Lawn & Garden Tips

From an aesthetic point of view, little can add more beauty to a lovely landscaped property than a well kept lawn. It is hoped that the following will provide some assistance in achieving this worthy goal.

Lawn Nutrition
Applying the appropriate amount of nutrients is paramount to maintaining a healthy lawn. Grass requires twelve different nutrients for its survival. Most of these are needed in small amounts and are found naturally in most soils. However, five of these nutrients, namely, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium while found in the soil are in limited supply and therefore must be supplemented. Lime will provide calcium and magnesium while commercial fertilizers will add the remaining three nutrients. Nitrogen, which is most important, can also come from decaying plant and animal waste. They are frequently used as natural fertilizers.

Timing of a lime application is not critical. Its breakdown is very slow and, therefore, reduces the chance of plant burn to near zero. While it can be applied at anytime, the best time is in the fall so that the rains and snows of winter will hasten the deterioration and then drive the product downward into the soil. In addition to providing the soil with calcium and magnesium, lime also adjusts the alkalinity and acidity of the soil, which aids the process of nutrient pick-up by plants.

Timing of fertilizer application is far more critical than liming, with spring and fall being the favored time. Summer applications are discouraged. The number of recommended applications varies greatly among the commercial producers and the research community. One application in late March or early April and two applications in the fall (September and October) give excellent results.

The single most important fact to remember when watering a lawn is that moisture is taken up by the plants through their root system. If the water you are applying is not directed to the appropriate area or is not sufficient, enough to reach the roots of plants you are not providing any benefit and, in fact, are wasting water. In a good lawn roots are found at a depth of about 6 inches. In order to reach this depth one must apply about 1 inch of water per application. This normally takes several hours using standard sprinkler heads. One inch of water will normally satisfy a lawn for one week. However, in extremely hot, dry conditions two applications may be needed. Watering a lawn for 15 to 30 minutes each day will only moisten soil to a depth of 1 inch. This moisture completely evaporates from the soil within an hour or so from the time of application and never reaches the roots of the grass. If anything, this approach encourages shallow root development that can be harmful.

Time of day for watering is critical. Watering should be done in the early morning, before the heat of day, so as to reduce the evaporation as the water is being applied. As the day progresses the lawn surface will dry which is desirable, since keeping the grass wet for long periods promotes the development of disease. It is for this reason that applying water in the evening is discouraged since the grass will remain wet all through the night hours.

Lawn diseases are most prevalent during periods of prolonged rain and high humidity during the summer months. Usually the return of drier weather will alleviate the problems without the use of chemical controls.

There are several insects that attack lawns in North Jersey and if this occurs some control is usually necessary. Before controls are applied, however, a positive identification should be made. While a complete course on insect identification cannot be given here, following are some tips that may be helpful in making a determination.

Cinch Bug. A very tiny insect that sucks the juice from the grass. Damage will occur in very sunny areas (rarely in the shade) in hot weather. Because of this damage may be hard to distinguish from that caused by drought injury. Damage will start in one area and grow rapidly in size. Homeowners may be able to identify this pest by selecting several spots where dead grass and live grass meet. On hands and knees and with the aid of a magnifying glass spread the grass blades apart. Adult insects, about the size of a pin head, with a silvery wing pattern on its back will appear. The young are even smaller, but may be easier to see because of their bright red color.

Sod Webworm. When walking on or cutting the grass a slender, tan colored moth about three-quarters of an inch long will dart up and then dive back into the grass. Often large numbers of birds can be found on the lawn, pecking at the soil, looking for the worm, which is the larvae stage of this insect.

Grubs. This late summer to mid-fall insect will cause dead patches in the lawn. These patches can be lifted up which exposes cream colored grubs with brown heads. They are about one-half to 1-inch in length.

Note: If chemical controls are needed, garden center or hardware store attendants should be able to help. Always read the label before using a chemical to determine how to use it and if the pest you are attempting to control is listed.

Cutting Height
Lawns should be cut at a height of 2 and one-half inches. This keeps the soil cooler during the heat of summer, promotes blade and root development and has a positive effect on weed control.

Weed Control
Hand weeding is suggested over chemical weed control, however, if weeds become so numerous this practice is impractical. Chemical control is the only option. The good news is that if chemicals are used and weeds are controlled you can keep future weed populations down to a minimum by maintaining a healthy lawn and keeping the cutting height to the level suggested above. This can be accomplished since most weed seed requires sunlight to germinate and the taller cut of grass can provide enough shade to prevent germination.

