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ANNIE CALOVICH Beautiful, healthy lawn is not for slackers

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, May 19, 2012, at 7:10 a.m.

Consumer Reports recently had an issue with a cover devoted to the slacker’s guide to a great lawn. Those of us who have taken care of a lawn are no doubt tempted by the idea — just as we are by pills that burn fat, tapes that teach us while we sleep and offers of a free lunch.

No doubt there are easier ways of doing things than the way I do them, and if there is a way to make something more difficult, I will find it.

The first thing that comes to mind is following my dad’s practice of working in the yard in my good clothes, thinking it’s not worth the trouble to change first: I won’t be out there long. They won’t get dirty. Of course, I’m out there until my back won’t straighten, and I’m covered in dirt. So I slack, but in all the wrong places.

This slacker’s guide in Consumer Reports has some good tips, according to Rodney St. John, turfgrass specialist at K-State’s Olathe horticulture center. But St. John cautions that the magazine’s claims that you can wait to mow until you’re removing more than half the blade and until the grass is 5 1/2 inches tall are wrong. Waiting that long to mow saves time, of course, but it’s not best for the grass or the environment.

Instead, not more than one-third of a blade should be removed when you mow. This requires monitoring the grass and cutting it when it needs it — not every Saturday morning, for example. Not the mark of a slacker.

Recommended mowing heights for turfgrass are 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches for tall fescue, 1 to 2 inches for Bermuda and zoysia, and 2 to 3 inches for buffalo. The mowing height is the height you want the grass to be after you have cut the grass, extension agent Rebecca McMahon says. That makes Bermuda the easiest when it comes to the one-third rule: You cut it when it is 3 inches tall and mow it down to 2 inches, she says. When it reaches 3 inches again, you repeat.

Of course, there are times when rain or something else in life will keep you from getting out there at the exact right time to mow. The more I garden, the more I concur with the idea that you do things in the yard not necessarily at the ideal time but at the time you can actually get to it. In particular, moving plants comes to mind. You can move perennials, say, in the middle of a hot summer if you keep things watered and in the shade as much as possible during the transplanting.

“Try to follow it as much as you can,” St. John says of the one-third rule, “but don’t lose sleep about it when Mother Nature or outside forces prevent you from mowing often enough. Usually what I recommend in those situations where the lawn has gotten away from you and is really shaggy is one of two choices: Mow it and bag it and then get back to following the rules. Or mow it two or three times. First, raise the mower as high as it will go and mow it and mulch or side-discharge the clippings back into the yard. Then lower the mower a notch or back to your original setting and mow the yard again, either that same day or the next day. Mow and repeat if necessary until you get back to your recommended height. And then get back to following the rules.”

Not removing too much of the blade at any one time is best for the health of the grass plant and encourages lateral growth for a thicker lawn, St. John says. Also, there is no reason to bag grass, St. John says, as long as you follow the one-third rule. Grass clippings that are short will filter over the grass nicely and break down into fertilizer for the grass, whereas long clippings will clump up.

Over the course of a season, the time you spend mowing should even out.

“One of the important facts of the one-third rule is that during some of the rapid growing times of the year, like the spring and fall for cool-season grasses, you may need to mow every four to five days instead of just once a week. But it also means during the slower growing times like July and August, unirrigated tall fescue/Kentucky bluegrass lawns may not need to be mowed but every nine to 14 days.”

The article’s statement that clippings should be bagged and not added to a compost pile when the lawn has a disease is also incorrect, St. John says. The fungal diseases in tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass usually are in the soil, so collecting the clippings won’t greatly reduce the disease.

“The only time I’d be concerned about collecting and composting clippings is if you are applying pesticides,” St. John says. “Read and follow the label. Most pesticides have a statement that says the clippings should not be collected for compost until 30 days have passed, but some products have much longer wait times. Read the label of your product to be sure. Or just don’t bag.”

Here’s a tip I recently picked up that may or may not be in Consumer Reports: Wichitan Mark Madden of M&M Sharpening Services (www.mnmsharpeningservices.com) says sharp mower blades not only make for a healthier lawn but also save fuel.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com.

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