Some people prefer pathways with gravel or coarse bark mulch. These are attractive but need to be maintained. Weeds and leaf litter need to be removed, and occasional replenishment of the paving material is required. Paths need edging to keep the grass from growing into it and to keep the loose material from being kicked into the grass.

    Types of bark commonly used include pine, cedar, cypress, and eucalyptus, all commonly available at garden centers in bags of about 40 pounds. Pine is usually the cheapest. Cedar and eucalyptus have resins that repel many insects just as cedar chests deter moths. The coarsest chunks of bark last the longest and are less likely to become scattered due to wind, rain runoff, or foot traffic.

    Many yards can benefit from aeration, which involves poking holes in the turf to eliminate compaction of the soil, allowing air and water to reach the roots. Rental centers have mechanical lawn aerators available.

    If the area is small you can aerate by hand with a garden fork. The prongs should be inserted every four to six inches three or four inches deep. The fork can be rocked back and forth to increase the hole size. Having a well aerated soil allows the roots to grow more freely and results in healthier and more vigorous lawn. Video

     Grasses- Obviously, lawns are made of grass plants, but not all grasses grow equally in all areas, you need one that is suited to your area. If you are starting a yard, grass can be started by seeding, by sprigging (sprigs are small plugs of live grass clumps), and by laying sod.

      Sod is a small section of turf (green grass with about two inches of soil that the roots are holding together), that can be laid on bare ground in order to quickly start or repair a lawn. Pallets of sod can be purchased from landscaping companies which have crews to lay it out. They fit the sod blocks together to make a full, even lawn. Video

      The key is finding out what type of grass is best for your area. Grasses are divided between hot climate grasses, such as bermuda grass, and cool climate grasses like fescue.Climate zones of lawn grasses

    Choosing A Lawn Grass

     Bermuda Grass grows well in warm climates and likes full sun. It can take moderately heavy foot traffic, grows quickly in the spring, but slows down and becomes dormant during really hot weather. 
  •   Bemuda turns brown in winter, and when it has too little water. Once established, it grows very aggressively by runners and underground rhizomes and has to be edged to keep it from growing over sidewalks or into flower beds. It is considered to be high maintenance but is commonly used though out the southern United States.

     Newer, more cold tolerant varieties extend bermuda grass planting area further north allowing a choice of a more drought resistant species in the transition zone. Examples are Rivera, Yukon, and Mohawk.  Other grasses-- Kentucky bluegrass is consider the best of the lawn grasses in climates a little cooler than where bermuda does best.  Fine-textured, it tolerates more shade but does not hold up to foot traffic as well.

      Fescue is coarser than bermuda and grows in definite clumps. The fescues are cool season grasses that are adapted to the northern United States, the transition zone, and Canada. The fescue species are easily seeded and include the sub species of tall bunching grasses named tall fescue and fine shorter fescues named creeping red, and hard sheep fescue.

    All of the fescues are somewhat shade tolerance, stay green all year, and have good drought resistance. Fine Fescues are more cold and shade tolerant than tall fescue. Fescue grows faster than bermuda and will stand out in a yard that has a mix of grasses, meaning you may have to mow a mixed grass yard a little more often.

     Centipede grass has probably the lowest maintenance of the warm season grasses. Its popularity stems from the tenacity to grow on poor, sandy soils to clay based ones.

      Centipede should not be heavily fertilized. It has few problems, but it should not be mowed lower than two inches since it can be easily damaged by scalping.

     Zoysia grass is a fine textured, heat resistant grass consider to be low maintenance but it is very slow to become established. St. Augustine grass is a lush growing coarse grass that grows well in areas around the Gulf of Mexico.

     Buffalo Grass grows on the dry high plains of North America. It is only four inches tall and seldom needs mowing or watering, but it grows in sparse clumps that leave bare spots. It is better as a pasture than a lawn grass and is acceptable only where no other grass will grow.

    Selecting a mower (from Briggs and Stratton)

     Mowing is a necessary chore to maintain a lawn's uniform appearance.   Bermuda grass needs mowing about once a week during the spring in order to keep it about one to one and a half inches in height. Mowing intervals can be extended a little during the hot season as the grass becomes semi dormant.

     It is a good idea to raise mowing height in the warmer months to help shade the ground. You should not remove more than one third the height of the grass at one time. Scalping the yard looks bad and may damage the turf.

      Some people prefer to rake the mowed grass or gather it with bagging mowers. Grass cuttings decompose quickly if not too thick, but if gathered up can be use to make excellent compost or mulch for your garden.

     If you have a large yard, you will need a riding mower. IF you have more than an acre or two, you may need a lawn tractor, a mower that looks like a minature tractor. People who lack physical strength may need a self-propelled mower even for a small yard, that is a mower that pulls itself forward.

     Most lawns will need edging once a month along walkways, driveways, fences, or flower bed borders. This keeps the grass from invading unwanted areas and keeps the lawn looking neat.

     Mowers and gas powered edgers need care in the fall in order to be ready for the next season, especially removing or using up all gasoline so that it does not congeal during the winter. Video

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