Make your lawn stand out
With all the talk about falling house prices, sales, jobs, salaries, now's a good time to change gears and talk about something that will grow, grass! And now is the best time to start planning. Early fall is a great time to improve your lawn. If it's not fall when you're reading this, early spring is another good time. During the summer, there is too much heat to get good results. Getting a good lawn doesn't take a lot of work. Just a few things to keep in mind make a big difference. Doing it yourself is also very rewarding.
The lawn is a major contributor to the curb appeal of your home. Whether you are looking to sell a house or just want to enhance the appearance of your home, a good looking lawn will go a long way. Additionally, going organic will appeal to buyers that are worried about their kids and pets playing in the yard. Organics help promote good soil and soil organisms, the microherd, that will feed your lawn and help it thrive. Synthetic fertilizers feed the grass, not the soil. It is similar to taking vitamins rather than eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. Synthetic lawn care products also harm the organisms in your soil, leaving it devoid of the beneficial bacteria, fungi, earthworms and nematodes that help feed your lawn. Organic fertilizers also work slowly, virtually eliminating the risk of burning your lawn.
Depending on your time frame there are a number of different options to consider. I'm going to work on renovating an existing lawn by aerating, overseeding and using and organic lawn care program from Organic Lawns For America. As I go along, I'll post pictures to show the progress. I have a few nasty, weed filled photos that I'll use as the before photos. This type of revitalization is a great way to boost a lawn that isn't so bad. There are some bare spots, some thin spots, some brown spots and some weedy areas, but overall the lawn is doing OK.
If your lawn is in worse shape you may want to consider killing the existing lawn and either laying sod or planting new seed. Sod gives you isntant gratification while planting from seed is a lot cheaper and doesn't take too long if done properly and at the right time. Both involve a good amount of work and preparation. The Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Bergen County is a great resource for lawn and garden needs. They have publications on laying sod and growing from seed. I highly recommend reading those publications if you're choosing either of those two options.
Easy to Follow Organic Lawn Care Program
However you get your grass going, organic lawn care products have many benefits. There are pros and cons to organics and synthetics but for me the biggest reason to go organic is it makes sense and is safer. The environmental benefits are a bonus. I chose the Organic Lawns for America organic program for the following reasons:
- A good company that knows what they're doing - Before deciding to start their program, I contacted them and spoke with them a few times and they impressed me with their knowledge. They were able to advise me on what other steps I need to perform to get good results. Their program seems to be very well thought out, providing the right treatments at the right time. They seem to be a fairly new company but I was able to find a couple of subscribers online that have good experiences with their organic lawn program.
- Easy and Convenient - For me, the biggest problem has been remembering to take care of the lawn in the early spring. That's the best time to feed your lawn. After not thinking about the lawn for the entire winter, I forget about the early care. Even setting up reminders didn't work as other things seem to occupy my mind. It's usually in the summer when I start wishing I did something earlier. With Organic Lawns for America, they mail you the treatments when it's time to apply. So there's no need to remember to go out to buy anything. True organic products are also hard to find in some areas. I would have to spend enough money on gas and/or tolls to get certain items or have to order them seperately from other online dealers. The convenience is great too. You don't have to obsess over it to keep up a good lawn care program.
- Affordable - Compared to hiring a lawn care service that will come and spray chemicals on your lawn and try to upsell you other treatments you may or may not need, the price is very good and in many cases less. You have to spread the product yourself, but that is easy and enjoyable. You also don't have to worry about kids or pets staying off your lawn.
- Won't burn the lawn - I have to admit, I didn't fertilize much in the past, just let the grasss do what it wanted. The grass hasn't been great but it hasn't been too bad. After seeing some other lawns from people that take good care of their lawns I got jealous at how dark and weed free they were. Last year I tried applying a synthetic weed and feed product but I wound up doing it at the wrong time and burned some of the lawn. It didn't seem to do much for the lawn either. There were more weeds after the application than before. This year seems to be especially bad in this area as well. I'm not an expert and I don't claim to be. I've been trying to learn as much as I can and with the support of the Organic Lawns for America team I'm optimistic about getting good results.
