What do you think when you hear that the City Council will consider fining people $1,000 a month for using the amount of water “it would take to keep a lawn alive”?
Memorial Day weekend is a good time to take stock of how the lawn and garden are doing heading into summer. Rain is in the forecast, taking the edge off of proposed watering restrictions, at least for the moment (see accompanying story). Temperatures have moderated, so it doesn’t feel exactly like summer yet.
But we’ve had enough of a taste of heat that we know we could be turning the corner any day. And we need to be ready, especially if watering restrictions are imposed. With that and the holiday in mind, here are some things to do this last week of May:
• Memorial Day gardens. I’ve always loved French gardens that garden centers put together for decorating graves on Memorial Day. Extension agent Bob Neier pointed out that they are usually thickly planted, so that if you bring the planter home from the cemetery after the holiday, you can fill quite a bit of space when you spread the plants out in your yard.
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• For a holiday weekend, there’s a lot of garden celebrating going on in Wichita. See the accompanying box for details about Hostapalooza, farmers markets (a few of them opening Saturday), an iris show and the opening of Botanica’s butterfly house.
• Mulch. The soil should be sufficiently warm to mulch ornamental plants now, and we’re within a few days of it being warm enough to mulch vegetables, too. Mulch helps hold in moisture, moderate temperatures and shade out weeds. Some people even mulch their container gardens to cut down on watering. Mulching is absolutely essential in a drought.
Lay down a layer of organic mulch (not rocks) that is 2 inches deep (if the pieces are coarse, it can be a bit deeper). You can even use grass clippings as long as the clippings have been allowed to dry for several days and have not been treated with herbicides. You also can put newspaper or grass clippings down and then cover them with a shallower layer of a more ornamental mulch to save money.
Keep an eye on the mulch through the season and replenish as necessary; finer-particled mulch breaks down faster than coarse mulch. But in doing so, it does improve the soil below.
• While we’ve received some restorative rains this spring, the level of subsoil moisture is still not great, extension agent Rebecca McMahon said. Continue to be wise about watering – doing so only deeply and when needed. Once the weather turns hot and dry, don’t panic – be sure the lawn and plants need water before running the sprinklers. And when you do, be sure to water deeply, and then not again until it’s needed. Don’t get on an automatic schedule that sets plants up for failure and leaves you with high water bills – or potential fines, depending on whether the City Council enacts the proposed water restrictions.
• While water continues to be a bone of contention, let’s do the best we can to take care of our lawns in other ways. For one, sharpen the mower blade as soon as it needs it. You can see the signs of a dull blade on blades of grass that have been cut with one – the tips are shredded, not cut. “That can be a place where diseases can come into the grass blades,” McMahon said. Plus the overall effect is a brown cast to an otherwise green lawn.
• If you see brown patches in the lawn, try to take into account how long they’ve been there. Causes could be a dog’s urine or a place where water sat, or a dry spot, or a fertilizer spill, McMahon said. While most grubs don’t start eating until late July or early August, May-June beetle grubs that have a three-year cycle could be feeding on a lawn now. If that is the case, use a product such as Dylox that treats, not prevents, grubs. The preventative is usually put down July 1.
If rainy, humid weather continues, fescue lawns could start having brown patch in the next few weeks.
• If you don’t plan to water your lawn this summer (and you may want to wait to see what the City Council decides), don’t fertilize it. But if you think that you will water, or you have a hunch that Mother Nature will give us enough rain, this is the last weekend to fertilize fescue until the fall. Use a slow-release form of nitrogen. You also can fertilize a warm-season lawn now and then let it go until next year if you plan to give it some water.
• Potential watering restrictions also could keep you from switching to a warm-season lawn this spring. While a warm-season lawn requires less water than a cool-season fescue lawn, it does need plenty of water to get established. If you’d still like to do it this spring, you can plant seed now, or plant vegetatively by sprigs, plugs or sod when they show up at garden centers in June. Buffalo grass seed is slow to fill in, so you might want to go the vegetative route with that, McMahon said. Otherwise, the variety you want to plant also has something to do with what form you choose to plant. Some are available only by seed, others only vegetatively. For zoysia, K-State recommends only Meyer, and it’s only available vegetatively, she said. As with fescue, sod is the fastest to establish and also the most expensive.
• Make a second application of crabgrass preventer by June 15 unless you used the season-lasting Dimension, Barricade or pendimethalin.
• Sometimes when it rains a lot or we have more pressing things to do, it can be hard to mow just when the grass needs it. But the goal is to not remove more than a third of a blade at any one mowing. This encourages lateral growth of the grass for a thicker lawn and allows for mulch-mowing without the grass clumping up. Nicely filtered grass clippings provide fertilizer to the lawn and reduce the amount of waste in the landfill.
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. 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 said. When it reaches 3 inches again, you repeat.
If the lawn has grown too tall to remove only a third of the blade, mow it and bag it. Or raise the mower height as high as you can and mulch-mow the grass, then mow again the same day or the next day at a lower height to get back to the normal standards.