Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Be a Weed Warrior without Chemicals


You can have a good looking, virtually weed free lawn without the use of chemicals. You can have a good looking, virtually weed free lawn without the use of chemicals. Now that I have hypnotized you into believing this, you must understand the laws of the lawn. 1). What is a weed? A weed is, terminology wise, a plant that is out of place or in the wrong place. On a putting green at a golf course, Kentucky Bluegrass would be a weed, whereas on your home lawn, bentgrass is the weed. Society’s perception of a weed has changed over the years. Clover was soft to walk on, mows well, smothers other weeds as well as fixing nitrogen from the air. It was sold by the tons and mixed into lawns. It wasn’t until a company came along and said that clover didn’t fit into a “modern” lawn did it fall from grace. By the way, the company also sold a chemical that would kill the clover. What about dandelions? Are they weeds? Not to the kid blowing puffballs, or the old man making dandelion wine or the farmers in Vineland, New Jersey. They grow dandelions in neat little rows for their tasty greens that are sold up and down the east coast. On those farms, turfgrass is the weed. The most important question you can ask yourself is, “Can I stand a few weeds in my lawn?” As my father always told me, weeds stay green all summer long and your lawn looks green from the road, so they can’t be all that bad. If you must remove the weeds, do so with cultural methods, such as the dandelion fork. To keep future weeds out, the best defense is a healthy, thick lawn. If the lawn is thick and vigorous, there won’t be any room for the weeds to elbow their way in. Keeping your lawn 1/2” higher in the summer will not only keep the roots long, but will also shade out the newly emerging weeds. If you have a weedy lawn, good grass care will eventually force the weeds out, but this will take time. You can quicken this time by doing the elbow grease of pulling, chopping and cutting the weeds. This will not be as easy as spraying the lawn with herbicides, but there are plenty of reasons to avoid using chemicals. Chemicals are poisons, plain and simple. And as I have stated earlier, chemicals can slow down the biological processes that strengthen the grass plants, decompose thatch, and discourages diseases. There are several bad management practices that can lead to weeds; 1). You are growing the wrong type of grass for the area. 2). Your soil is compacted 3). Heavy use 4). Improper fertilization 5). Drought or improper watering habits 6). Mowing too closely 7). You shouldn’t grow grass in that area.


How would you feel if I told you that you could reduce the amount of crabgrass to nothing without work, chemicals or weeding? The University of Rhode Island has showed that higher mowing alone reduced crabgrass on their test plots to almost nothing over a five year period. They also found out that the non-chemical control worked better than the chemical control, even though it took time. The second study was done over 50 years ago by the Ohio Extension Service. It showed that a late season fertilizer (November) got the grass growing earlier which in turn crowded out the crabgrass. The third method is more drastic and should only be used on severely populated crabgrass areas. Cover the area with the black weed fabric that is available on the market today for ten days. The crabgrass will be dead when the fabric is removed, but the regular grass will be yellow and will recoup by two weeks. Although this is the drastic method, sometimes your lawn will only be crabgrass and this method will be the best way for you to overcome crabgrass.


Lastly, applying an organic product called corn gluten twice per year will help reduce the amount of weeds. Notice that I didn't say eliminate. This product does take time to become effective, so for complete control you are looking at 2 to 3 years. The good news is it won't harm you or your children or pets, so taking a little more time to work is okay with me. The best time to apply is late fall and early spring, then you will be apply to apply grass seed in early fall and have it germinate before the next application. Also this product is an organic fertlizer as well, so you will be getting the benefit of adding nutrients to the soil to help the grass become healthy and strong.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Grass Seed Basics


When buying grass seed, you get what you pay for. Fortunately, every package of grass seed has a label, which is required to contain specific information. It must list the amount of five things that might be in that bag or box. First, there is the turfgrass, which is listed in percentage. There may be one or more species with several varieties of each. The next three are grouped in a general category of “other ingredients”, which may include weed seed, inert matter and crop seeds, also listed in percentages. Finally, noxious weeds, as determined by our state agriculture department, will be listed seperately, not by percentage but by numbers per pound.

Noxious Weeds - wild garlic, buckhorn, plantain and annual bluegrass. A top-quality seed will contain NO noxious weeds.