Things to Consider
Summer is by far the toughest time of year for lawns. Keeping human traffic down to a minimum in hot weather is very desirable. This can be a tall order especially if you have children and a very active neighborhood, but do the best you can.

If you are going to do some repair work on the lawn such as thatching, aerating, or other procedures that might temporarily damage the grass roots do not schedule this work for the summer months. During this time grass is stressed and growth is such that cutting may not be necessary for weeks on end. Repairs should be made in the spring or early fall when grass is growing vigorously and has a chance to repair itself.

March 2009

On the environmental front there has been a growing concern over the use of fertilizers on the lawn. To what degree one wishes to accept or reject these concerns must be left up to the reader. There is, however, one simple fact that must be addressed. Providing an adequate supply of nutrients to the soil is the only way one can expect to achieve a healthy lawn.

It is a well-documented fact that plants, including grasses, require twelve principle nutrients in order to develop. Seven of these nutrients are needed in very small amounts and are generally found in adequate supply in the soil. The remaining five, which include nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, are considered major nutrients and while they too are found in the soil naturally, they are in limited supply and must be supplemented to produce decent plant growth.

The first two nutrients to be discussed are calcium and magnesium. Both of these are found in lime. Lime is a very inexpensive but, yet, very important to a lawn. In addition to adding the two critical nutrients just cited it also adjusts the acidity or alkalinity of the soil, which plays an important role in nutrient uptake by plants. The exact amount of lime to be applied is best determined by a soil test; however, in the clay soils of northern New Jersey an application of 20 to 25 pounds per 1000 square feet of area per year is suggested. Lime that is sold for lawn and garden use is safe and will not burn plants. It is simply ground or pulverized limestone. It can be applied anytime of the year but the fall is best because melting winter snows will move the material downward into the soil where it is needed. Some folks use eggshells or seashells as a substitute, but while they are not harmful they are of little value because it takes huge amounts to equal the benefits derived from lime and it takes years for these materials to break down to a point where they benefit soils.

The three remaining major nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, are found in standard fertilizers. The percentage of each is always listed on the bag in the order given above. A 10-6-4 fertilizer tells us that this bag contains 10 percent nitrogen, 6 percent phosphorus and 4 percent potassium. The same can be said for a 5-10-5 or 23-4-4 fertilizer. Of the three nutrients, nitrogen is the most critical for promoting turf growth and gives grass its pleasing green color. It is difficult to maintain even a modest lawn without it. Nitrogen is also found in many organic materials such as animal and decaying plant waste. For this reason, it is often recommended to leave grass clippings on the lawn after mowing. Obviously, these forms of nitrogen are environmentally friendly but they have their limitations. They may not always be available, they can be unsightly and nitrogen is released only after decay has taken place, which can be a slow process. Furthermore, the amount of nitrogen that any of these materials will release to plants is extremely difficult to calculate. Rarely will they provide enough nutrients by themselves to satisfy a plant's needs. This is why commercial fertilizers are suggested in combination with the organic materials mentioned above, but the amount used can be reduced significantly.

Lawn fertilization, using whatever materials you desire, should take place in the early spring and in the fall. Summer fertilization should be avoided. If one wishes to reduce, but not eliminate the use of fertilizers, the spring would be the best time to accomplish this. This is true because natural conditions, namely, temperatures, increased sunlight and moisture are so favorable for grass growth at this time of the year an excessive application of fertilizer will cause such a rapid rate of growth that cutting will be required at 2- to 3-day intervals. Scaling back the application by one-half in mid- to late March or early April will get the lawn off to a good start, will eliminate excessive growth and yet provide ample nutrition for the remainder of the spring.

There is one caution to be given on the use of fertilizers. Nitrogen, the key ingredient of lawn fertilizers, does not move readily in the soil so that its effects become visible wherever it is placed. If the application is not uniform, blotches or stripes of dark green become visible a few days after the application. This is a fairly common sight in lawns in the spring. It will look a little strange for a while, but after a few periods of rain the condition will revert back to normal.

Fall fertilization is also very beneficial in producing a healthy lawn. At least one application should be made in mid- to late September. If you wish to go a step further, a second application may be made in mid- to late October. This will give an added nutritional benefit which will help bring your lawn through the rough winter months. If one considers this recommendation an excessive use of fertilizer, cutting the amount used in each application by one-half will be far better than not fertilizing at all.

March 2009

Irrigating lawns and gardens is a common practice for many North Jersey homeowners during the hot, dry months of summer. The following has been prepared to acquaint gardeners with the principles of watering that will provide the greatest benefit to the plants and utilize the water being applied in a most efficient manner.

