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More Lawn Evaluation Tips

Jeff’s Secrets For A Perfect Lawn – Week 16 of 2010

(Week 16 comes between April 19th and 25th)

Look At The Grass Itself

Check the Color of Grass Blades

A healthy lawn should have a nice uniform green color. It is more important that the color be uniform, than show a deep, dark shade of green in order to indicate health.

The deep green color that has become the standard and is promoted by advertising photographs is typical only of Kentucky bluegrass recently fertilized with a quick acting nitrogen fertilizer. Then, grass plants are briefly bursting with top growth and are as green as they can get. For this reason this rich color is actually an artificial standard. It is unrealistic to expect grass to look this way all of the time. Grass that is properly cared for and living in healthy soil rather than being hyped with fast acting fertilizer is more typically a medium green color.

The color of grass also varies somewhat according to its variety, the weather over the year, and the condition of the soil. For example, while grass tends to be slightly yellow green in the spring when it newly emerges from dormancy, at other times, the same bright, pale green color indicates that it is receiving excessive amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. A lawn suffering from poor soil may have a splotchy look with deep green spots and light green spots. Over time, previous owners may have spot seeded with different varieties of grass, giving the lawn a mottled look. A healthy lawn has a uniform color of medium green over its entire surface. That is what you are looking for.

Notice the Density of Grass Plants

A healthy turf may have as many as 800 plants in a single square foot of soil. When they are that dense, it is almost impossible to see the soil when you get down on your hands and knees and spread the grass plants apart. If you see soil between the plants in your lawn, then you can assume that something is wrong, because healthy grass normally fills in spaces over time. So, thin grass suggests that either your soil is in poor shape, or your grass is tired and needs replacing. Overseeding with new grass may be all that is necessary.

Check Depth of Grass Roots

The roots of your grass plants will tell you a whole lot about the condition of the soil, especially whether it is compacted. Believe it or not, one single grass plant is capable of generating 375 miles of roots with as many as 14 million individual root strands, having a total surface area of 2,500 square feet. That’s just one (healthy) grass plant! Isn’t that amazing? Since a square foot of vigorous turf typically has up to 850 of those plants, grass roots are extensive and pervasive in the soil.

The point here is that it takes that many roots to provide a grass plant with sufficient nutrients every day. Only in healthy, active, well drained soil can grass plants develop such extensive root systems. Grass that is cut too closely and/or grown in compacted soil is not able to do this. It struggles to survive with only a small portion of its potential root volume which severely reduces its capacity to get nutrients from the soil. So, the depth of the roots of your grass will indicate how badly your soil is compacted.

The best way to check grass roots is to dig a sample core from the turf. Choose a time when the soil is moist. Using a trowel or sharp knife, dig down as far as the tool allows (preferably 4 to 6 inches) and extract a chunk of sod–turf, roots, and some dirt. Examine how deeply the roots penetrate the soil. If they go down less than 4 inches into the soil, chances are it is because the soil is too compacted. Jeff was shocked to discover that our grass roots were only two inches deep. He later learned that, unfortunately, that is typical of most lawns.

Count Your Weeds

One of the inevitable results of having a thin turf is lots of weeds. Weed seeds need light and space to grow. Thin grass, and grass that is mowed short allow sunlight to penetrate to the soil surface and germinate weed seeds that lie in wait for these ideal conditions. Therefore, when you eyeball your lawn and see lots of weeds, it is time to repair the grass. The percentage of weeds present in the lawn actually determines how much work is necessary.

Jeff decided a few years ago that he could live with some weeds in the lawn. It seemed a reasonable trade-off for the savings in time, energy, money and environmental impact that a more low maintenance lawn–one that tolerates some imperfection– provides. Having made peace with that decision, he discovered that when we achieved an otherwise healthy, dense turf, as many as 10-15% weeds evenly distributed throughout the grass, were barely noticeable. The cost of trying to attain a perfect lawn, one that is virtually weed free, does not seem to us to be worth it.

However, when the percentage of weeds in a lawn sneaks over %, it is time to re-evaluate. Depending on the type of weed, this larger proportion of weeds is likely to become obvious, even to the casual observer. It may be time to take some remedial measures. There are a couple of strategies.