Crop Seeds - these can be more troublesome than noxious weed seed. It can contain seeds such as timothy, rough bluegrass, orchardgrass and bentgrass. Just 1% of these contaminants can produce up to 40 plants per square foot, and that can ruin the look of your lawn. A good seed mix should contain well below 1% of this.

Inert Matter - This includes chaff, hulls, stones and such. It will not harm the look of your lawn, but why pay for something that won’t grow? You want to have less than 3% in you seed.

Weed Seed - This includes common weed seeds that are not noxious. There should be none in your seed.

The Turfgrasses - They are listed by descending order by the percent present in the mixture (also called purity) and the germination percentage of each. Combining those two numbers gives you the real value. The real value is a good measure of the seeds’ quality. To determine the real value, multiply the percentage of contents by the germination percentage and divide by 100. Example; Let’s say we buy a box of “Merion” grass seed. It is listed as 90% pure and the germination percentage is 80%. 90 x 80 /100 gives you 72. 72 percent of what is in the box will germinate to “Merion” bluegrass, with the other 28% being other. To figure the real value of a mixture (different species) or a blend (different varieties of a same species), do the same procedure as above for each seed, add them together and divide and divide by the number of seed types.

Finally, when buying seed, look for a variety of names. Buy only named varieties and stay away from mixes that just list “common Kentucky Bluegrass,”, or “Tall Fescue”. These seed types will only lead to trouble. Last but not least, when you are shopping, remember your yards conditions (such as sunny, dry, moist, etc) and remember which seed types meet those conditions.


This is one question that you will have to answer yourself, but I do have an opinion. First, are you starting with an existing lawn or starting fresh? If it is a new or old lawn, have the soil checked for nutrient content and pH. This is one of the major problems with grass not performing the way it should. Simple soil testing kits can be purchased at your local garden center or home center. The pH should be in the 6.5 to 7.0 range for best nutrient availability. Now concerning seeding or sodding, my opinion is that seeding is better. Why? Because the grass that you seed is grown in your soil conditions instead of being grown in optimum conditions, which most of us do not have. Then there is the watering problem. Since the sod’s roots only go down 1 to 2 inches, it needs constant watering until it is established, whereas the seed’s roots start traveling downward from germination and is established quicker than the sod which means less watering. The sod is also fertilized heavily to get the desired growth and sale as quickly as possible. If you do not keep up with the fertilizer, the lawn will be like a drug addict going through withdraw. I always recommend seeding because it is less expensive and does better in the long run than sod. Now, if you are overseeding an existing lawn, there is a rule of thumb; if the lawn has less than50% turf, you are better removing the old and starting fresh. If it has more than 50%, overseeding is your route. The next table will help with your computations.

How much seed do I need?
Type of seed lb./1,00sq.ft - Time to germinate
Bentgrass 1 to 2 - Fast (7 to 12 days)
Kentucky Blue 2 - Slow (20 to 28 days)
Chewings Fescue 3 to 5 - Med. (10 to 21 days)
Creeping Fescue 3 to 5 - Med. (10 to 21 days)
Red Fescue 3 to 4 - Med. (10 to 21 days)
Tall Fescue 5 to 6 - Med. (10 to 21 days)
Perennial Ryegrass 4 to 6 - Fast (7 to 14 days)

Before seeding, remove any accumulated leaves and debris in the area to have a good seed-to-soil contact. After seeding, ruff the seed into the soil; do not just seed and walk away. Seed to soil contact is important! The key to seeding is to never let the soil completely dry out until the turf is 2 inches tall. Do not water deeply until the turf is established, and do not mow until it is 2 to 3 inches tall. Perennial ryegrass will be quick to cover, with 90% being covered in 5 weeks, while bluegrass can take until the following season to cover well. Be patient and let nature take its course.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Water Wisely

Try to picture 27,154 gallons of water, enough water to fill a 6 foot deep pool that measures 20 feet by 30 feet. A 1 acre plot of grass needs that much water in a thorough watering. Even a moderate 5,000 square foot lawn will consume 6,000 gallons of water. Now before you start totaling your water bill, there are a few things to consider. You don’t have to supply all of that water with a hose and sprinkler. A good part of that will be supplied through rain. If your soil has enough organic matter in it, it will help store the moisture once it receives it instead of puddling and running off (clay) or leaching through the soil(sand). This number also changes in the summer. Lawns naturally go into a dormancy period when extreme hot weather is present, but we have been instilled with the notion that our lawn must be green ALL season long instead of letting nature run its course. A dormant lawn will resume normal growth when the stress effecting it has subsided (either heat or cold). In many cases, over watering can do more harm than good. Again we place more emphasis on keeping up with the Jounces instead of doing what our lawn wants us to do. The more water a lawn gets early on in the season, the more water it will need later on. Continuous moisture in the Spring will only create lazy roots that will not grow down into the soil, but instead remain up at the surface. On the other hand, to little watering may not be helpful at all. A sprinkler left running 10 minutes in one spot will not have enough time to soak the soil and the water will evaporate, not even getting to the roots. The trick is to water in a way that encourages grass to grow deep roots, generally 6 to 18 inches deep. Now some grasses just won’t grow that deep, such as bentgrass, which has shallow roots. Also keep in mind that root length is in direct relationship with shoot height; you mow low, the roots remain shallow. It is also important to keep in mind what kind of soil you have. The soil will determine when you should water, and even the type of sprinkler you should use. At full saturation, clay soils hold up to 2 1/2” of moisture per foot of depth, and supply turf for almost 2 1/2 weeks without any rain. Loam can hold 1 1/2” of moisture per foot of depth, and sand can hold 3/4” of moisture. You should not water until the reservoir is almost dry.

How much do I water?

Remember the statistics from above. If you apply two inches of water, it would not be too much for a clay soil (2 1/2”), but for a sandy soil, which can only hold up to 3/4”, the 2” would be wasted. Infiltration rates (the amount of water that can be absorbed in one hour) has to be kept in mind along with the holding capacity. These two numbers will effect what sprinkler you use and for how long. If you have a clay soil with a sprinkler running at 1 inch per hour, only 0.1 inch will be absorbed and the rest will be run-off. Not a good deal for you or your lawn. Flow rates for sprinklers are normally printed on the side of the box it came in. What if your sprinkler puts out more water per hour than the soil can accept? Let’s say that your sprinkler puts out 0.6 inches per hour and you have a clay soil that will accept only 0.1 inches per hour. You should run the sprinkler 10 minutes on, 50 minutes off, and you won’t waste a drop. Infiltration rate of water

Soil Texture - Inches/hour
Sandy 1.0
Sandy loam 0.5
Loam 0.25
Clay loam 0.15
Clay 0.1

The key to watering is to make sure the lawn receives 1” of water per week, including rainfall. It is that simple. When watering, do not water after 3 p.m. in the afternoon. Any moisture after this time can sit overnight and become a host for disease. Make sure the lawn dries out thoroughly before nightfall comes.

Remember top water only when necessary, before nightfall, and when you water, water thoroughly.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Lawn Fertilizers - Should I or Shouldn't I? Part 2

Let’s continue our discussion from yesterday and see exactly what is in our bag of fertilizer.


Of course nitrogen is still an important nutrient. It makes the grass blades grow and green up. On the plus side, nitrogen makes a sturdy rapidly maturing, quick spreading grass, which in itself fights weeds. On the negative side, excessive nitrogen causes shoots to grow too fast, making the succulent and tender, which reduces the ability of the roots to support them. Over extended grass is susceptible to diseases such as brown patch, fusarium patch pithier and powdery mildew.


Kentucky Bluegrass 2 3 lbs
Fine fescue 1 2 lbs
Tall Fescue 1 2 lbs
Perennial Ryegrass 2 3 lbs

Synthetic fertilizers are here today, gone tomorrow. There are two forms of nitrogen; water-soluble and water-insoluble. The solubility determines how fast the nitrogen becomes available. Water-soluble start breaking down as soon as they hit the dirt, while water-insoluble takes time to break down with the help of soil microorganisms. It may sound great that the nitrogen is readily available, but remember that it is also leached through the soil just as readily. Chances are that there is more water-soluble than water-insoluble in the bags of fertilizer. The three types of water-soluble nitrogens are urea, which contains 45% nitrogen and is sometimes combined with formaldehyde (a suspected carcinogen)to create ureaform, and there is also Ammonium Nitrate, a very strong and very soluble fertilizer that quickly leaches from your soil.

