Luscious Lawns: Feeding, Seeding Are At The Root Of Healthy Turf

Enfield homeowner Jim LaMondia takes meticulous care of his lawn, testing the pH level, fertilizing, watering.

A plant pathologist for the Connecticut Agricultural Station in Windsor, LaMondia knows more than the average homeowner about what it takes to grow a green lawn.

You can take a tip from LaMondia and other experts if you find that your lawn has become more dirt or weeds than grass. Now, they say, is the time to start preparations to transform it for summer.

To start your lawn revival, get rid of dead grass and leaves to allow water, air and nutrients to move through the soil.

``A good hard raking is tough on a big lawn, but it works,'' said Lance Walheim, a horticulturist and author of ``Lawn Care for Dummies'' (IDG Books, $16.99).

Although a dethatching blade on a mower can do the job, Walheim said, a power rake is best. Power rakes resemble lawn mowers but have blades that cut down to soil surface.

As you're cleaning up, take time to fortify your soil to help it sustain lush grass.

Know Your Soil

To find out what the soil may need, test it. The University of Connecticut Home and Garden Education Center will test soil samples for a fee, ranging from $2 to $10, depending on the type of test. Staff at the center will make recommendations based on the results, which will take a lot of the guesswork out of lawn care.

The center tests for the pH level, nutrients, organic matter and soil texture. The cost to test for pH, a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the soil, is $2. Other, more expensive tests determine levels of nutrients, organic matter and soil texture.

``It [testing] isn't absolutely necessary, but it is a good idea,'' Walheim said. The right pH level is important. ``Proper soil pH ensures that your lawn will be able to absorb the nutrients it needs and remain healthy and green,'' he said.

For a random soil sample, dig with a trowel straight down about 3 to 4 inches in 10 or more places in the lawn, said Edmund L. Marrotte, consumer horticulturist and director of UConn's Home and Garden Education Center.

Put the soil in a clean bucket, mix thoroughly and then remove 1 cup for testing. Seal the sample in a plastic bag that zips shut. If you are sending more than sample, label the bags. The center recommends testing more than one sample if the lawn has different degrees of slope, drainage or appears to contain different types of soil.

Treating The Soil

If the test determines a pH imbalance, the analysis will recommend adding either limestone (to increase alkalinity) or sulfur (to increase acidity).

Most lawn grasses do well in a slightly acid soil with a pH of about 6.5 to 7.0. If the test results are below 6.5, your lawn is too acidic and if it is above 7.5, it is too alkaline for most types of grass.

Testing can also provide specific information about how much fertilizer is needed and how often it should be applied.

The best time to apply fertilizer is in the fall. The next best time is in the spring, said Walheim. ``Proper fertilization insures a healthy, dense turf that is durable and resists weeds and other pests,'' he said. ``In truth, most lawns can get by with one or two feedings a year.''

But too much of a good thing can damage a lawn and the rest of the environment. ``Over-fertilizing can burn a lawn, increase thatch, cause pollution and require constant mowing,'' Walheim said. Too much nitrogen can run off and pollute groundwater, streams and lakes.

Marrotte, the horticulturist at UConn's garden center, concurs. ``If a lawn gets a lot of nitrogen, there is a lot of top growth at the expense of the roots,'' he said.

Homeowners should follow label instructions on the fertilizer and distribute it with a good lawn spreader. Other types of fertilizers include synthetic, organic, time-release and combination, Walheim said. Walheim advises against applying combination fertilizer, which includes herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, without knowing what type of pest needs to be controlled.

Choosing Grass Seed

Once the soil is fortified, the next step is to select the right kind of seed. ``Different types of grass adapt better or worse to different situations of sun, shade, coastal conditions or heavy traffic,'' Walheim said.

Grasses like Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue that do well in climates with limited periods of hot, dry weather are best adapted to Connecticut; for a shady lawn, red fescue may be preferable.

Quality grass seed makes a difference in how well the lawn survives drought and various diseases, according to the experts at the UConn Home and Garden Center.

The center advises using a blend of two or more of the following: Kentucky bluegrass, fine-leaved fescue, perennial ryegrass and the turf-type tall fescue. If one type is more susceptible to a certain disease, the entire lawn won't die when attacked.

When purchasing grass seed, check the label for the amount of weed seed and inert matter. ``Quality seed will have little or no inert matter and less than 1 to 2 percent weed seed,'' said Walheim.

The best time to plant grass seed in Connecticut is usually late April or early May, when the soil temperature is about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, Marrotte said.


Mowing the grass below 2 inches, especially during the hottest periods in the summer, can damage grass roots, Marrotte said. Taller grass has deeper roots and is more drought-resistant, so lengthening the time between mowings when the weather is dry and hot will keep it healthy.

If the lawn's recommended height is 2 inches, then it should be mowed when it reaches 3 inches, Walheim said. He also suggests leaving the clippings on the lawn if you mow once a week because it contributes important nutrients to the lawn.

``Heavy clippings can smother the lawn which is what you'd usually have if you only mow every two weeks, but that depends on the lawn,'' he said.

When To Water

A dry lawn will let you know when it needs to be watered. When you can see your footprints and the grassis no longer dark green but rather a blue-gray, it's time to get out the sprinkler, said Walheim.

Watering the lawn in the morning works well, he said, but to get optimal results, water twice a day.

The water needs to soak to a depth of about 1 inch per week to reach the deep roots. Deep watering is usually recommended over several light applications that won't reach the roots as well.

To determine how long it will take to apply 1 inch of water, put cups at random spots where the spray will hit. Time how long it takes for 1 inch of water to accumulate in the cups. If watering twice a day, simply halve the amount of time.

Aerating, or punching holes in the soil to allow air to get to the roots, may also be necessary to improve drainage. It usually improves water and nutrient penetration. According to Walheim, aerating annually is one of the best things you can do for our lawn.

Calling In The Experts

Many lawns have other problems that require more complex solutions. Seek advice from the staff at a local nursery or at Uconn's Home and Garden Education Center.

The experts can help with advice on eradicating or controlling moss and weeds, as well as grubs and other unwanted pests.

Healthy lawns have fewer problems with pests and weeds. Weeds generally grow better in infertile soil, or in overly wet, dry or compacted soil. Even proper mowing can help keep weeds out of the lawn because weed seeds and seedlings won't thrive in the shade of the grass. If the lawn is kept too short, the weeds suck up the light and will flourish, according to Walheim.

As for herbicides or pesticides, most horticulturists advise caution when using these products for environmental reasons. These products should be a last resort.

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The Home and Garden Education Center is at Ratcliffe Hicks Building, Room 4, 1380 Storrs Road, U-115, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269-4115; 860-486-6271 or 877-486-6271; fax: 860-486-6338; or on the Web: