Lawn care can be an engaging hobby that brings some people a lot of joy. My goal is simpler. I want to do a decent job of maintaining the grass in my yard, but I am not seeking perfection. Therefore, when a friend recently gifted me a 250 page book about turf management, I was a little perplexed. Does taking care of your lawn have to be that complicated? Then I noticed the book’s author was sponsored by a grass chemical company.
Fortunately, there is quite a bit of peer reviewed research available on growing grass and caring for lawns. Using reliable sources like university and Cooperative Extension Service research studies, it doesn’t take long to see that having a healthy grass lawn may come down to doing less, not more. Since my goal is a decent lawn rather than an award winning lawn, research points toward focusing on five basic guidelines.
Don’t plant a grass seed that isn’t meant to thrive in Central Virginia. The Maryland - Virginia Turfgrass Variety Recommendation Work Group is made up of turf and seed specialists from the University of Maryland, the USDA, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and Virginia Tech. These people are serious about grass. After conducting many evaluation trials they recommend pure Kentucky bluegrass only for areas in and west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and in Northern Virginia. In Central Virginia, given our local temperatures, moisture levels, and soil pH they recommend a fine-bladed tall fescue or a 90 percent tall fescue /10 percent Kentucky bluegrass blend.
Don’t fight Mother Nature. You will lose. The vast majority of grass species are full sun plants. Full sun means they require a minimum of direct, unfiltered sun for 6+ hours per day. While a few types of grass may be tolerant of partial shade (4-6 hours of direct, unfiltered sun per day), the important word there is tolerant. Not happy. Not satisfied. Just tolerant. Most researchers strongly encourage homeowners to not plant grass in any area of their landscape that has partial or full shade conditions. There are hundreds of great plants that truly thrive in partial shade and substituting those for grass means a lot less frustration on your part.
Don’t cut your grass so short. Mowing decreases the leaf surface area. The grass leaves are the site of photosynthesis. Less photosynthesis means less of the carbohydrate production that is essential for growth and health. For fescue grasses in Central Virginia the scientists at the Virginia Cooperative Extension recommend keeping your lawn at least 3 inches high during optimal growing conditions. It should be slightly higher in the six weeks leading up to the onset of winter so the grass plant can store nutrients before the stress of winter weather.
Don’t bag your clippings. Letting grass clippings fall onto the lawn adds nitrogen to your soil. University of Connecticut turfgrass specialist William Diest compared lawns where clippings were bagged with lawns where clippings were not bagged. Lawns where clippings fell back into the lawn showed 45 percent less crabgrass, up to 66 percent less disease, and needed 50 percent less fertilizer.
Don’t apply too much fertilizer. Thatch buildup happens when grass is over fertilized. Thatch can prevent water from entering the soil, harbor harmful insects, and invite disease. Have a soil test completed and then only fertilize the bare minimum amount recommended in your soil test report.
Plant less lawn. The University of Georgia recommends devoting not more than one quarter to one third of a home landscape as a lawn. Their research shows that planting the balance of your landscape in trees, shrubs, flowers, and ground covers adds diversity and reduces the disease rate found in a grass only, monoculture landscape. Not only does this approach reduce disease pressure, but shrubs and trees are typically less maintenance than grass and act as long term carbon sinks. That’s a win-win-win.
If growing grass is your hobby, there are lots of other steps you can take to fine tune your lawn. But for the rest of us, the grass may be greener when we do less rather than more.
Cathy McCarthy is a certified Master Gardener through the Virginia Cooperative Extension and a member of the Goochland Powhatan Master Gardener Association. If you are interested in learning more about GPMGA programs or how to become a master gardener volunteer, visit gpmga.org.