A lot of people I know don't do much to their lawns and their lawns look fine while others don't look that great. Grass will grow without much help. So will weeds but if you pull them from time to time you can keep them under control. If you follow good cultural practices, that I'll discuss further down, you will get most of the way there. Fertilizing and other soil amendments will get you that much further and give you better color and healthier grass. Nitrogen is what gives the lawn a nice dark green color. It needs to be added to your lawn from time to time as it is used up by the grass and leeches out of the soil through watering and rain. Feeding your lawn properly will really help your lawn stand out. The treatments provided by Organic Lawns for America seem to be very well thought out and timed accordingly.
One of the issues people have with organic lawn programs though, is they aren't as effective at controlling and killing weeds as synthetics are. The products from Organic Lawns for America do help keep weeds and one treatment works as a pre-emergent to help weed seeds from germinating but you'll still have to pull a few weeds. Even people I know that use a lawn service that comes to spray their lawn occasionally have to pull a weed. Since I started the program late, I didn't get the weed treatments so I really can't say how well they work in treating weeds. Based on the descriptions they do work, just take a little longer. I'll know more next year. To make weeding easier you can pick up a Weed Hound to help you out. Over time the grass will begin to out-compete the weeds, but the benefit of knowing you have a safe, healthy lawn compensates for the occasional weed pull.
Their standard organic program consists of 6 lawn treatments. There is also an economy organic lawn program which contains all the treatments in the standard program except for the second and fifth treatments. Organic Lawns for America has different options depending on the size of your lawn. The standard organic lawn care program consists of the following treatments.
- Certified Organic Corn Gluten Meal (CGM) - Early Spring - This is a by product of the manufacture of cornstarch. It is a slow release fertilizer that will help with spring green up. In addition, it acts as a pre-emergent herbicide to keep weed seeds from germinating. It will also keep other seeds from germinating as well. So time any seeding you plan to do around this treatment.
- Organic weed control and fertilizer - Late Spring - This treatment consists of an organic broadleaf weed killer and fertilizer to help keep the green color going. The weed control isn't as fast as a synthetic weed killer but you don't have to worry about who might come in contact with it.
- Microbial Soil Conditioner - Early Summer - This treatment consists of beneficial bacteria, fungi, vitamins and amino acids to help improve your soil.
- Combination Organic Fertilizer - Late Summer - After the harsh conditions of summer, this treatment will help revitalize your lawn. It consists of cottonseed meal, alfalfa, feather meal, rock phosphate, kelp meal, cocoa meal, fish meal, crab meal, dried whey and natural micronutrients.
- Liquid Aerating and Soil Conditioner - Fall - Aeration is important to a healthy lawn. When soil becomes compacted, water, oxygen and other nutrients have a hard time getting to the roots. The liquid aeration product helps loosen compacted soils. The soil conditioner helps detoxify the soil, improve microbial activity and provides trace nutrients and biostimulants. Essentially, it makes your microherd happy.
- Kelp Booster with Calcium - Late Fall - Kelp helps to stimulate blade growth, promotes root growth, helps with the uptake of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, increases resistence to environmental stress, stimulates chlorophyll production to enhance color and accelerates seed germination. Calcium is also important for a healthy lawn. It improves seed germination and promotes healthy plant growth, especially cell wall development.
I just started the program and have only applied the third treatment. It was easy to apply with a spreader. There seems to have been some color improvement, but it's hard to tell if that is from the mulch mowing and rain or from products ability to help make nutrients in the soil more available as well as fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. It is also safe to use in the garden. In addition to the calcium at least one of the beneficial bacteria, bacillus subtilis, has been shown to promote growth in tomatoes which many NJ residents grow in their gardens.
