You can find me at your workplace/school, home, or local park. I support you at outdoor sports games. I am with you when you take your dog for a walk or when you stop for a summer picnic. Who am I?
The answer is turfgrass!
Turfgrasses are a unique set of grasses that tolerate mowing and traffic. They are different from tall grasses you might see in a prairie – or along a beach.
Turfgrasses densely cover land. Common types of turfgrasses in the United States include favorites like bermudagrass, Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, St. Augustinegrass, tall fescue, and zoysiagrass. The type of turfgrass that thrives in your region is dependent on climate.
Among the many benefits of healthy turfgrasses are:
- Improving air quality by producing oxygen.
- Storing carbon in the soil.
- Reducing air temperatures relative to hardscapes like roads, sidewalks and buildings or compared to artificial turf. This is important in urban landscapes.
- Assisting the soil ecosystem with capturing and retaining water from rain and snowmelt, and returning it to our groundwater systems.
- Adding economic value to our communities through sports fields, parks and other areas for recreation.
- Providing green space for relaxation and enjoying nature.
To fully reap environmental benefits, lawns must be healthy. Producing and maintaining a quality lawn requires decisions about key areas of management:
- Soil; and,
- Labor (mowing, etc.)
The way you choose to manage your lawn has trade-offs. The best decisions involve a balanced approach. The result will be a lawn with full, deeply-rooted, healthy plants!
Let’s look at decisions with regard to fertilizer use. Without fertilization, turf will be sparse. Sparse turfgrass can make the lawn susceptible to weeds, and increase runoff and soil erosion. These factors result in reduced environmental quality.
However, when too much fertilizer is applied or applied incorrectly, nutrients may be leached or runoff, and plant pests may increase. Over-fertilized lawns need more mowing, which burns fossil fuels. In this case, the benefits provided by turf may be outweighed by the negative impacts of the management style.
Scientists have studied, and reported on, the best practices for turfgrass care. The following is a brief description of necessary steps to maximize turf health with an emphasis on minimizing the amount of time and inputs dedicated to your lawn. Not all grass species are maintained the same; you can search for more specific details on these steps by contacting your local extension educator or browsing science-based information specific to your state and its climate.
1. Mowing tips
Most lawn grasses perform best at a mowing height of 3.0 to 4.0 inches. Setting the mower high allows your grasses to grow deeper roots. This reduces the need to water and decreases the frequency that you’ll need to mow.
Mow as often as needed to never remove more than 1/3 of the leaf blade in a single mowing. In other words, if your mower is set at 3.0 inches, mow when the grass reaches 4.5 inches. This might be once or twice per week during periods of optimum moisture and growing temperatures but less often (every 2 to 3 weeks) during dry spells or cool weather.
Mow with a sharp blade. Keeping your mower blade sharp improves the health of the individual grass plants. Inspect the leaf blades for a clean edge. If you find shredded looking leaf tips, it’s time to sharpen your mower blade.
Leave the grass behind! Returning the clippings returns valuable nutrients without harming the turf. It also saves you a lot of time. Modern mulching mowers are effective for returning clippings, but older side-discharge mowers will also work adequately.
2. Fertilizing tips
Check for local, science-based recommendations on the best time to fertilize your turf (see links above). The amount you should apply varies by turfgrass species. Consult your local extension educator to verify what species of turfgrass are in your lawn. Fertilizing at the right rate and the right time of year will improve turf health and quality. Cool-season grasses (bluegrasses, ryegrasses, fescues) should be fertilized in the late summer and fall and optionally followed by lighter fertilizer applications in late spring. Warm-season grasses (bermudagrass, St. Augustinegrass, zoysiagrass, etc.) need to be fertilized during periods of active growth starting in late spring through the summer. Most modern lawn fertilizer bags/labels also provide helpful application information, so reading labels is important.
3. Irrigating tips
Grasses are generally drought tolerant plants. In some climates and during drought, lawns need watering to maintain their density and health. Overwatering is a common error of homeowners. Water only as needed when the lawn first shows signs of water stress, and follow your local regulations. Initial drought symptoms include a bluish-gray color of the grass and/or footprints that remain for an extended period after walking across the lawn. Alternatively, water every 3 to 4 weeks after the lawn has gone dormant (turned brown) to prevent significant thinning, death of the lawn during droughts. Once rains return the lawn will slowly recover and regain its green color.
4. Choosing Seed or Sod?
If your lawn is in disrepair, consider reseeding or sodding it with improved turfgrass varieties. A research-based listing of drought tolerant, low-input varieties is available at http://a-listturf.org/ and http://www.tgwca.org/. Consult publications from your closest Land Grant College on best practices to establish seed or sod.
5. Cultivating your lawn
The soil under your lawn can become compacted from construction or traffic. This limits the ability of plants to absorb water and nutrients and grow a deep root system. Consider using an aerator to cultivate your lawn to reduce thatch, improve water infiltration and soil aeration, and increase rooting.
6. Controlling crabgrass
If you are practicing the first five steps (cultural practices) recommended, you should have little problem with crabgrass. While researchers are examining biological and organic pest control options, the effectiveness of these options is limited in our research trials. For lawns with a history of crabgrass, apply a preemergence herbicide in the later winter or early spring. Applying herbicides at the right time is crucial in weed control. Again, consult your local extension educator for more advice on product selection and application timing, as it varies by location and turfgrass species.
7. Controlling broadleaf weeds
Broadleaf weeds (dandelions, chickweed, violet, henbit, etc.) are often the most visible, and often considered the most unsightly, plants in a lawn. Following the first five steps will minimize problems broadleaf weeds. If broadleaf weed problems still persist, mid-October applications of broadleaf herbicides are effective. In many cases, spot spraying an herbicide directly on the occasional weed is all that is needed for minor weed problems. Be sure to read and follow all label instructions when using herbicides. Confirm the herbicide you plan to use is labeled to control the weeds you have and is safe to use on your lawn species. If weeds are minimal, you can get ahead of them by hand-pulling – a good task for the younger members of your family!
8. Testing your soil
Established turfgrasses have fibrous roots systems capable of efficiently accessing and taking up nutrients. However, in some circumstances, such as in urban areas where top soil is removed during construction, nutrients in the soil may be lacking. Contact your local extension educator for assistance in collecting and submitting soil samples for testing. Typically, a test costs $15.
As we move from winter to spring this year, I hope this information will help you to consider the impact of the turf around you and help you to maintain your own lawn. I encourage you to connect with your local extension educator or search the website of your closest Land-Grant Institution to learn more.
Aaron Patton, Purdue University
About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.