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'New lawn in April…shot down in May'

Friday - 6/10/2011, 12:35pm  ET

Lawn Care Tips

WTOP Garden Editor Mike McGrath

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Diane in Colonial Beach writes: "We had our lawn reseeded in April. They tilled it up, removed the old lawn, brought in top soil and sowed fresh seed. The grass came up okay, but it's already burning up and we continue to have a really hard time with weeds and the ground being rock hard. Any suggestions?"

There's not much you can do, Diane. As I've been warning for over a decade, cool season lawns like bluegrass, fescue and rye need to be sown at the end of summer to thrive. Only sod will work early in the year, and it's much more expensive than seed. Seeding doesn't work in the Spring because germination takes forever in cold soil, and then summer heat quickly kills off any struggling survivors. (And while all this is happening, warm-season weeds are thriving.)

If you have any kind of a warranty or guarantee, get them to do it again at the correct time of year, between Aug. 15 and the middle of September. And this time, make sure they put down an inch of high-quality compost as the seedbed. "Top soil" is a meaningless term, and could just be nasty clay scraped away from someone's else bad-looking yard…

What Can You Do With a Bad Lawn NOW?

In our last thrilling episode we had to tell poor Diane in Colonial Beach that her spring-sown lawn never had a chance and that they'll have to do it over again in late summer -- the only reliable time to sow a lawn in our area. But what can she do until then?

  • Don't feed what you have ANY kind of granular fertilizer. If you're willing to spread some compost on top, that would be great.
  • Don't cut it or allow it to be cut lower than three inches.
  • Don't cut it or allow it to be cut at all during a dry heat wave.
  • Water it DEEPLY -- that's several hours at a pop-once or twice a week.

That'll keep the maximum amount of green alive until you get to reseeding time.

Daily Watering = Dead Lawn

Ciara in Fredericksburg writes: "I followed your lawn care advice last year; I detached it, aerated it, fertilized in the Spring with Corn Gluten Meal and mowed it on the highest setting. It was beautiful with a deep green color. But now, it's starting to look less green -- like my neighbor's lawn who NEVER waters. I water almost every morning; 30 seconds per spot."

There's your reason, Ciara; you're watering in the worst possible way. To get your lawn to grow the deep roots it needs to survive summer and stay nice and green, you have to water DEEPLY and IN-frequently. That's once or twice a week, for several hours at a time, ending just as the morning sun strikes your turf. Short daily waterings = a shallow root system and a lawn that's always dehydrated.

Free 'Safe Lawn' Talks this Monday & Tuesday

Want to learn lots more about caring for your lawn without nasty chemicals?

Paul Tukey, head of SafeLawns.org and author of "The Organic Lawn Care Manual," will give a talk on having a great looking lawn the natural way this coming Monday, June 13 at 7:00 p.m. at the new Tenley-Friendship Library on Wisconsin Avenue NW right here in D.C.

Then on Tuesday June 14 at 7 p.m. at the Wayside Elementary School on Glen Road in Potomac, Paul will give a "safe lawn" talk and screen the short film "A Chemical Reaction," which details the origins of Canada's sweeping new regulations banning many lawn care chemicals in its largest provinces.

Both talks are free and open to the public.

Bullet List for a Bullet-Proof Lawn

We've been talking lawn care this week, so let's recap.

  • If you have a cool season lawn -- bluegrass, fescue or rye -- do NOT cut it below three inches (that's a solid three inches of green left standing AFTER you've cut it). It needs that minimum height to survive summer.
  • Do NOT cut your lawn during a dry heat wave. You'll release all its stored moisture and it will turn brown.
  • Do NOT feed it any kind of granular or chemical fertilizer over the summer; you'll just burn it up.
  • Do cut it with a mulching mower that returns the pulverized-and nitrogen rich-clippings to the soil. (This gives your lawn a gentle, natural feeding every time you cut.)
  • Never cut your lawn when it's wet. You'll just rip the poor grass blades to shreds.
  • Make sure your mower blade is sharp. Blades should be replaced or sharpened at least every year. A dull blade makes for a nasty looking lawn.
  • DO water during dry times, but only deeply -- that's for several hours at a time -- and only once or twice a week. Short, daily waterings guarantee your lawn will brown out during a drought.
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