Organic fertilizers are the best type to use because the are slow-acting. This type of fertilizer will help green-up your lawn without the excessive growth. Less growth also means less watering and less fertilizer in the long run. They are moderate in nitrogen content, neutral pH and water-insoluble - just like the lawn likes it. They are usually lower in nitrogen than synthetic fertilizers and may be more expensive, pound per pound in the short run. The idea is that since 1/2 the synthetic nitrogen is loss to leaching, you are closer to being price competitive than you think. There are many organic fertilizers on the market today, so take your time and look at the back panel of the fertilizer bags to make sure.


The numbers on the fertilizer bag explains it all. Lets take for example a 50 LB. bag of a 5-10-5 fertilizer. The numbers are the actual pounds per 100 pounds of fertilizer. Also lets say that the 50 LB bag covers 5,000 square feet. There is 2.5 lbs. of nitrogen in the 50 lb. bag. Divide the 2.5 by the SQ.FT. and times by 1000(2.5/5000=.0005x1000=.5 pounds) If your grass type needs 2 lbs. per 1000sq.ft., you would need to apply this 4 times a year, or buy a 10-10-10, etc


The other five macronutrients - phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium and sulfur - don’t get as much attention as nitrogen, but they are just as important. If you have used a high-nitrogen fertilizer in the past, there may be an imbalance in the soil. The best thing you can do is have your soil tested for pH and nutrients. This will not only tell you if you have a deficiency, but will also tell you how much of each nutrient to add to you soil. Phosphorous Phosphorous works behind the scenes and in the soil. It helps seed to germinate and to establish itself quickly and strongly. For established turf it aids in root growth. Phosphorous is present in every plant cell, where it is used to transform other elements into energy. To maintain adequate supplies of phosphorous in the soil, you need to add only 1/2 pound per 1,000 square feet per year. That can be provided with 5 pounds of bone meal, or you can use fish emulsion, cottonseed meal, or milorganite. Potassium Potassium doesn’t show up in color, growth or density, but has been shown to “toughen” the turf. It makes grass more resistant to heat, cold, drought, disease and traffic. The normal rate per year is 1 to 2 pounds per 1,00 square feet. A good source of potassium is wood ash, but that is not something you can put on your lawn, considering you would need 10 to 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Calcium, Magnesium and Sulfur Calcium helps by improving the uptake of nitrogen and increasing the growth of root hairs. It is also necessary for cell division within the plant. You can provide calcium by applying dolomitic limestone, which will also supply Magnesium. Magnesium is a component of chlorophyll that plays an important part in photosynthesis and helps absorb phosphorous. Sulfur is a nutrient you shouldn’t have to worry about unless you have been using the high-nitrogen fertilizer. Sulfur improves the grass color, increases carbohydrate reserves, contribute to cold tolerance, protein synthesis and new growth. Powdery mildew is more prevalent when sulfur is low.


Iron improves fall and winter color, enhances root development, reduces the effects of stress, and is essential for the formation of chlorophyll. Excessive phosphorous creates an iron deficiency. Milorganite is a good source of iron. Manganese Manganese activates the photosynthesis process. Soils that have a high pH (7.5 or above) are usually deficient in this. Zinc, Copper, Boron and Molybdenum These are needed in minute quantities and if not applied properly, can cause the lawn more harm than being deficient. Check the fertilizer bag to see if these are included.

Tomorrow we will look at lime and why we need it.

For more information on organic lawn car, check out my Manual at

Good Luck and Good Gardening!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lawn Fertilizers - Should I or Shouldn't I?


At the end of a long Winter, most of us are “Green” deprived. Forget the robins, the first true sign of Spring is a green lawn, especially if it is yours and not your neighbors! This causes the first gardener’s phenomenon known as the Spring suburban fertilizing frenzy. As soon as the first Garden Center gets its delivery of fertilizer, an almost immediate line of cars pull in right behind it. They take it home and dump it on their lawns to be the first ones with a deep, dark green lawn. It works. The grass blades shoot up and they are such a dark green its almost blue. But the problem is weeds thrive right along side of the grass. Diseases strike the overworked grass plants. Lawnmowers barely have enough time to cool off before the grass needs cutting again. The worst part is after the lawn comes back to its normal color, the homeowner rushes back to the Garden Center and buys more fertilizer to start the cycle all over again. The sad part this constant fertilizing instruction was coming from “Turf Experts”. Today the word is enough is enough!

