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The nitty-gritty of lawn care.

In 1726, Jonathan Swift wrote, "Whoever could make two blades of grass grow where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together."

Making two blades of grass replace one is not the problem for many of us. Our biggest concern is how to make one blade grow in the first place.

Why we spend hot summer days and cold cash coaxing grass to grow is a good question. We hate to mow, and we hate to dwell on the dismal thought that it's an endless summer job. And yet we fertilize and water and weed and allow our lawns to turn us into male nurses and our wives into grass widows just to make our lawns grow faster. Which means we have to mow more often. And should a neighbor's lawn surpass ours in luxurious growth and color, we become green with envy. Greener than our lawns, in many cases.

Fortunately, there are tactics we can employ to keep our lawns looking great without devoting all our leisure time. According to Dr. Eliot Roberts, director of the Lawn Care Institute at Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, some homeowners are smothering their grass with too much affection.

In our urgency to win the Best Lawn blue ribbon, we too often make the mistake of overstimulating the blades with too much nitrogen and turning the little fellers into fescue Schwarzeneggers, after which they fade away in the summer heat. Overstimulated grass becomes soft and succulent, takes up too much water (which is damaging in hot weather), and becomes susceptible to diseases and more palatable to insects. To prevent this, Dr. Roberts recommends using slow-release fertilizers, the best of which are organic. These contain nitrogen plus phosphorous and potassium, the two other major elements required for a healthy lawn.

Lawn irrigation is equally important. The Lawn Institute tells us, in fact, that 70 percent of all lawn problems are related to improper watering. Too much water, we overstimulate; too little water, just the reverse.

How often to water depends a lot upon the type of soil we have. By and large, grass should get about an inch of water a week. Dr. Roberts recommends using a rain gauge. Heavy soil must be watered slowly for a long time so the water will reach the root zone. The grass can then go two or three weeks between waterings. Sandy soils soak up water ten times faster than clay, so we must water sandy areas more frequently. Regardless of soil, if water begins running down the sidewalk or the driveway, turn off the water.

Too many of us tend to judge our lawn by its color. If it doesn't have that deep green tone of robust health, on goes more nitrogen, or more water, or both. Instead, we should resort to one of the many products now on the market containing chelated iron. This will put a healthy glow in the cheeks of the little blades without stimulating them to overexertion and perhaps sudden death.

The best defense against weeds' raising their ugly heads in our lovely greensward is a healthy greensward. Where lawn grasses are thick and lush, weeds don't stand a chance. Should crab grass, the nemesis of all lawn tenders, somehow bully its way in, get to the weed before it sprouts by applying a preemergence herbicide early in the spring. Many herbicides are available in combination with lawn food. Or we can spot spray the blighters. We'll have to do this, however, at least twice a week.

Now about the mowing.

The time of day to mow should depend less upon the clock and our work schedule and more upon how wet the grass is. Dry grass stands straight up and makes for a clean cut. Wet grass, on the other hand, sags and curls, and clumps of wet grass clippings decompose slowly, smothering the grass beneath them.

Too many of us 53 million U.S. householders who tend our own lawns and gardens like to think that once a week we have to crank up the old mower and give the lawn a crew cut. But we may be not only wasting our time but harming our lawns as well.

Grass given fertilizer and plenty of moisture can be mowed once a week, but in hot, dry conditions, once a month could suffice. A good lawncutting rule to follow is never to cut more than a third of the grass height in one mowing. If grass has been left to grow six inches, don't give it that crew cut in one mowing. Cut off two inches, let the lawn recover from the shock of being barbered (yes, we put our lawn under stress every time we mow), then a few days later make a final cut to an eye-pleasing height.

By following this rule of thumb (green thumb, of course), we become " grassroots" environmentalists, allowing the clippings to fall back onto the lawn to decompose and help nourish the turf rather than being bagged as trash and hauled to a landfill. Heaven knows we're hauling too much stuff out there as it is.

Grass plays an important part in controlling climate. In a typical block of eight houses in suburbia, the lawns have the cooling effect of about 70 air conditioners. (And lawns are much quieter, we might add.) As evidence, consider the fact that Phoenix, Arizona, is warming up while Palm Springs, California, is cooling down.

"Phoenix is getting hotter because the watering of lawns has been restricted," Dr. Roberts says. "Palm Springs is getting cooler because of the number of new golf courses in the area that are being watered."

Among other attributes, lawns also reduce sound levels by 20 to 30 percent; absorb glare from buildings, paved surfaces, and shiny cars; and remove large amounts of pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen fluoride, and peroxyactyl nitrate, from the air, churning out in return the true breath of life: pure oxygen. Something to think about the next time you are out behind your lawn mower in 80-degree heat.

WATER-SAVING TIPS Save water and money by following

these ten simple methods: 1. Mow as infrequently as possible-Mowing puts the grass plant under additional stress, and it will use more water. 2. Mow higher than normal-Greater leaf surfaces hold plant liquids and shade the root zone. Never remove more than one-third of the leaf blade in one mowing. Longer blades usually mean deeper, more efficient roots. 3. Water and mow in the early evening or morning-Less wind and heat reduces stress on the plant and allows for greater penetration and less runoff or evaporation. 4. Water for deep penetration-Interrupt watering when puddles or runoff occur; allow the water to penetrate into the soil before restarting. Light, infrequent sprinkling may actually do more harm than good. 5. Spot water-Drier areas near buildings and on slopes require more water than flat areas where water doesn't run off. 6. Aerify or verticut turf-Increased penetration of water and air will place the water where it can be used by the grass plant. 7. Use a soil probe-Test soil

moisture with a probe or a screwdriver. Water only when the soil is dry or the probe is difficult to push into the ground. 8. Match fertilizer to plant requirements-Extension agents or professional agronomists can recommend timing and amounts of fertilizer needed by each grass variety. This reduces not only waste and mowing needs but also overly succulent, water-wasting growth. 9. Increase disease and insect control, with care-Drought-stressed turf is more susceptible to pest problems, but too much pesticide will increase stress in the plant. 10. Accept a less-than-lush lawnGrass will naturally go dormant during periods of drought but will readily regenerate when water becomes available. Reduce traffic on these areas if possible.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on water-saving tips
Author:Allen, Michael
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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