Those of you in northern areas are about to start working on your lawns again. I've been meaning to put together a post like this and I've finally gotten around to it.
I'll get up on my pedestal and remind everyone that you don't need to put chemicals and synthetic fertilizer on your lawn to have a nice turfstand. You just need some cheap cow food, persistence and patience.
The Basic Care Rules
1. One inch of water per week applied at one time, if possible. That amount may have to be lowered if you live in a cooler area or have heavier clay in the topsoil. Or, if you live in an area that tends to be arid from July-August with sand at the top, like my area, that amount may have to be higher. Work with your lawn and figure it out. When it's starting to darken (i.e. wilt) due to a lack of moisture, give it an inch of water and see how long it takes to go back to the beginning of the drought process.
1a. Don't water after dusk, don't water in the middle of the night and don't water in the middle of the day. The first two encourage disease in humid conditions (maybe you enjoy slime mold on your lawn) and the latter is highly ineffective during the summer peak. If you're trying to put down an inch at a time, then start your irrigation system at 4AM to get done before the peak temperature hits. If you don't have a system, consider it. Perfect applications of water is better than running your spigot-connected sprinkler for 12 hours because you had to go to work. If it isn't an option, invest in some of those rolling tractors with the shut-off stops.
2. Even if you don't go organic, don't use weed and feed. Why? Well, it feeds, but what's the point of applying 2,4-D, a dangerous chemical, in granule form that requires moisture on the leaves of weeds to stick and be effective? If you're going to use something like 2,4-D, spot treat. Also, see #5.
3. Grass needs nitrogen and other nutrients to thrive. It does not, however, need to drown in it. That causes overgrowth, encourages disease and discourages root growth. The yearly requirements for N are simple:
Young Kentucky Bluegrass (0-1 years): 5-6 pounds of N per 1000 sq ft per year
Mature Kentucky Bluegrass (2+ years): 3-4 pounds of N per 1000 sq ft per year
Turf Type Tall Fescue: 2.5-3.5 pounds of N per 1000 sq ft per year
Focus on heavier late season/fall applications for cool season grasses. It's most effective then. In fact, if you time it right, a late dose of nitrogen can keep your lawn green all winter.
I don't know the southern grasses as well, but I do know that Bermuda needs a lot (probably 6-8 pounds and monthly light applications, and the more it grows the more you need to apply) and St. Augustine needs a bit less (around 4).
4. Test your soil. Is it acidic? Is it lacking in bio activity, missing microbes, earthworms, etc? Is it alkali? Is it overloaded with phosophorous because you live in Michigan and people are stupid and keep putting it on their lawns? You can't answer these questions until you test your soil and find out. Call up your local extension office or find a local service that does it. My local True Value performs testing. Contrary to popular belief, a slightly acidic soil favors turfgrass more than perfectly neutral soil. Shoot for 6.6-6.8, especially if you have KBG. If your soil is inactive (it's dirt), look at applying compost or accelerated compost tea to it. Over time, it activates into a more encouraging environment.
5. The best defense against weeds? That's easy - grass. The healthier your turfstand is, the less chance weeds will have to thrive. This is why I also suggest to people with heavy fescue/rye lawns to look at integrating Kentucky Bluegrass into them - KBG sprawls like mad and can take back a lawn in a hurry. Also, invest in a weed puller. Good exercise and extremely effective at pulling weeds with taproots and weeds with centralized root systems. Chemicals are no guarantee against a weed, but ripping that dandelion out of the ground sure is.
6. Return your clippings! Contrary to what many people think, clippings don't produce thatch. Thatch is made up of stolons, runners, roots, etc. Clippings break down quickly and they're 90% water. That's moisture your lawn can use. Only bag clippings if you have a heavy cut or if you're trying to control a disease issue.
7. Standard operating mowing rule: Cut no more than 1/3 of the grass blades at one time. Keep it high and it will keep weeds out. Cut it low and it will drought faster due to a lack of moisture from higher blades and the soil drying out. TTTF should be cut at 2.5-3" and KBG should be 3" if you can. Trust me, it doesn't look right at first but it makes for a far nicer lawn. St. Augustine should be cut lower and Bermuda far lower than that.
When it comes to organics, whether or not you can go that direction depends on your ability to acquire the products. Box stores sell organic product off the shelves, but it tends to be expensive - almost as expensive as Scotts - and some of the brands are a bit dicey when it comes to the use of metals and the like.
Instead, find out if you have a local feed mill. If so, give them a call and check out the prices. Soybean is considered the finest organic food for lawns. Corn meal is great for a late spring application, as it tends to facilitate trichoderma (a beneficial fungus) - it feeds trichoderma and it's usually laced with the stuff when you put it down. I use it once in late May, but soybean the rest of the time. My 100% KBG lawn gets about 4.5 pounds of N per 1000 per year, which is higher than typical because of my sandy topsoil. NPK rates for common feeds:
Now, to figure out what you need to apply, just do the math. If you have a 10,000 square foot lawn, you need 40 pounds of N on that lawn during the year. If you use Soybean, which is 7% N, that's about 600 pounds of soybean meal. At $20 per 100 pound bag - which is what I pay - that's $120 a year for the standard N requirement. Not exactly Scotts prices.
I pay even less for corn meal, so my net price at the end of the year is actually a bit lower than if it were just soybean.
Remember, when you call your local feed mill be specific about what you want. Normally, they don't put feed in 50 pound bags, only 100. Ask for 50 pound bags if you need it that way. Also, they don't normally grind soybean, either. Ask for soybean meal and be clear about it.
For those of you with cool season grasses that are cut high, you probably wonder if there's ever a reason to cut low again. There is: scalping.
Here's the most important thing: don't scalp once you're past the spring transition as it will encourage weeds and can encourage turfstand death.
There are benefits, though. Ever notice those yellow stalks of bluegrass that stick up amongst your perfectly dark blades? Yep, that's dead growth. You cut your lawn at 3" and it's right there at 3". Five days later, your green growth is at 4" but that dead stalk is still there at 3".
Scalping gets rid of that dead growth. Don't scalp to the stem, though! That can and will kill the grass. If you normally cut at 3" from 4-4.5", then cut to 3" then down to 1.75" or 2" the next day. Don't cut it down to 1" unless you're overseeding that area with an overseeder.
Dethatch (if needed) at the same time you scalp the turf down and you'll see an amazing transition over the course of the next two weeks. You'll go from seeing browned, dead growth on top to nothing but green all around with the dead stalks half the height of your green blades.