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Secrets to a gorgeous lawn

Their grass is always greener, so we asked the experts for their top tips

By Ami Albernaz
Globe Correspondent / July 3, 2010

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Summer’s here and, despite your best efforts, the lawn looks . . . not so great. It’s patchy, studded with weeds, and don’t even talk about color. So, what’s gone wrong? We asked landscapers, lawn-care professionals, horticulturists, and soil specialists for help, collecting their top tips for getting grass greener and healthier. Turns out, one secret to having a great lawn is knowing your property and accepting the fact that, for better or worse, your lawn may be different from your neighbor’s. That said, there’s plenty you can do to get your lawn looking lush — starting now.

FILL IN EVERY AVAILABLE SPACE WITH GRASS SEED

“You want to have a thick, full lawn,’’ said Chris Kennedy, owner of Kennedy’s Country Gardens in Scituate. “Mother Nature or whoever you believe in is trying to fill every inch of soil in. So if there’s space, a weed will probably grow in. I usually say grass seed is your friend; if you use it to fill in where you have empty spaces, there won’t be room for the weeds.’’

Kennedy says you can seed anytime there’s a space in your lawn that could use filling in. If you do put seed down, though, you’re going to have to commit to watering frequently, especially at the beginning.

“This is an important tip,’’ he says. “If you can’t afford a sprinkler system, you could buy a timer for $50. Hook it up to your outdoor faucet, hook a hose to that, and run it to where you’re putting your seed. You can hook a sprinkler up to it. You can set it up to turn on for a few minutes several times a day.’’

Once the seeds have germinated and the grass is high enough to have been mowed a couple of times, you can water it less often, but for longer amounts of time.

“You might be watering every other day or every three days at that point,’’ he says. “Instead of five minutes several times a day, it may be 20 to 30 minutes two or three times a week.’’

The reason for less frequent but more intense watering is so the water seeps deeper into the ground and the roots reach down farther. Ultimately, Kennedy says, “the deeper the roots go down, the better they can handle dryness and fluctuations.’’

Should you be wondering what type of grass seed to use, Kennedy recommends “a diverse portfolio.’’

“You don’t want to invest all your stock in bluegrass, or ryegrass, or fescue,’’ he says. “The predominant one people are talking about now is fescue. It tends to tolerate tougher conditions.’’

DON’T CUT YOUR GRASS TOO SHORT

The most important lawn-care tip to keep in mind during the summer is mowing height, said Bill Joseph, plant health care manager at Lynch Landscape and Tree Service in Wayland. “You want to cut the grass to 2 1/2 to 3 inches in the summertime. In the spring and fall, maybe starting at the end of August, you can bring it back down to 2, 2 1/2 inches.’’

A longer length helps the grass retain more moisture, minimize evaporation, and keeps the ground cooler, he says. “Cutting it short in the summertime it will turn it yellow real quick,’’ he says.

Another tip: Don’t bag the grass clippings. “If you can use a mulching mower and leave the clippings, they’ll go back and feed the lawn,’’ he said. “There’s a good amount of nitrogen in those clippings, so you could probably use about a quarter less fertilizer. That little layer of grass clippings also helps retain moisture and helps conserve water.’’

Joseph recommends mowing often, at least once a week. “The rule of thumb is you don’t want it to get too long,’’ he says. “You don’t want to take more than one-third of the grass blade off at a time, because you’re taking a lot of its stored nutrients away.’’

In terms of watering, aim for around an inch a week, Joseph said. If you don’t have a rain gauge, you can use a tuna can or other shallow can to measure water.

ALTERNATE THE DIRECTION YOU MOW

Besides keeping grass 3 inches high and making sure the mowing blade is sharp, you should also alternate the direction of the mowing.

“If you mow in the same direction every week, you might see tire marks in the turf grass,’’ Richard Carter, owner of My Lawn Guy, LLC in Andover. “If you mow one week in one direction, and then one week in the opposite, and another at an angle, there won’t be tire marks. You’ll see a checkerboard pattern. It looks fantastic.’’

Grass mowed this way will also be healthier, Carter adds. “If you’re mowing in a certain direction, grass will grow in that direction, and sometimes die in that direction.’’

As for watering, Carter and others we spoke with say the early-morning hours are the best. “If you’re watering at night, the moisture just sits there. It’s on the turf grass much longer than you want it to be. You want the sun to dry it off.’’

TEST YOUR SOIL

“The most important thing to know if you want to have a healthy lawn is that if you hire a professional, that’s only 50 percent of the battle,’’ said Ted Wales, turf specialist with Hartney Greymont in Needham. “The other 50 percent is the most important. It’s cultural practices like mowing and watering. Without proper mowing and watering, these other things aren’t going to solve the problem. It’s a partnership. You have to take an interest in it; you can’t just hire it out.’’

Plants like a steady environment, Wales said. In terms of mowing, grass “can be 1 inch, 3 inches, or 6 inches, but keep it to that.’’

Wales recommends soil testing every two years. The pH probably won’t change significantly from year to year, but it’s important to keep an eye on it.

“PH affects nutrient availability,’’ he says. “If the pH isn’t properly balanced, nutrients won’t go in.’’ For soil that is acidic, as it tends to be in New England, applying lime, which is alkaline, is recommended. (See the next tip.)

APPLY LIME, BUT NOT DURING THE SUMMER

Applying lime in the spring or fall (or both) will help your lawn along, Paul Solomon, owner of Solomon Landscaping in Dedham. Fallen pine needles and other debris contribute to acidity in the soil. Lime helps neutralize it.

Solomon advises against putting down lime in the summer “because it can sit in the sun and burn the grass,’’ he said. “You also don’t want to put down lime with regular fertilizer, because the combination would be too strong.’’

