When you drive around Wichita neighborhoods these days, you can glance down a street and quickly see just who’s been on top of their lawn-watering this scorching summer. Many lawns have at least some brown in them, and any green often comes from an intrusion of crabgrass, not fescue.
One of the green-grass yards in College Hill — always admirable in such a clay-soil area — belongs to Ron Carpenter. I’ve noticed Ron’s pretty grass before so couldn’t resist giving him a call to find out what his secret is.
Turns out it’s 10 tons of sandy loam, dumped on top of a slightly sloping yard that washed out last summer.
September — the best time of year to plant grass — will mark one year since Ron added a sprinkler system while the yard was stripped down, had the new soil hauled in, leveled the yard out by adding planters and doing an awful lot of raking, and finally had sod installed for a brand-new lawn.
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“Basically all I’ve done is fertilize on a regular basis and water” since then, Ron says. “Fescue likes water. It likes that sandy loam better than that clay we have around here.”
I’ve also been admiring master gardener Kevin Holloway’s interest in lawn grass, as he writes about it occasionally for the master gardener newsletter. So I called to find out how his west-side yard was faring.
“Terrible!” he said, laughing heartily. “It’s a pretty big lawn, and due to the heat we couldn’t pour enough water on it that we could afford. Once the water bill’s at $200, it’s like, we’re not going above that, and it just simply did not get enough water.”
Kevin’s lawn is going to be just fine though, as a brown fescue lawn does not equal death. To tell whether your lawn is dead or just dormant, take out a plug of grass and examine the crown — the area between the blades and the roots. If the crown is still hard and not papery and dry, the grass is alive.
Seeding a lawn
September is the prime time to seed a lawn and get quick, good results. You can seed through the whole month of September, but the earlier in the month you do it the better the germination will be.
If your lawn is just a little thin, Kevin recommends skipping any overseeding this year. While a thick, healthy stand of grass is the best weed and disease prevention, grass plants that are overcrowded contribute to diseases and other problems, Kevin says.
Here are a few key points to remember when seeding a new lawn:
„øBuy the best possible grass seed. This is the Kansas Premium Fescue Blend that can be purchased at garden centers, Kevin says. “This formula changes a bit from year to year based on the very latest research from Kansas State.” At the very least, make sure that the “other crop” (noxious weeds) listed on the label of any grass seed you’re using is 0.01 percent or less, Ward Upham of K-State says.
„øMake sure the grass seed makes good contact with the soil. Grass seed on grass does not germinate. If you’re overseeding small patches, you can rough up the soil by hand with a leaf rake and broadcast the seed by hand as if you were salting a steak. Spread a thin layer of soil over the seed, then lightly mix the seed into the soil with the rake.
But if you’re seeding a whole new lawn, you will probably need to rent some equipment to get the job done, or hire a lawn company to do it for you. Equipment can be rented from rental companies, many garden centers and Home Depot, Kevin says.
While one way to seed is to rent a vertislicer, Kevin says that the attached hoppers that broadcast the seed at the same time the machine cuts slits into the soil are usually not metered very well and often put down more seed than you need.
“If you’re core aerating, that can be good substitute for a vertislicer, provided you make lots of passes with the aerator so there are lots of holes and dirt on the ground,” Kevin says. This involves renting a core aerator and going over the lawn in a criss-cross pattern, at least a couple of times in each direction, until the holes that the aerator makes in the ground are no more than 1½ inches apart, Kevin says.
Then, to put the seed down, “I use a broadcast spreader on the main part of the lawn, and where it adjoins the flower beds, as I get to the edge I use a dropper spreader.æ.æ.æ.
“It’s twice as much work but it works better.”
At this point, going the sod route might be looking better after all! (About 111 square yards of sod are needed for 1,000 square feet of lawn, K-State says.)
„ The rate of seed to apply is 6 to 8 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet for a new lawn, and half that rate if you’re overseeding parts of an existing lawn or seeding areas in the shade.
„øOnce you put the seed down, be prepared to water. Water gently so as not to disturb the seeds, and thoroughly soak the seedbed. Keep it continually moist with frequent light sprinklings until the seeds germinate. On a hot day a new lawn may need to be watered three times a day, Upham says, and on cool, calm days maybe only once every other day.
“As the grass plants come up, gradually decrease watering to once a week if there is no rain,” he says. “Let the plants tell you when to water. If you can push the blades down and they don’t spring back up quickly, the lawn needs water.”
„ “A common mistake is to wait too long before mowing new grass,” he says. “As soon as the new grass reaches a height of 3 inches, mow with a sharp mower blade set at a height of 2 inches. New grass is succulent, so it is best to mow on a warm afternoon when the grass and soil are drier. Continue mowing at a height of 2 inches through the last mowing of the season.”
„øUse a new-lawn-type fertilizer at planting time followed by a standard lawn-type fertilizer one month later and again in early November.
While we just mentioned core aeration in relation to seeding, it is also an excellent practice to do in September for an existing fescue or Kentucky bluegrass lawn. By removing cores of soil from the lawn, it relieves compaction and allows better movement of water, nutrients and oxygen into the soil, Upham says.
The moisture content of the soil must be right for core aeration. The soil should be just moist enough to crumble easily when worked between the fingers. You should make enough passes with the machine that the holes are about 2 to 3 inches apart, Upham says. Ideally, the holes should be 2½ to 3 inches deep, he says.
Fertilizing an existing lawn
September isn’t just the best time for seeding a lawn and core aerating. If you have fescue or Kentucky bluegrass, it’s also the best time to fertilize. If you fertilize only once a year — and you can —September is the month to do it.
Ron Carpenter found out the hard way that fertilizing too often is not a good thing.
“I had to really watch it in the spring because we got a lot of rain, and it (the lawn) got a fungus,” Ron says. He called the Extension Service and was told to hold off on watering for a week, and also that fertilizing in a wet spring was “the worst thing I could have done.” The fungus cleared up, and Ron learned a lesson.
In September, apply 1 to 1½ pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. The nitrogen should be either quick-release or a mix of slow- and quick-release — the kind found in most fertilizers sold at garden centers.
The second most important time to fertilize is in November. That application — 1 pound of quick-release nitrogen per 1,000 square feet — will help the grass green up earlier next spring.
Some people are complaining of crabgrass and other weeds where they’d had none before. Kevin Holloway says that’s because grass that has gone dormant isn’t tall enough to shade out the weeds it used to. He recommends ignoring the weeds for now, as most are annuals that will die before long. But either this fall or next spring apply crabgrass preventer.
“I use Dimension or Barricade,” Kevin says. “I put them on in the spring about the times the redbuds are in bloom.”
You can also use Barricade, which has nitrogen as well as crabgrass preventer, for your November fertilizer this year. The weed preventer should last through spring.
If you are overseeding this fall, be aware that weed killers can also kill your new grass. “Only siduron can be used at the time of planting, and expect at least a 10 percent reduction in germination and establishment,” Kevin says.
One of the problem spots in a lawn that Kevin often notices is around the edges.
“I think that’s because people run their weed whacker too low and cut the grass too low. Take a lot of care in weed whacking.”
The Extension Center is offering a couple of classes on starting a lawn.
“Growing Great Grass” will be at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and will cover how to improve the soil, select grass seed, plant a new lawn, fertilize, mow, water and deal with insects and disease. The second will be at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 7 and will cover common lawn weeds and how and when to kill them. The cost for each class is $5. You can register online at http://basiclawnclass2010.eventbrite.com or call 316-660-0100.