How To Build A Perfect Lawn: A Maryland Turf Expert Speaks Out

When it comes to experts on lawns, University of Maryland’s Chuck Schuster is a cut above. Not only is he an educator in commercial horticulture, but he also consults on grass with many nursery, greenhouse, turf and garden center industries. Oh, and in his spare time he provides guidance on turf protection to some of the largest stadiums and sports complexes in the Washington, DC area.

I was lucky to have Schuster speak to me recently on the differences between cool and warm season grasses and how to build the perfect lawn.

COOL SEASON GRASSES

Most lawns grown in the mid Atlantic region are composed of cool season grasses. These include fescue, bluegrass and ryegrass. Cool season grasses go dormant in January and February. But in early March, when temperatures climb above 32° F, their roots become active. And from March to June, these grasses are actively growing, with 60 percent of their top growth occurring in the first six weeks they break dormancy.

Cool season grasses put on 60% of their top growth from March to June.

In late June and July, however, when temperatures reach 85° F and above, cool season grasses undergo what Schuster terms the ‘Summer Slump.’ During this period, they don’t actively grow and will often turn brown. 

Cool season grasses often turn brown during the ‘Summer Slump’.

Cool season grasses turn green again and resume growth, when temperatures cool and soil moisture is replenished. This usually occurs in September, when they also begin developing roots for the winter. In fact, cool season grasses will continue growing underground all the way until December until the soil freezes.

Cool season grasses will continue growing until the soil freezes.

WARM SEASON GRASSES

The most common warm season grasses are zoysia and Bermuda grass. These species prefer drier soils and have a high tolerance for drought. As a result, they tend to handle heavy traffic better and can tolerate closer mowing. In fact, Bermuda grass’s high resiliency and ability to heal itself quickly make it one of the top choices for many sports complexes.

“Warm season grasses are so resilient they’ll even creep over asphalt,” says Schuster.

Bermuda grass lawn

The downside for homeowners is that these lawns turn brown when they go dormant, which usually occurs once temperatures dip below 50° F. On the East Coast, this isn’t the best recipe for a perfect lawn. Growth begins again when temperatures rise above that point in the spring, with warm season grasses experiencing active growth from April through September. 

Warm season grasses go dormant in the winter.

WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE

Why does it matter what type of grass you have? Because, according to Schuster, understanding what type of grass you have determines its care. Building a perfect lawn involves controlling for mowing height, water needs and perhaps most importantly, fertilization requirements.

Before doing anything to your lawn (especially fertilization) determine whether you are working with cool or warm season turf!

THINGS THAT BUILD A PERFECT LAWN

According to Schuster, these are the five things that go into making a great lawn.

  1. Good soil 
  2. Adequate moisture
  3. Proper mowing height
  4. Yearly aeration
  5. Proper fertilization

GOOD SOIL

Maintaining soil pH in an optimum range helps lawns absorb nutrients properly. Moreover, it reduces weed and disease problems. Generally a soil pH of 5.8 to 6.4 is considered ideal. Depending on your grass species, problems in turf may start to occur at soil pH above 7.8 or below 5.6,

To mitigate this problem, Schuster recommends doing a soil test to determine soil pH before applying nutrients.

Determine your soil pH first before applying nutrients.

ADEQUATE MOISTURE 

According to the Lawn Institute, most lawns grow very well with a maximum total of one inch (2.5 cm) of water a week. This amount can come from rain or irrigation, or a combination of both. This will saturate the underlying soil to a depth of 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm), allowing the roots to create a ‘soil-water bank’ to draw moisture from during periods of hot weather and drought.

Proper irrigation helps your lawn develop deep, strong roots. 

PROPER LAWN MOWING HEIGHTS (Hint: Mow high)

Longer grass helps shade out weeds and keeps the soil cooler. Schuster recommends mowing cool season grasses a little higher, at 3- 3 ½ inches. This keeps grass greener in the summer and reduces thatch. Mow when the lawn is dry, removing no more than 1/3 of the height.

Warm season grasses, on the other hand, can be mown close to the ground due to their high resiliency and preference for drier soil.

Mow cool season grasses high to shade out weeds and diseases.

