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Don't kill your lawn with loving care.

Homeowners' misdeeds in lawn care would fill a book, but here are tips to fill a yard with grass that will make neighbors green with envy.

If your lawn has a problem, don't blame the water, the weeds, the insects, the fertilizer, or the kids next door. The reason could very well be you. Lousy lawns result ftom ignorance more than anything else. Like many lawn owners, you may have acquired bad habits that need correcting. We refer here to planting the wrong grass, mowing too short, applying the wrong fertilizer, watering at the wrong time.

Consider your mower, for instance. Regardless of how expensive it was, your lawn will suffer if you don't keep the blade sharp. Grass leaves, 90 percent water, "bleed" when cut. But a lawn shorn evenly with a sharp blade will bleed very little. This saves watering. Moreover, a cleanly cut lawn heals quickly, reducing the risk of disease.

Sharpening your mower blade at least twice a year is recommended, even if your lawn is level and free of debris. If you are mowing roots, rocks, twigs, and leaves along with the grass, the blade should be sharpened every month. With a dull blade you aren't mowing-you're clubbing! And that's a big mistake.

Another mistake is cutting the lawn too close. Tests prove that crab grass prospers in low grass, because more sun reaches the soil to germinate crab-grass seeds. A test on one lawn resulted in 50 percent crab grass in a one-inch-high plot, but only 10 percent crab grass in an adjacent threeinch-high plot. Heating of the soil can itself become a problem; the hotter the soil, the faster a lawn dries out.

How low you should mow depends upon the lawn's density, or thickness. Fescue lawns, common from north Georgia to Virginia, grow sparsely and therefore need height-three inches, if you can stand it-to create shade for the soil. Denser Kentucky bluegrass lawns, popular from Pennsylvania to Illinois, can stand cutting to about two inches. Carpet-like Bermuda-grass lawns, found in the Sunbelt states, are an exception. They're dense enough to live at an inch.

After mowing the lawn-what to do with the clippings? If you are throwing them away, don't! That nonwater 10 percent of the grass leaf will break down as nutrients that feed the soil-and the lawn. So just let the clippings lie where they fall-unless, that is, you are the type who waits too long between mowings, in which case you're left with rows of hay that do have to be carted off.

Fear of thatch is another mistake. You should worry only about too much thatch. When thatch is dry and cold, it will shade and insulate the soil. Yet too much thatch, when it's warm and humid, invites still another problem: fungus. About an inch of thatch is considered safe. Thatch, by the way, doesn't come from clipped grass leaves. It is the result of dead stems, leaves, and roots at the lawn's crown.

Homeowners believe they are doing their lawns a service by applying chemicals. But too often they make the serious mistake of not reading the label instructions. "We find people mixing preemergent herbicide with grass seedafter the weeds have germinated," explains Tom Kowalski, a program manager with the Georgia Department of Agriculture. "Nothing like killing the grass and feeding the weeds at the same time," he adds with a laugh.

If you are too lazy to read and follow instructions, your grass would be in better hands with a lawn-service firm. Lawn maintenance doesn't cost that much. Ohio-based Chemlawn, the largest maintenance provider in the country (roughly 2 million customers), charges about $170 a year for basic service in metropolitan Chicago. That fee includes consultation along with six fertilizer applications between March and November. The price in other markets may vary slightly according to climate and lawn conditions and local competition.

Homeowners waste billions of gallons of water yearly trying to do the right thing for their lawns. Instead, they water insufficiently; or they water in the afternoon; or they water five times a week. Correct watering is done once a week, heavily enough to soak the soil. Morning, when soil and grass are coolest, is the right time, because the water has a chance to penetrate before it evaporates.

Never water the lawn just for watering's sake. Lawn experts, in fact, will tell you that an occasional thirst can be therapeutic. By "thirst" they mean almost to the wilting point-not beyond. Yet a lawn can survive even after its leaves have wilted and died. A lawn will live as long as the crown is kept moist enough. So unless your municipality bans lawn watering altogether during a time of drought, soak your lawn at least enough to keep the crown alive.

Ever wonder about bald spots on your lawn? Bermuda grass seems to heal better than bluegrass and fescue. You can find the answer in the way their stems grow. (Remember, without stems there are no leaves.) Bermuda and bluegrass stems grow horizontally and vertically. Bermuda, in fact, has two kinds of horizontal stems: rhizomes, which grow under the soil, and stolons, which grow above it. Bluegrass has only the rhizomes. Poor fescue has neither. So when a fescue lawn goes bald, it has to be filled in-with either seed or sod.

Then the question becomes, When do you seed and when do you sod? To put the answer bluntly: sod-if you can afford it. (Two pounds of bluegrass seed-enough to cover 1,000 square feet-costs about $20. Bluegrass sod to cover the same area will cost $175.) Some grasses-Bermuda, for one-can't be seeded. And no two varieties give the same coverage. A mere four ounces of centipede can be spread as far as two pounds of Kentucky blue, or ten pounds of fescue, will go.

Here, perhaps, is the best advice of all: Call an extension agent before you begin spending money on lawn improvements. No matter where you live in the United States, there's a county agent nearby who can have a soil test done and recommend to you what kind of grass to plant. In fact, an agent may advise you not to grow grass. English ivy looks fabulous on a sloping, shaded front yard. And juniper works wonders on those steep, sunny hills where most gardeners fail.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Hayes, Jack
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1988
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