Around the Countryside: 5 Steps to a Healthier Home Lawn

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Marion Barnes, Senior County Extension Agent, Clemson University

The home lawn is a source of pride to many homeowners and is usually the result of a lot of hard work and effort on their part. If we were to design the “perfect lawn” what would be some of the components; no weeds, no insects, no disease, no armadillos, no ground moles, no fertilizer, no watering, no mowing, green 365 days a year. Unfortunately, the “perfect lawn” does not exist.

There is no substitute for grass as a recreational surface. The benefits of a healthy lawn go beyond the obvious. A healthy, vigorously growing lawn helps the environment by stabilizing soil and reducing runoff, reducing dust, air pollution and heat. Surveys indicate that a well maintained and attractive lawn can add value to your property. The key to a great looking lawn is a healthy, disease free turf.

Whether you are establishing a new lawn or maintaining an existing one the following management practices can help you achieve a healthy, vigorous turf.

  1. Take a soil sample to determine lime and nutrient requirements. Your soil test will tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, lime and minor elements may be needed. Once pass the window for late frost, fertilize according to soil test. Remember, nitrogen requirements for grasses vary with species and disease incidence can increase with imbalanced fertility and improper fertilization practices.
  2. Maintain the recommended mowing height. Mow turfgrasses often enough so than nor more than 30 percent (1/3) of the leaf surface is removed with each mowing. Removing more leaf surface can stress the grass and increase chances of disease and insect infestations. Keep mower blades sharp and balanced. Dull blades will tear leaf tips, increase water use and stress on the grass. Raise mowing height during periods of stress such as drought.
  3. Follow proper irrigation practices. Improper irrigation of lawns results in wasted water, increased cost, and unhealthy plants. Water should be applied only when a reasonable portion of the lawn shows signs of moisture stress. In most turfgrass species, wilted turfgrasses will have a dull bluish-gray or bluish-green color, folded or curled leaves, and foot prints will remain or linger longer than normal when walking over the area. If a lawn exhibits signs of drought stress, apply enough water to wet the soil thoroughly, generally, half an inch on course sandy soils and one inch of water on heavy or fine textured soils. These amounts should moisten the soils to a depth of 4 to 6 inches. Excessive watering can increase runoff. Irrigating in early morning is the most efficient and beneficial time. Water evaporation is minimized, and chances of disease development and spread are reduced. Frequent watering only encourages shallow rooting of turfgrass plants, making the lawn less drought tolerant.
  4.  Follow recommended pest control practices. Weeds, insects and diseases are the main pests in home lawns. Correctly identify the disease, insect or weed prior to applying a pesticide. Proper management practices can reduce pests problems and reduce the need for pesticides. Read and follow all label directions when applying pesticides. Remember the label is the law.

5. Thatch buildup and removal. Thatch is a dense collection of living and dead grass stems and roots lying between the soil surface and green leaves in established lawns. As a grass plant grows, the older sloughed-off plant matter (stolons, roots, rhizomes and stems) is often slow to decompose and begin to accumulate at the soil surface forming a thatch layer. Excess thatch reduces water infiltration, promotes shallow-rooted turf and encourages insect and disease problems. Thatch buildup varies from lawn to lawn and contrary to what many homeowners may think grass clippings from mowing do not contribute to thatch buildup. However, once a thatch layer has developed, grass clippings can further speeds its formation. A thatch layer up to one half thick may actually benefit lawns by helping to retain moisture and stabilizing soil temperatures. If the thatch layer exceed one half inch in thickness you may need to consider dethatching your lawn. To prevent thatch buildup, apply the proper amounts of nutrients. Excess nitrogen can lead to thatch accumulation. Mow your lawn at the proper height and mow regularly.

For more information on managing your home lawn checkout the following factsheets at the Clemson Home and Garden Information Center: HGIC 1203 Lawn Establishment, HGIC 1201 Fertilizing Lawns, HGIC 2360 Controlling Thatch in Lawns, and HGIC 2310 Managing Weeds in Warm Season Lawns.

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