In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
May, 2003
Regional Report

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What could be more inviting than sitting on a lush lawn in the shade?

Enjoy That Lawn But Plan to Keep It Healthy

At this lush time of year, it's so appealing to sit in the soft new grass and just enjoy the outdoors. Although spring rains have provided plenty of moisture, it's still critical to plan for summer, especially because so many are predicting a very dry season.

Reduce Fertilizer
One of the first steps to drought-proofing your lawn is to reduce fertilization. Commercial recommendations -- using three or four pounds of nitrogen per thousand square feet every year -- is not necessary and may even be harmful to your lawn, especially in dry times. Grass does need to be fertilized, but strong, healthy, cool-climate lawns need to be fertilized only once or twice a year. Most types of grass need only one pound of actual nitrogen per 1000 square feet, half applied in spring and half in fall.

Applying excess fertilizer, particularly when a lawn is not actively growing in midsummer, increases the lawn's susceptibility to disease. The grass becomes soft and succulent, a perfect host for fungal disease. Excess fertilizer also makes the grass grow faster, requiring more frequent mowing and more water to keep it healthy. So, it becomes a vicious cycle.

One of the best free fertilizers is grass clippings. Keep mower blades sharp and let grass clippings fall whether you have a mulching mower or not. The clippings are made up of mostly water and decompose quickly, returning nitrogen to the lawn that would otherwise end up in the landfill.

Importantly, grass clippings do not contribute to thatch. Thatch is a mix of partially decomposed roots and crowns, and is usually a problem on over-fertilized lawns or lawns with compacted soil. A healthy lawn has enough soil surface area between the grass crowns to allow the grass clippings to come in contact with the soil and decompose immediately.

Set Mower High
The next drought-proofing practice is to mow your lawn high. Keeping the lawn at a height of at least three inches encourages strong, deep roots and puts minimal stress on the grass plants. More leaf surface provides plentiful carbohydrates, which feed the grass plants. Longer leaf blades also shade weeds from the sun, helping to eventually eliminate many weeds. It's important to mow often enough to only remove one third of the grass blade at a time.

Water Efficiently
If rain is insufficient, water once a week, long and deeply. Water in the morning to reduce evaporation and allow the grass to dry before evening. Grass needs one inch of water each week, and the best way to check this is to use a rain gauge when you are watering. In a summer of drought, it's certainly more ecologically sound to allow the lawn to go dormant rather than continur to water it. Although a dormant lawn is brown and looks as if it has completely stopped growing, it is still essential that you give it 1/4 inch of water every two weeks in order to keep the grass crowns alive.

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