Either way, don’t forget to sharpen your blades once a year. Dull mower blades tear the grass blades, increasing the chances of disease and leaving a brown tint on the lawn.

YEARLY AERATION

Aeration helps a lawn maintain its health and vigor. It also reduces maintenance requirements by improving air exchange between soil and atmosphere while enhancing water and fertilizer uptake. Perhaps most importantly, it improves root development by reducing soil compaction. This in turn helps a lawn battle heat and drought better.

It also accelerates thatch break down.

Aeration graphic before and after

According to Schuster, every good lawn benefits from a good aeration. It can be done in spring or fall. However, never aerate when the lawn is dried out or too wet, it will tear up the ground.

PROPER FERTILIZATION

Spring fertilization encourages top growth (and mowing) at the expense of root growth. It produces lush turf, but it also makes a lawn more susceptible to insects and disease. Depriving the roots of proper development increases risk during drier times in the late summer.

Fertilize cool season grasses in the fall for optimum root growth.

On the other hand, when you fertilize a lawn in the fall, the nutrients go mainly towards root growth. And healthy roots mean healthy plants. Grasses build a reserve to help survive the winter and start out strong in the spring.

“It’s the best bang for your nutrient dollar,” says Schuster.

BONUS: LEAVE THE CLIPPINGS ON YOUR LAWN

Who doesn’t like free fertilizer? Leave the clippings on the lawn to put nitrogen back into the turf. It bears noting that soil amendments like LeafGro are simply products made from our own discarded leaves and grass (and sold back to us by nurseries.)

Glass clippings return nutrients to the soil and contribute to healthy turf.

Grass clippings contribute to healthy turf by returning nutrients to the soil in a slow-release form. In fact, returning grass clippings to the lawn ‘credits’ it with as much as one pound of nitrogen per year, says Schuster.

TO RECAP

To build a perfect lawn, make sure to do the following:

Figure out what type of turf you have.

Do a soil test to determine pH needs.

Fertilize at the optimum time. 

Mow at a height to benefit the lawn, not the weeds.

Aerate once a year to build strong and healthy roots. 

And enjoy your lawn!

Our family dog, Winston, enjoying our cool-season lawn. 

 

Father’s Day 2019: Lessons Learned From A Life In The Garden

Me, my dad and my sister circa 1965

Dad was up early when I was a child. On weekdays he went to the office, but on weekends the real business began. These were the days that dad devoted to yard work. And my sister and I were a key part of his crew.

Dad ran a tight ship and an orderly landscape bore testament to our mighty team effort. In our role as garden staff, my sister and I raked, clipped, pulled weeds and hauled yard waste on a seasonal basis. We weren’t fans of the work, but we were big fans of dad’s, and the weekly chores were a good way to spend time together.

Only later did we realize that something more than gardening had been going on in the yard. While my sister and I labored in the dirt, dad had been teaching us some valuable life lessons. Following are five things I learned doing yard chores with dad that continue to infuse my life with meaning and purpose today.

DELAY GRATIFICATION

Until the work was finished, there would be no rides to the pool or overnights with friends. This was a hard pill to swallow since by Saturday morning most of our pals were already playing. That being said, my sister and I gradually discovered that delaying our playtime actually increased our enjoyment of it later. By completing our yard chores first, we developed patience and strengthened our willpower. And in time, we grew to relish the psychic benefits of putting off fun until our tasks were done.

DO QUALITY WORK

One of my jobs was to crawl around the periphery of the house with shears to prune the stray grass left behind by the mower. About halfway around the exterior, I usually got tired and started cutting corners. Seeing this, my dad never yelled, but he seemed so disappointed. As a result, I often tearfully returned to the job.

Somewhere along the way, however, I learned to do quality work. And most importantly, I discovered that practicing quality was fulfilling and that it mattered to me.

PRACTICE INTEGRITY

If you told dad you were going to do something, you did it. He expected no less. No excuses, prevarication or blaming poor work on your sister were valid substitutes for your word. Honesty was the rule and dad led by example, setting high standards in the yard.