This treatment also came with a soil pH kit. In describing some of my problems to Organic Lawns for America, they thought I might have a low soil pH and the soil pH test confirmed it. Over time using an organic lawn care program can help neutralize the soil pH, but I decided to follow their advice and add some lime to help speed things up. I used Encap's Fast Acting Lime because they claim it works faster. I don't have precise pH testing equipment to test this out, but the product was easy to spread. The company seems to do a bit of research and has some innovative technology so I thought I'd give it a try.
I'm really looking forward to the first fertilizer treatment. Green-up isn't as fast as it is with synthetics though, but that's a small price for the benefits of using organics.
Choosing a Spreader
Most of the treatments need a spreader to distribute evenly in your lawn. The liquid treatments need a hose end sprayer which I believe they will send out along with the first time they send me liquid products. When it comes to choosing a spreader, you basically have two choices. A drop spreader and a broadcast spreader. What you choose depends on the size and configuration of your lawn. Both types have settings that will determine how much product gets distributed. I recommend common, name brand spreaders such as Scotts and Agri-Fab, because many companies will determine the appropriate setting for their products for these spreaders.
Broadcast spreaders - Are good when you have a large area to cover. They are very popular because they throw the product and require less passes. I recommend using one with an edge guard, such as the Scotts Deluxe EdgeGuard Spreader. The EdgeGuard gives you some control to allow you to avoid spreading product in planting beds, walkways and driveways. It should also be a good size for most lawns in Bergen County. If you have a larger lawn and you use a riding mower, I would suggest an Agri-Fab Tow Behind Broadcast Spreader.
Drop spreaders - A drop spreader has a series of holes on the bottom and a bar to control the amount of flow. They put the product right where you spread so you don't need to worry about it going where you don't want it to go. You have to make more passes and be careful to overlap so you don't get striping. But if you have a lot of planting beds and your yard isn't very large, it's a great choice. To minimize striping, the Scotts spreaders have markings on the hopper to indicate where you should overlap the previous wheel marks. It is also recommended to do two passes at half the suggested rate. One pass North to South and the other East to West. This will help give you more even coverage. This is also recommended if you're using a broadcast spreader. Scotts has three different sizes of drop spreaders. Scotts Accugreen 1000, Scotts Accugreen 2000 and Scotts Accugreen 3000. Choose the one appropriate to the size of your lawn. I recommend you stick to the 2000 or 3000. They are newer models that come preassembled and calibrated and require no maintenance. The 1000 requires assembly and calibration as well as oiling. I got the Accugreen 1000 despite my own advice. It was easy to assemble and calibrate. Which ever you choose, you'll want to calibrate at least once a year. Calibration is simple. You simply turn the spreader upside down so you can view the bottom while you press down on the trigger with your foot. Then you adjust a screw until it lines up with a mark in between a pair of holes.
For either spreader, you'll want to clean it out after each use and let it dry before storing. Follow the maintenance suggested by the manufacturer. Don't get discouraged if you over or underapply or aren't even at first. With some practice you'll get the hang of it.
My Renovation Plan
Before working on your lawn or garden, it is a good idea to do a soil test. The Rutgers Extension office provides this service for a modest fee. So far I only used the home test kit to determine my pH but I plan on sending a sample to Rutgers for proper analysis. Depending on the level of test you order you will get nitrogen, phospherous and potassium concentrations as well as pH, calcium, magnesium, organic matter and more in your analysis as well as recommendations if you need to correct your soil.
Adjust pH - The first step of my plan was to correct the low soil pH. I applied some of Encap's Fast Acting Lime using the drop spreader. This was done about a month ago at a time when we were going to have some steady rain over the course of a few days. This helps to water-in the lime without a need to use a hose or sprinkler.