The single most important fact to remember when considering watering a lawn or garden is that moisture is taken up by the plants through their root systems. If the water you are applying is not directed to the appropriate area or is not sufficient, enough to reach the roots of plants you are NOT providing any benefit and in fact are wasting water at a time when this precious commodity should not be wasted.

Let us consider what it takes to get water to the root zone using lawns as an example since it is the most commonly irrigated area in the landscape. In a good lawn, roots are found at a depth of about 6-inches. In order to reach this depth one must apply about 1-inch of water per application. This normally takes several hours using standard sprinkler heads. Do not equate this with normal rainfall since when it rains the entire lawn is receiving moisture. When watering using a fan-type or circular sprinkler head only that portion of the lawn where the water is directed at any moment in time is receiving water. The bottom line is that 1 hour of watering is not equal to 1 hour of natural rainfall. How then can you determine the time needed to apply the required amount of water with the equipment you have? The answer is to simply place a coffee can in the area being irrigated and determine the time it takes to get 1-inch of water in the can.

One inch of water will normally satisfy a lawn for one week, but in extremely hot, dry conditions, two applications may be needed. On the other hand, a thunderstorm or two within a given week could eliminate the need for watering for extended periods. It is not uncommon for such storms to drop and inch or two of water in a very short period of time, which could easily satisfy the needs of your lawn or garden. This is a good place to remind gardeners to tune in to weather reports. If predictions tell us that rain is on the way delay your planned irrigation. If the weathermen are proven wrong then continue with your initial plans a few days later.

Although the example given above was directed at lawns, the same principles are in place for other garden plants. The frequency of applications may vary and the depth to which water is needed to be effective may be different. This is easy to understand if you compare annual flowering plants, which have a root depth of 8- to 10-inches, versus tree roots that may reach 3 feet. The fact remains that water you apply must reach and be available to the roots of plants.

Let us now examine where irrigation is applied but the efficient use of water is not being satisfied nor is the process beneficial from the plant's point of view.

(1) Short Frequent Watering

Watering the garden, including lawns, for 15- to 30-minutes each day will only moisten soil to a depth of 1-inch. The moisture completely evaporates from the soil within an hour or so from the time of application and therefore never reaches the roots of plants. If anything, this approach encourages shallow root development, which can be harmful and is an unnecessary waste of water.

(2) Using a Handheld Hose

Rarely would any gardener using this procedure remain in a location long enough to provide the amounts of moisture that have been discussed above. (A tree 75-feet tall can lose hundreds of gallons of water through its leaves on a hot, windy day in the summer.) Frequently this procedure is repeated on a daily basis, which produces the same results listed in #1 above. However, a handheld hose can be used successfully in watering small gardens and containers such as pots and hanging baskets with excellent results.

(3) Using Incorrect Sprinkler Heads

Sprinkler heads or hoses using a fine mist spray are not recommended. This type of head delivers small droplets of water that tend to blow away in the slightest breeze, therefore, missing target areas. Also, in hot weather a fine mist evaporates readily. Those water droplets, which reach the plant level, tend to settle on leaves and branches where it also evaporates leaving the soil and roots high and dry. Overall, using a fine mist has a very poor efficiency rating.

In recent years, the installation of ground sprinkler systems has become very popular. How successful they are depends on how well the nozzles were placed, the type of nozzles used, and most importantly, the schedule or cycles that were devised to apply the water. There is no need to go into any detail on any of these since all of the information needed to determine whether your system is functioning properly is provided in the discussions above.

Watering a lawn, or other areas of the garden, for several hours at a time may not appear to be a good conservation practice. However, it has been demonstrated that over the long run more water is used when following the frequent short watering program versus the longer infrequent watering approach. Because the latter provides for a deep and lasting supply of water this provides a far greater benefit to the garden.

Although most of the recommendations in this document are directed at irrigating lawns and gardens under dry conditions, there are situations where water is being applied when it is simply not needed. This past spring and early summer has provided many examples of this. Weather statistics in New Jersey have indicated that this June (2009) rain has been recorded in 27 of the 30 days, yet irrigation systems have been in action throughout this period, sometimes during steady rains. This is not only a waste of water but it places more stress on plants that are already suffering from excess soil moisture. Much of this unnecessary use of water can be blamed on irrigation systems that are regulated by time clocks. The latest technology has provided ways to automatically eliminate this problem. If you happen to fall into the situation just described it may be wise to check with your irrigation installer for corrective measures.