Dad taught us how to be respectful of each other and listened patiently to our endless strategies for reducing our workload. He also showed us that the key to good work was to finish the jobs that we started.

PUSH YOURSELF

Dad had a riding mower, but insisted on walking behind it to cut our 3-acre field. On the hottest of days, my mother would watch him incredulously from the kitchen window. It’s possible my dad did so to burn calories, but most probably it was a an excuse to spend more time outdoors. Whatever the reason, his work ethic made it hard to refuse when he asked us to bag the clippings.

Of course dad could have bagged the grass as he mowed, but that would have meant we missed out on the work. One year, as an incentive, he offered to pay us if we got all the clippings into 10 plastic bags. Working like mad all afternoon, we raked, piled and flattened the leaves until we had accomplished our mission. My sister was stamping on the tenth bag when it burst at the seams.

Fortunately dad paid us anyway, as exhausted, we returned to the house. In recent years, dad likes to dispute this version of the story. Nevertheless, it’s still one of my favorite garden memories today.

TRY NOT TO COMPLAIN

Dad showed us through example that even if the job got hard, or the weather uncomfortable, we should strive not to complain. Not only was it annoying, but it also made yard work unpleasant for the group. He taught that seeing things in a more positive light was better for all of us and improved our relationships.

Being young girls, my sister and I struggled the most with this concept. We tried hard to stop airing our yard work grievances, with incremental improvement over time as we aged. But, I’ll admit that it wasn’t until later on in life that I finally learned the true value of this lesson.

Thank you, dad, for all the lessons you taught us.  Happy Father’s Day. You are the best dad, ever.

 

The Difference Between Bees, Wasps and Hornets

What’s the difference between bees, wasps and hornets? You may be surprised to learn that some are masquerading as imposters. Take yellow jackets for instance, whose yellow and black stripes speak bee when in fact they are wasps. In the natural world, though, all three serve a purpose. So before you reach for the chemical spray, please see below. 

Recently I was asked to represent my garden club at a function in Maryland. Our speaker was Kerry Wixted, of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Her talk, entitled Bees, Bats and Snakes: Oh My! was as amusing as it was informative. I’ll save the bats and snakes for later. What follows are some highlights of her lecture.

THE MAIN DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BEES, WASPS AND HORNETS

Aside from stinging ability, there are some key differences between bees, wasps and hornets. Most notably, bees feed on pollen and nectar while wasps and hornets feed mainly on insects (although many also pollinate.) Only bees produce honey.

Let’s start with bees.

BEES

Bees are highly valued for their pollination abilities. Without them, much of our agriculture would disappear.

A honeybee – dense fur helps it collect more pollen

Perhaps the best known of all bees, honeybees are typically golden and furry (the better to catch pollen with). They also come equipped with pollen baskets attached to their hind legs. Honeybees die when they sting. Bumblebees, solitary bees, wasps and hornets do not.

In fact, if a honeybee decides to sting you, it’s a conscious choice to sacrifice his or her own life for the hive. Once the barbed stinger is embedded in your skin, it is wrenched from the bee’s body, and the bee dies.

Honeybees prefer to nest in colonies above ground in tree cavities, rock crevices and boxes designed expressly for them. They make their hives by chewing wax until it becomes soft. Then they form it into a honeycomb.

Honeybees in honeycomb

A subspecies of honeybees, bumblebees like to nest both above and below ground. Their large size and fuzzy bodies make them easy to distinguish. 

Of the over 400 different varieties of bees in Maryland, many prefer to nest in the ground or in wood or crevices. These kind of bees are known as solitary bees, preferring to nest as a family unit; just one female and her offspring, Occasionally, solitary bees will nest close to one another, however, giving the impression of a colony.

Solitary bee inspecting a potential nesting site

The more common solitary bee species in Maryland are mason, squash and sweat bees. These bees are rarely aggressive. And each has its own special relationship with certain types of vegetables and flowers.

WASPS

It may surprise you to know that like bees, wasps are important pollinators. However, they are less efficient, due to having less hair on their bodies. So instead, they prefer to feed mainly on insects, which they use to provide proteins to the larvae in their colony. They do not produce honey. As I mentioned above, yellow jackets are wasps.