Kill weeds - I've also been pulling weeds when I can, trying to get ahead of them. Dutch white clover is the most prominent weed. It is very common in many lawns in the area. It's not that bad a weed as it fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. If you have dutch white clover in your lawn, it is a good indication that your soil is lacking nitrogen.
Use organic products - I've started using the Organic Lawns For America lawn care program and have applied the microbial soil conditioner. I will be receiving the next treatment shortly which is a fertilizer.
Aerate the lawn - In the middle or end of August, depending on the weather I will aerate the lawn. Aeration helps promote deeper roots and gets oxygen and nutrients down into the soil. Deeper roots make the lawn stronger, healthier and more drought tolerant. Over time soil can become compacted, especially in high traffic areas. Aeration will help relieve soil compaction as well as break down thatch buildup. It also exposes more soil to help improve the germination rate when overseeding. You can either hire someone to do your aeration, rent a gas powered aerator or use a manual aerator. You want to make sure you use a core aerator. A core aerator has hollow tines that pull plugs out of the soil. They look like goose droppings. Spike aerators just poke holes in the soil. It helps get water, oxygen and nutrients down into the soil, but does not help with compaction. If you see moss in your lawn, it might be an indication of compacted soil. Moss tends to grow in shady areas with compacted soil and low pH.
Many tool rental centers, including the big box stores will rent these out at reasonable rates. Be sure to follow directions because they can be difficult to handle. If you're renting or hiring someone to do it, make sure at least two passes are made. You want 20-40 holes per square foot. Make sure your soil is moist, not wet or dry, to make things easier. There are also manual core aerators like the Turf Hound. The Turf Hound is easy to use and I've read of people doing up to a 5,000 square foot lawns with one over the course of a couple of days. I'm going to try to use this alone, but they're also great to have to touch up areas and do sections that are difficult to get the gas powered aerators into. I was very surprised how easy and fast it was to use the Turf Hound when I made some test holes. Hound Dog recommends spacing every 6" but I plan to do a little closer spacing because I have some areas that are very compacted.
Overseed - After aerating the soil, I plan on overseeding This will introduce some nicer grass into the area and help fill in thin spots. Seed selection turns out to be more complicated than I thought. In addition to the normal seeds you'll find at most garden and home centers, there are elite cultivars and mixes that have much better performance, color and disease resistance. I haven't decided yet which seed I will use but I have narrowed it down quite a bit. One of the more popular blends is the Galaxy Blend which is a combination of different Kentucky Bluegrass seeds. It has a very nice, dark color and performs well in many respects. It is a good blend to use in this area. One of the nicest lawns I've seen uses this blend and the homeowner uses a mainly organic lawn care program.
Seed selection could cover a whole book so I'll just cover some basics. To find out more visit the GardenWeb forums or LawnSmart Forums where you can get a lot of good information. Turf Type Tall Fescue (TTTF) blends are great for low maintenance. I personally don't like them because the blades are wide and don't feel as good on bare feet. In a lawn of finer bladed grasses, they really stand out. Standard Sun & Shade mixes contain a mix of fescues, ryegrass and kentucky bluegrass. They germinate fast and provide a decent lawn. Fine Fescues are great for shady areas where other grasses might have a hard time growing. They have a very nice texture. Kentucky Bluegrass (KBG) blends are favored by many for their color and texture. They require a little more maintenance and take longer to germinate from seed but are worth it if you have the time. Whatever you do stay away from anything that has the word "Contractor" or "Fast" on the bag. They generally contain annual ryegrass which will sprout up fast but won't last till next year. Spend a little money on good seed. It's not very expensive and the results will be with you for years. Check the labels for the weed content. You want as little as possible, preferably none and avoid the grasses you see on TV. Too expensive and who knows what types of grass they really are. Pennington makes seeds that are coated (penkoated), just like those TV grass seeds but they use a better quality of grass from my understanding. Not quite the "elite" cultivars but not bad either. The coating provides fertilizer and mulch to help the seed germinate. They also claim it keeps the birds from eating the seeds.
