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. 

 

Spring Fever: How To Force Branches To Bloom Indoors

Why wait for spring when you can force it to come early indoors? Spring flowering trees and shrubs are a ‘natural’ for forcing. Why? Because their buds formed in the fall before they went dormant. Once they’ve been chilled long enough, they’re ready to cut. And for many of us, that time is now. Continue reading

The Real Lives Of Yellow Jackets And How To Eliminate Them

Eastern yellow jacket cleaning itself on a leaf

Recently I published a blog post about bees, wasps and hornets. To add interest to the story, I created a graphic featuring 4 common species and asked my readers to identify them. One reader labeled three of them correctly and labeled the fourth one ‘jerk.’ (Actually he used more colorful language, but this is a family blog). That ‘jerk’ was the yellow jacket. Continue reading

Managing Hydrangeas: To Prune Or Not To Prune And Other Existential Questions

To prune or not to prune? That is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Continue reading

The ABC’s Of Deadheading And Why It Produces More Flowers

Regular deadheading ensures the blooms keep coming all season long

Have you ever been frustrated by a beautiful plant that suddenly stops blooming? It’s time for a haircut. Continue reading

Weed ID: Get To Know What You’re Pulling

“My flower is an educated weed.” – Luther Burbank

Summer is coming and many of our plants are bursting into flower. But while we celebrate, there’s another less attractive family of plants springing into life as well. Continue reading

Five Reasons Your Trees Are Failing: A Bartlett Tree Expert Speaks Out

why your trees are failing

Trees are generally admired for their surface beauty, but their health and vigor springs from what’s underground. That’s according to Dr. Kelby Fite, Director of Research for Bartlett Tree Research Lab in Charlotte, North Carolina, who spoke to Maryland’s master gardeners last week on why your trees may be failing. His lecture entitled ‘Managing the Landscape Below Ground’ provided a wealth of information about how to improve the life of the trees in our landscape. According to Fite, it all starts with the soil. Continue reading

Daylilies Giving You Trouble? Here’s How To Divide Them

Hemerocallis fulva, commonly known as Tiger Daylily

Parents know that when children aren’t getting along it’s time to divide them. The same goes for many perennials that refuse to make room for other plants in the garden. And daylilies are one of the biggest offenders; quickly crowding out other, more tender species, with their big, drooping foliage. But don’t despair. Just follow the simple steps below and you’ll have things back under control in a jiffy. Continue reading

How To Successfully Grow Lavender: A Maryland Expert Weighs In

(Updated February 2019) 

One of the perks of being a master gardener is all the great lectures you get to attend. Today’s talk following the board meeting was no exception. It happened to coincide with the very moment I was asking myself “What’s going on with my lavender?” Here was professional grower Sophia Watkins, ready to answer all my questions.

A FAMILY-RUN LAVENDER FARM CALLED SOLEADO

Watkins runs a family-owned, sustainable lavender farm located at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. It is the largest lavender farm in the state. She grew up on the 286-acre farm, 26 acres of which are now dedicated solely to the cultivation of lavender.

Soleado Lavender Farm

The family prides itself on its long history of organic farming, a practice Watkins’ father adopted back in the 1960s. At that time, the farm grew a mix of soybeans and grains. For a child, it was a great way to grow up. So when Watkins and her fiancé took over the farm, they knew they wanted to continue that tradition.

“Our goal was about preservation even more than about gardening,” she said. “We wanted to protect these special parts of Maryland and keep them alive for not only our own child but for everybody else’s children as well.”

Why choose lavender? The couple was looking to grow a sustainable perennial that deer wouldn’t eat as well as one from which they could make products for sale. They decided on lavender not only for its drought-tolerance, but also for its many decorative and culinary uses. Later, they added bees for pollination. And today, the farm boasts nine hives with over 40,000 bees in each, all producing lavender honey.

In a nod to Watkins’ fiancé’s Latin American roots, they named their farm Soleado, meaning sunny or ‘baking in the sun.’ As it so happens, in their first year of operation, Watkins says they found themselves ‘dying in the heat’ as they got things established. As a result, Soleado took on a new shade of meaning.

TIPS FOR HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY PROPAGATE LAVENDER

At Soleado, all of the lavender is grown from cuttings, a practice most nurseries have moved to given the lower germination rate of seeds. Watkins harvests soft and hardwood cuttings from established plants that average around 5 inches, then strips off the leaves and dips them in a root hormone. Not surprisingly, her top choice for an organic one is honey.

Honey bee

In order to provide maximum space for the roots to extend, Watkins plants her seedlings in a ‘bulky’ growing medium that she mixes herself from Leafgro and perlite. Then she plants the cuttings in 2” plastic pots.