Yellow-jacket wasp

Here’s the benefit. In the early summer months, wasps act as a natural pest control, feeding on caterpillars and other insects in the garden. The problem arises later in the summer, though, when the food supply becomes scarce. That’s when they switch to buzzing around garbage cans and picnic lunches. There are currently over 1200 wasp species in Maryland, the most common of which are yellow-jackets and paper wasps.

Swarm of bees

Wasps nest both above and below ground, while yellow-jackets nest in the ground only. For example, some build their nests in old rodent holes, widening them as they develop their hives. Recently, we discovered a hole full of yellow jackets in our Demonstration Garden that sent two team members to the hospital. It’s important to know the difference. 

True to their name, paper wasps make their nests out of a substance similar to paper. They chew wood into a pulp and then stick it together with their saliva to form a honeycomb. These are referred to as paper hives.

Wasp nest

HORNETS

A subspecies of wasps, hornets are the largest in the family. They tend to be more black/brownish and white with little bright color. They can be distinguished from other wasps by their wider heads and rounder abdomens. 

European hornet – notice the lack of visible fur on the body

The only true species of hornet in the United States is the European hornet, also known as the bald-faced hornet. The young eat caterpillars and the adults pollinate flowers. In Maryland, the European hornet is highly prized for its preference for eating cicadas. 

Here’s a key to the bees and wasps pictured in the cover photo:

For more information on how to build nests for native bees, click here for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website. Or, to learn more about bees and what they pollinate, click here for my post How To Make Sense of the Buzz In Your Garden.

 

Topiary Gardens: 6 Great Ideas From The Gardens Of Eyrignac

You would almost believe you’d dropped into a fairy tale. France’s valley of the Dordogne boasts a bucolic green countryside that has long inspired painters, authors and poets. Home to the deep green Dordogne river, tiny rural villages and medieval castles perched high on hilltops, it is also the site of one of the most famous topiary gardens in France, the spectacular Gardens of Eyrignac. Continue reading

Why Carnations Are The Official Mother’s Day Flower

This is one of my favorite all-time stories. And even better, it’s true. It’s the tale of a mother and daughter, 500 white carnations and the founding of Mother’s Day. Continue reading

Historic Garden Tour: The Dolley Madison Garden Club Turns 100

It was a perfect, sunny day and the homes were spectacular. This was my first time attending Virginia’s Historic Garden Week, and the Dolley Madison Garden Club’s ‘Centennial Tour’ didn’t disappoint. It was an extra-special event, as it also marked the club’s 100th anniversary. And to commemorate the occasion, two historic residences were open to the public for the very first time. Continue reading

5 Ways To Honor Our Planet On Earth Day

earth1

It’s been a half century now since Earth Day made its debut on April 22, 1970. I still remember the strangeness of being dismissed early from school to clean up litter. At the time, the idea seemed foreign to us, which means, of course, that we were used to throwing our trash on the ground. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age that was the common mindset. Continue reading

How To Cope With Boxwood Blight: An Expert Weighs In

It’s not every day you get to discuss your problems with an international expert. But Lynn Batdorf is the real deal. Batdorf is the world’s top resource on everything boxwood, including all of the diseases and pests that affect this diverse species. Recently he spoke to me about how to deal with the latest threat to our gardens, the dreaded boxwood blight. Continue reading

Why Star Magnolia Deserves A Spot In Your Garden

Magnolia stellata, commonly known as Star Magnolia

First introduced from Japan in the 1860s, star magnolia has long been a resident of the American garden. One of the smallest magnolias, it produces a cloud of showy white or pink flowers in early spring. The blossoms appear before the leaves, dangling like fallen stars on the tree’s smooth, bare branches. It’s enough to leave you speechless. Continue reading

Nurturing Wildlife Habitats: Five Ways To Save the Planet

For many of us, attracting wildlife to our gardens sounds good in theory but fails in practice. Especially when it comes to that four-legged pest the white–tailed deer. However, there are many sound reasons for enticing birds, insects, even small animals back into our yards. It’s not only good for our local ecosystem, but it also keeps our flowers blooming. And it just might be the right thing to do. Continue reading