After seeding the soil will need frequent watering to keep the seeds moist. Traffic on the lawn should be kept to a minimum as well.
All this should greatly improve the look of the lawn. After that, continued use of the Organic Lawns for America program, yearly aeration and proper cultural practices should keep it looking great.
Proper Lawn Maintenance
The best thing you could do for your lawn is follow good cultural practices as follows:
Water deeply but infrequently - Water only when your grass needs it and when you do, water to the root zone. This depends on the type of soil you have as well as how deep your lawn's roots are. Watering deeply and infrequently will help encourage your grass to grow deeper roots, which will help improve drought tolerance. As the roots grow deeper you can water less frequently. Weeds tend to have shallow roots, so you'll also help the lawn out compete the weeds. Watering frequently will help the weed seeds germinate. By letting the top of the soil dry out in between waterings, you'll help minimize weeds. Also it is best to water in the early morning before the sun comes out. This will reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation but still give time for the blades to dry out when the sun comes up. Wet blades promote fungus and other diseases. Rutgers has a good guide om lawn watering.
Mulch your clippings - You shouldn't bag your grass clippings. Leaving them on the grass will return nitrogen back to the soil. By Mulch mowing you can provide up to 20% of your lawn's nitrogen needs. In many cases, you don't even need a mulching mower or mulching blade. If you already have a bagging mower, try it without the bag and see how it works. A number of towns in Bergen County no longer accept grass clippings with garbage collection so you'll also save the trouble of figuring out what to do with the grass.
For something a little more environmentally friendly and quieter you can go with an electric mower or battery powered mower. If you use a corded model, you'll have to get used to keeping the cord out of the mower's path and if you have a very large lawn, check to see if the battery powered models will suit your needs.
You may also want to consider a push reel mower. Reel mowers provide a nicer cut and are used on many golf course greens. They cut with more of a scissor-like action compared to the chopping of rotary mowers. The don't work well on weedy lawns or if you let the lawn get too high. So you'll need to keep a good mowing schedule, but that will also help with the never mow more than 1/3 of the blade rule. As for weeds, it makes them easier to spot and pull.
The newer push reel mowers are ligther and easier to use than older mowers but if you have a large area and would like a little bit more power, there are cordless electric push reel mowers available that will make it a little easier. I'm thinking of getting one. Not so much for environmental reasons but I like the thought of a nicer cut along with not smelling the exhaust or gas. It seems like mowing the lawn would be more enjoyable too without having to listening to a loud gas engine. Safe if you want your kids to mow the lawn too.
Mow your grass high - High grass helps to shade the soil to prevent weeds from germinating, it also helps shade the soil to keep it from drying out too fast. More blade area also results in more photosynthesis for healthier turf. Before seeding and your last mowing of the season, you'll want to start gradually lowering your blade.
Don't cut more than 1/3 of the blade at a time - You should not cut more than 1/3 the length of the grass at a time. During the growing season this will mean more frequent mowing but will result in a healthier, better looking lawn.
Keep your blade sharp - When grass is cut with a dull blade it will damage it. This results in brown tips which don't look good. It is a good idea to sharpen your blade once or twice a year. Be careful when removing the blade. If you have an electric mower, disconnect the power. If you have a gas model, pull the spark plug wire and make sure it doesn't accidently slide back on. Pull the starter a few times to make sure it won't start. It is possible to jump start the mower by spinning the blade, just like the old prop planes you see in movies. Last thing you want is your mower starting while your hands are in there. Specially made tools are used to hold the mower blade in place to help remove it. Dremel makes a mower blade shaperner that makes quick work of sharpening a blade. Be sure to balance the blade before reinstalling. Sharpening a lawn mower blade isn't very hard but make sure to search for more information to make sure you do it safely.
Don't forget to check out Organic Lawns for America. Their mail-order organic program is a great fit for many in this area.