Once potted, the cuttings spend up to 8 weeks in partial shade or in the greenhouse (under shade cloths) until substantial roots begin to develop. Afterward, they’re transplanted to the field. Watkins noted that if the seedlings are planted outside first, the process usually goes faster.

THREE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER

According to Watkins, three is the magic number of years for a good-sized plant to develop. After that, it may continue to grow for another four. What happens around year seven I asked? If taken care of properly, lavender can live a good deal longer, with 10 to 20 years not being unheard of. Indeed, some historical properties have plants that are as much as 80 years old.

Lavender border along stone steps

A great combo, hydrangea and lavender

Once established, lavender is a sun-loving plant. Therefore, no variety can tolerate shade and still produce flowers. Once the flowers are harvested, Watkins sprays the plants’ roots with fish emulsion for fertilizer. “We need to fortify them after they’ve put all that energy into blooming, “ she said.

CUT, CUT AND THEN CUT AGAIN

There is so much conflicting information about when and how to cut back lavender. Watkins freely admits that her method might not suit everyone. But at the farm, 2 to 4 times a year is the rule. Soleado sheers their lavender like sheep, cutting back all new growth each time the plants flower. The pruning begins almost as soon as the seedlings are transplanted.

Growing cutting back lavender

Cutting back encourages new growth

Most of us are familiar with lavender’s tendency to open up in the middle. Cutting back helps to encourage new, dense growth while mitigating this problem. Not only does it improve the overall looks of the plant, but it also enables it to survive the winter. Additionally, it sends more energy into developing strong roots, which according to Watkins, results in a thicker, healthier plant.

At Soleado, they never prune anything thicker than a pencil. They avoid old wood. Watkins does NOT recommend cutting back old woody stems. If you absolutely must, she said to trim them back just to where the first bunch of leaves start on the bush.

They stop all cutting by the end of October.

AVOID SHREDDED MULCH

Along with lots of sun, lavender prefers to stay dry. Ironically, once of the main threats to its survival comes in the form of mulch. According to Watkins, shredded mulch is the biggest offender. Often harboring mold spores, this kind of material can spell death for lavender.

“What seems to really kill them is the mold spores that come in on shredded mulch,” said Watkins. “Given the amount of humidity we have (in Maryland), it’s really important to stick with a dry medium.”

If you’re using shredded mulch in the rest of your garden, Watkins advises keeping it at least 1 – 2 feet away from your lavender. At Soleado, they use crushed bluestone for mulch that they harvest from their driveway. Other great options include white gravel and seashells, both of which have the added benefit of reflecting light back onto the plant.

White gravel mulch is great for lavender

White gravel mulch

WINTERING TIPS

Many of us have lost lavender plants over the winter. However, Watkins said, “Getting your plants through the winter does not have to do with size or age, even little seedlings can make it through the winter. A temperature of anything above 0 degrees Fahrenheit is OK.”

Frozen lavender flowers

Frozen lavender

So what can we do to prepare for the colder months? The most important thing, according to Watkins, is to keep plants trimmed and thick. The thickness (or thatchiness) is what keeps the snow and ice out of the plants. (Although snow doesn’t seem to be as bad for lavender as ice.)

In short, it’s a matter of creating a plants that have a good smooth cut on them so they become their own insulation.

NO SIGNIFICANT PESTS OR DISEASES

Not only are its water needs low, but lavender also is resistant to most pests and diseases. Watkins says occasionally she’ll observe spittlebugs on her plants, but that’s about all. The main concern is lavender’s super susceptibility to mold spores (mentioned above.) The best thing you can do for mold is to practice prevention.

Another great plus to growing lavender is that deer hate it, although Watkins observed that “Sometimes they’ll pull the seedlings out of the ground, ‘Just because.”’

Deer won't eat lavender

Soleado Farms grows a mix of English, French and Spanish varieties of lavender. They’re always experimenting with new strains and have found that within each variety each year there are clear standouts. These days, Watkins is loving the “rabbit ear petals” on the flower tops of Spanish lavender.

Spanish lavender flowers

Spanish lavender

To learn more about Soleado, tours of the farm and their lavender-based products, click here for the official website.

 

How to Keep Your Potted Plants In Shape All Summer

It’s that time of year again when we all head out to buy annuals for our containers. And the flowers always start out looking gorgeous. But, in no time the blooms fade and the stems turn long and leggy. As a garden designer, I find this is one of the most frequent questions I am asked: How do I keep my potted plants in shape all summer? Continue reading