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Steps to a Healthy Lawn

Fall’s the time to get to work

Warm days and cool nights, combined with shorter daylight hours, are what the doctor ordered for the favorite grasses of Chesapeake Country: bluegrass and fescues. They’re called cool-season grasses because they germinate, produce roots and lap up nutrients once summer’s heat shuts down. So now’s the time to get to work on next year’s perfect lawn.

Test Your Soil
    A good lawn grows from well-prepared soil.
    Lawn grasses grow best when soil pH is between 6.3 and 6.8, with medium to high levels of nutrients. You’ll know where your soil stands if you send it to a reputable soil testing lab.
    Send soil samples for testing to Waypoint Analytical in Richmond. Full instructions for testing are online: Add my email address — [email protected] — to your soil test request, and I’ll tell you what to do to help get your soil in shape for cool-season grasses.

Feed Your Soil
    The best lawns also grow on soils with a minimum of three percent organic matter. When the grass roots penetrate deep into the soil, grasses become more drought-tolerant and recover more quickly from heavy use.
    Begin by spreading a minimum of four cubic yards of compost per 1,000 square feet over the existing lawn.
    If your soil test indicates low limestone, nutrients or organic matter, then incorporate the lime, fertilizers and compost into the soil by rototilling or spading. Do this a week or two before seeding, so that the ground has time to level and settle smoothly.

Sow Grass Seed
    The best bet for Chesapeake Country are improved fescue grasses that develop deep roots and become more drought-tolerant than bluegrasses. Seed following package directions.

Water Your Sown Seed
    Improve germination by keeping the soil surface moist with two to three light waterings each day for the first week. To retain moisture, spread a thin layer of straw sufficient to shade 20 percent of the soil.
    As seeds germinate, reduce the waterings. Once space between the grass blades begins to fill in, limit watering to two- or three-day intervals, applying one inch of water per acre. That’s about the amount of water needed to fill a tuna can placed under a sprinkler. By allowing the soil to dry between waterings, you encourage deeper rooting. Keeping the soil moist at all times will promote shallow rooting, which can be detrimental as the cold season progresses.

Kill the Competition
    If your lawn is heavily infested with perennial weeds like Bermuda grass, nutsedge, wild chrysanthemum, ground ivy or honeysuckle, you’ll have to work harder. You must kill the roots of these weeds before you disturb the soil. Kill them by making twice-weekly applications of glyphosate (Roundup) and not disturbing the existing lawn until it has turned brown. This assures that weed roots and rhizomes were completely killed and will not return to haunt you.
Then, till and compost your lawn for reseeding.
    Editor’s note: Glyphosate — long considered a safe herbicide because it breaks down quickly — has been identified as a “probable carcinogen to humans” by the World Health Organization. California now lists it as a cancer-causing chemical.

Vanquish Bare Spots
    Filling in bare spots takes more work than sprinkling seeds and covering them with a little peat moss. Seeds will germinate and grow, but odds are that the soil is compacted in that spot, so the new seedlings will die after a few weeks of drought.
    Soil compaction is the most likely cause for dead spots. Unless the soil compaction is resolved, it will reoccur.
    First, loosen the soil to a depth of at least four inches. Then amend with about an inch of compost, working the compost thoroughly into the loose soil. Walk over the soil several times to firm it up.
    Next, scratch the soil surface lightly with a tined rake, then spread the seed. Lightly cover an area twice the size as the dead spot with either compost or straw. This will keep the seed from being washed away or eaten by birds. Mist daily, ideally at high noon. Once the seed sprouts, water as above.