Researchers have now found out that all that fertilizer is actually harming the lawn instead of helping the lawn. Studies at the Alabama Polytechnic University shows that 1/2 of all the soluble nitrogen leaches out of the soil before it can be absorbed by the grass plants. And even the remaining half may be doing more harm than good. Grass plants are very efficient in their use of nitrogen, and can even be considered “fuel efficient”. Babying the lawn by putting all the fertilizer on it may actually reduce the natural efficiency. The is a ton of microorganisms in the soil that are harmed when excessive fertilizer is used, and this can upset the efficiency of the grass plants. Basically you are growing your lawn to death. The best lawn I have ever seen was on Crescent Avenue in Ramsey. The homeowner used 5-10-5 twice a year and the lawn was a beautiful green color for most of it.

When you fertilize, all the nutrients remain at the surface area of the soil. The natural tendency for grass is to have a deep and quite expansive root system. The roots do not have to travel to find nutrients when it is at the soil surface, and compaction can occur, and more importantly, in the summer the lawn will die without excessive watering. Another problem is fertilizer (non-organic) can actually acidify the soil and kill beneficial biological processes. A seven year study at the University of Kentucky showed that increasing fertilizer amounts drastically decreased the pH. The amazing thing learned was that the lawn that had the least amount of fertilizer had the lowest levels of thatch. At the highest levels, there were 65% less earthworms than at the lower level, which was due to the lower amounts of calcium, which is important to the earthworms metabolism.

We should instead address the soil instead of the topgrowth. A lawn can only be as good as the soil it is growing in.

Organic fertilizers take time to break down and add nutrients to the soil. As the break down, they feed the roots and allow them to produce carbohydrates, which is the energy source in plants as well as people. The goal of fertilizing is to build up this reserve of carbohydrates for times of stress, and to keep the plants growing steadily and healthily during these times.

Lets think about the normal fertilizer application schedule for one minute. In Spring, they suggest a high nitrogen fertilizer to get the lawn growing. This high nitrogen application causes the grass to have spurt growth, and it draws upon its carbohydrate reserves. The grass gets “hooked”, just like a drug addict, dependent on more fertilizer. The excessive growth also draws again on its carbohydrate reserves to help heal its wounds from the grass cutting. The roots don’t develop as they should, so when the hot weather comes, they are unable to dig deep for moisture. During the second application towards Summer, another high nitrogen application is suggested to continue your lawn to look its best. This application increases the respiration of the plants which again reduces the carbohydrate reserves. The grass weakens. At the end of Summer, you have to reseed and use a fall fertilizer to get the grass growing. And before you know it, it is Winter and the lawn goes into this dormant period without adequate reserves of carbohydrates to get it to Spring. And then the cycle begins again.

Tomorrow we will discuss the individual nutrients and the plants' needs. For more information you can read my Organic Lawn Care Manual at

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Turf's Up!

The most important item to put on your to do list as we head toward the end of August is to reinvigorate your lawn. Give the lawn a good raking to remove a dead material from the lawn. Not only will this improve air and water movement into your soil, but it will also give seed better contact with the soil, which is essential. As for grass seed, it can vary tremendously throughout the Untied States. In the south, bermuda grass and centipede grass are the warm season grasses of choice. In the rest of the country we have a choice of either bluegrass, ryegrass and fescues. Sod is made up of bluegrass, but it is a heavy feeder and needs plenty of moisture during the summer to keep it green. Ryegrass is a great alternative as it matches up (leaf shape and texture) with bluegrass very well, but does not need as much fertilizer or water. Fine-leaved fescues are gret for shady areas, while turf-type tall fescues can handle a lot of abuse and are used mainly in sports fields. TTT Fescues do not match well with bluegrass or ryegrass, so don't overseed your lawn with this as it is a clump forming grass. Before seeding, remember to cut your lawn. You do not want to cut your lawn as the seed is germinating because you will remove the new plants from the turf since they have no real root system.

Since we are headed for the cooler temperatures of fall, the seed will germinate and grow very easily. Grass grows best when the days are warm and night time temperatures are cool (spring and fall), and there is adequate rainfall. Turf only needs 1 inch of rain per week, and the simplest way to determine how much rain you have had is to put an empty tuna fish can out and see if it fills up in a week. This is also an effective way to measure water amounts when you have an irrigation system as well.

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