Solomon recommends pelletized lime and a spreader to apply it. Both can be found at stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s, he says. While you’re applying lime, it’s also a good time to put down grass seed to fill in any bare spots.

“If you see a week that’s going to be 65 or 70 [degrees], you want to put down the grass seed then,’’ he says. “Put down a starter fertilizer [which is gentler than a regular fertilizer] and lime along with the grass seed to fill in any dead areas.’’

THINK ABOUT GOING ORGANIC, AND KEEP YOUR MOWER BLADE SHARP

“We’ve been conditioned to think that if we use a [commercial] four-step process, we can have a disease-free, trouble-free lawn,’’ said Paul E. Rogers, independent horticultural consultant and instructor at the Landscape Institute at the Boston Architectural College. “What we’re doing is keeping plants on a life-support system. The grass doesn’t have much choice but to live.’’

Some fertilizers have very high amounts of nitrogen which promotes top growth and that strived-for emerald green shade in relation to potassium and phosphorus, the latter of which aids root growth, Rogers says. This means even though grass might look green and lush, its root system may not be so healthy.

“I talk to people about using something as simple as a Triple 10 fertilizer [which has equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium] or any one of the organic fertilizers on the market,’’ he says. “When you go with an organic product, you move toward a more natural ecological system.’’

When grass is overfed with nitrogen, he adds, it becomes an ideal site for feeding insects because the grass “sweats out’’ excess sugars into small globules on the outer surface. Some commercial lawn care companies simply follow up with a pesticide, which can wreak havoc with the environment.

Rogers says mowing a lawn to the proper height and making sure the mower blade is sharp enough are crucial. “The season should have started out with a newly sharpened blade,’’ he says. “A blade that isn’t sharp enough will fracture the grass and leave room for damage. It leads to an oozing of the sugar from the grass, and leaves room for diseases.’’

TREAT SHADED LAWNS DIFFERENTLY

Shaded lawns need to be treated differently from lawns that get a lot of sunlight, said Matt Noon, president of Noon Turf Care in Hudson. “For shady lawns, we’ll cut back on the amount of nitrogen. Too much nitrogen with a shady lawn will kill it off,’’ he says.

For most lawns, he encourages overseeding, or sowing seed over existing grass, in the fall. He says spring is the best time for shaded lawns, though, since there are no leaves on the trees. He recommends aerating the lawn (you can rent a machine to do it yourself or have a lawn-care specialist do it) or raking to turn up the ground before putting down the seed.

“Some homeowners might just drop seed on the lawn, but you need soil-seed contact,’’ Noon says. “It’s not going to give you a brand-new lawn, but will help.’’

Noon recommends overseeding lawns that get sunlight in the fall because the grass seed won’t have to compete with weeds. “When the temperatures drop, crab grass and broad-leaf weeds will die, but lawns will survive the cold longer than weeds will,’’ he says. September or October is a particularly good time to overseed, he adds, since the grass will have germinated before winter hits.

DON’T OVER- WATER

A minimalist yet attentive approach can give you a healthy and attractive lawn, says Scott Ebdon, professor of turfgrass science and management at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “It’s about maintaining with a minimum amount of maintenance,’’ he says.

Fertilizers aren’t as necessary in the summer as they are in the spring and fall, the seasons when grass is better able to absorb nutrients. If you are going to apply fertilizer in the summer, Ebdon recommends using a product in which at least half of the nitrogen or, even better, 75 percent is in a slow-release form, and is gradually available to the grass.

“When you use fertilizers with a lot of readily available nitrogen, the plant picks it up quickly, and it promotes vertical extension,’’ he says. “This increases the need for mowing. So in the summer, we want to keep growth to the lowest possible level.’’

By stimulating growth, high-nitrogen fertilizers also increase watering requirements, since more water is lost from the grass blades. Excessive blade growth hinders the root system, and the grass becomes more susceptible to drought.

Ebdon advocates a tough-love approach to watering. “I think a lot of homeowners will kill the plant with kindness by giving it too much nitrogen or water,’’ he says. “The plant has to be allowed to experience some stress, some dehydration.’’

He recommends watering grass just after it starts to show signs of mild dehydration. The blades will have started to roll up, and you’ll see your footprints when you walk across the lawn.

“The plant will make a rapid recovery,’’ he says. “If you do that repeatedly over the summer, it’ll promote physiological changes in the plant. It’ll promote deeper rooting and enhance drought-resistance, so the plant can go further under a lack of rainfall.’’

WHEN USING LAWN PRODUCTS, FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS

With lawn-care products such as fertilizer or a pesticide, “the label is the law,’’ said Karen Connelly, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Lawn Care Professionals. “If it says it covers 5,000 square feet, for instance, or that the product must be diluted, or that you must use one teaspoon of the product, that will guide you on how you should do the application.’’ Don’t stray from the instructions because you think your grass needs something different.

Connelly also recommends being mindful of the ways in which products are disposed. You might keep leftover fertilizer in an airtight container in the garage until you need it next, but if you’re going to get rid of it, “don’t put it down the disposal or out with the garbage,’’ she says. “It is a growth agent, meant for a specific purpose. If you put it in the trash, it won’t be utilized in that specific way, and it’ll end up in soil or water.’’ She advises checking in with your town hall to find out if there’s somewhere you could take it.

Getting to know your own property can guide your decisions in how you care for it, Connelly says. She advocates integrated pest management, which aims, in part, to reduce pesticide use. For example, if you see that dandelions are coming up, you can spot-treat them early, without applying weed killer to a large area.

“You use much less because you’re treating individual spots,’’ she says. “The key is dealing with it before it gets too large, dealing with it sooner rather than later.’’

Ami Albernaz can be reached at ami.albernaz@gmail.com.