Tips for a Healthy Lawn

April 17, 2008

Now that all the snow has melted from my lawn I’m left with a layer of dead, matted grass peppered with leaves and debris. It’s not pretty. Now is a great time to start thinking about the state of my lawn.

Overall, I love my lawn though there are some trouble spots that I need to deal with, specifically the carpet of dandelions near the road, the encroaching crab grass on the side and a dead-ish patch under the tree that has been over-run by an ant colony. Here is a picture from mid-May last year of a dandelion with a monstrous 15″ taproot that still gives me the willies when I look at it:

I had declared war and started to develop a plan of attack. I had my lawn core-areated by a lawn company in mid-May 2007, when you could already see the dandelions emerging:

I top-dressed the lawn with used coffee grounds collected from Starbucks from their Grinds for your Garden program and made my lawn smell like espresso for a few days:

I also spread out some Corn Gluten Meal (CGM) in mid-May and again in mid-August that I had picked up from a local feed store. It made my lawn smell like corn flakes. One time I had spread used coffee grinds in my flower garden and CGM on my lawn and there was a nice breakfast smell for a couple of days.

I also sharpened the lawnmower blade, let the grass grow to about 4″ in between mowings and set the mowing blade to a height of 3″. By the end of July the lawn was in top shape (picture is pre-mow):

It looked healthy, the roots were growing deeper, it was resisting drought better, it turned a nice dark green colour later in the season and I didn’t have to water it at all. I bought a Fiskar’s weeder and dug out the dandelions after a nice rainfall to ease removal (in the above picture the entire foreground has been run rampant with dandelions).

Here are my tips (culled from previous posts, posted to a gardening forum and copied back again) for a healthy and pesticide-free lawn:

Corn Gluten Meal (CGM)
CGM is a byproduct of corn that has pre-emergent herbicidal effects from a protein that inhibits root formation on ALL newly germinated seeds (weed and grass seeds included). It also depletes phosphorous in the upper layer of grass and is a source of nitrogen fertilizer as it breaks down over time. You can get it in a fine powdery form from most feed stores (usually at a lower price) or you can buy the more expensive, pelleted product at garden centres. Some people like pellets as they are easier to apply using your spreader and are effective up to 6 weeks. The finer granules are harder to spread and, as they break down faster, aren’t as effective as long. I use the powdery granules because I like the lower cost and I have more to apply.

Apply CGM three times a year:

  1. from mid-April to mid-May to control the germination of weed seeds from the previous fall,
  2. in mid-August to mid-September to control the weed seeds that blow in late May, and,
  3. in mid-September to late October to prevent weed root systems from establishing before winter.

There’s a lot of references out there that says you should not use CGM after the forsythia blooms, however, only use this guide if you are trying to control crab grass. You can still use CGM until mid-May to control dandelion seeds though it is better to get the CGM down on your lawn sooner as it becomes more effective as is decomposes. And CGM is not effective against established weeds, only seeds from those weeds. Once you’ve started to put down CGM, you’re stemming the flow of new weeds which allows you to start removing the mature weeds with a dandelion puller and reduce the amount of weeds in your lawn overall.

Core Aeration
If your grass is growing, you don’t need to core-aerate. However, if you want to core-aerate in spring, it’s best to do it in early May. Be sure to rake up the cores of you will have a lumpy lawn. You will need to top-dress the lawn with compost ASAP so that the grass roots don’t dry out. I like used coffee grinds. Make sure the layer of compost is no thicker than your little finger or you’ll suffocate the grass. It’s better to core-aerate in the fall when the days are warm and the nights are cool. This way, you can wait a weekend before you top-dress.

Throwing Down Grass Seed
Grass seeds like to germinate when the days are warm and the nights are cool, so preferably in fall. If you have to put it down earlier, do it in spring. Buy premium grass seed and check to see if there is a weed count (1% or more is no good). After you’ve spread the grass seed, press it down into the lawn with a board or walk on it to ensure good contact between the seed and the soil. Grass seed takes three weeks to grow. Rye grass germinates quicker than Kentucky Bluegrass. Interesting trivia: Kentucky Bluegrass is not from Kentucky but actually from Mongolia and turns blue as it goes dormant.

Don’t over-seed a healthy lawn.

If you think your lawn needs watering, water the grass 1″ for a week for deep watering in the spring and fall. Use a soaker hose spread horizontally halfway down your lawn from your house. Turn the hose on a low flow at night before you go to bed and remember to turn it off in the morning. Be sure that no water has drained off the end of your property – if it has, reduce the flow of water. Using a trowel, dig down into the end of your property to see if the lawn has been watered at least 1″. Adjust your low-flow accordingly.

In the summer, use an oscillating sprinkler at the highest heat of the day and water 1/8″ to ¼” to drop the temperature of the grass blades so the grass won’t go dormant.

The shorter you cut the grass, the shorter the grass roots will be. Oppositely, the longer you cut the grass, the longer the roots will be. Set the lawn mower blade to its highest setting to help your lawn to resist drought and not go dormant.

Used coffee grinds are also a good fertilizing treatment for your lawn. It has an NPK rating of 4-1-3 and you can call your local coffee shop to pick them up in bulk. Starbucks has a Grinds For Your Garden program that is a great way to get free, used coffee grinds. Just take them home, smoosh up the discs of grinds and fling them out over your lawn.

Lastly, You may want to check to see if your city offers free seminars on how to keep your lawn healthy without the use of pesticides. Here is a list for the ones in Ottawa.

That’s it!

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