If the weeds in your lawn are noticeable, but do not comprise more than half the green turf area, solve the problem by killing just the weeds with an appropriate herbicide and overseeding the lawn with new grass seed to fill in the spaces and thicken the turf to discourage new weeds. If weeds comprise more than half of the green turf area, we have found its worth it to kill the entire turf and install an entirely new lawn. Measuring the percentage of weeds does not have to be precise. Just look at a small section of your lawn and guess. You are the final judge. If you think it looks okay, then that is all that matters. If it doesn’t look okay, then you know you need to address the problem.


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Jeff’s Perfect Lawn Care Secrets- Week 16 of 2010

We yardeners have some planning to do for the coming lawn care season.  We need to evaluate our lawn to determine whether we might need to add some grass seed sometime in late May.

Few mature lawns in the this country have turf that is as dense as brand new sod, but that should be the goal.  Dense means when you spread the grass blades apart with your hands, you cannot see the soil.  There are at least three reasons to take steps to make your turf as dense as it can be.

Thick turf mowed tall (over 2 inches) seldom has any weeds including crabgrass.  Every square foot of lawn will have anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 weed seeds in the top two inches of soil and all they need to germinate is light. When the grass is thin and mowed short, the most common situation in American lawns, weed seeds will germinate in large numbers, especially crabgrass.  Thick dense turf grass has few weeds.

Turf that is dense and mowed tall will become habitat for the three most important groups of beneficial insects in the home landscape – ants, spiders, and ground beetles.  If the grass is thin and cut short, there are few good guys in residence because they are vulnerable to their own predators.  If the good guys are in camp, because they are protected by thick grass, they will consume 80% of all the eggs laid each year by the three most common insect pests in the lawn – Japanese beetles, chinch bugs, and billbugs.  Thick dense turf grass has few pest insects.

Finally, a lawn with dense turf will always look better than a lawn that is thin, especially right after it has been mowed.  Thick dense turf grass has lots of admirers.

The only way to make a lawn as dense as sod, is to plant more grass seed.  That process is called “overseeding” and should be a routine every four or five years.  However, overseeding is hardly ever performed on home lawns.  That is strange because golf course managers and athletic field managers will overseed every year to keep their turf dense.  For some reason, the importance of that technique never filtered down to us yardeners.

Overseeding can be done in the spring, around Memorial Day, or in the fall, around Labor Day.  While I’ll discuss overseeding in more detail in a few weeks, the basic steps are to mow the grass as low as your mower will go.  Then rake up all the debris.  Next spread grass seed and then water it twice a day for two weeks.  The lawn can be mowed when the grass reaches three inches in height. Now mow tall.

If you have two acres of lawn, you are not likely going to be overseeding that entire area all at once.  I suggest folks with large lawns spread the task over a few years.  In the spring overseed the front of the house.  In the fall overseed one side and next spring overseed the other side.  When you get time you can then deal with the back yard.  It may seem like a lot of work, but the benefits are worth the effort.  Once a lawn has become dense, the overseeding job four years from now is much easier.

There are two issues to deal with before the overseeding process.  If your lawn has more than 20% weeds, you will need to take care of them first; about two weeks before the overseeding job.  If your lawn is uneven with bumps and dips, you can even things up by filling in the low spots with top soil.

The solution to a bumpy lawn is not to roll it with a lawn roller.  Lawn rollers do more damage to the structure of the soil under a lawn than any other tool I know.  Yet, every spring I see gardeners and yardeners alike out there rolling out their lawns before the soil dries out thinking they are doing a good thing.  In fact, rolling a lawn when the soil is wet causes such serious compaction that even aerating cannot fix.  Get rid of your lawn roller.

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Secrets of Jeff Ball’s Perfect Lawn – Week 15 of 2010

The arrival of spring is supposed to be a happy event, freeing us from cabin fever.  Unfortunately, when the snow melted this year, spring brought bad news to many  homeowners.  Parts of their lawn looked like some alien used a laser beam to leave a squiggly maze-like message on their lawns.  Unfortunately it was earthly creatures — voles — that had their way with many of our yards.

Voles look a lot like mice.  While mice have pointy noses and long tails, voles have blunt noses and short tails.  Voles experience a major population explosion every four or five years, This phenomenon is rarely noticed unless it coincides with a winter like we had this year, with extended snow cover in many parts of Michigan.

The vole damage manifests itself several ways. Sometimes it looks like wavy paths of dead grass about 2 inches wide.  More often, the paths become little ditches of bare soil about ½ inch deep. The devastation can cover 500 square feet or more.

And there’s more bad news. When the snow melted, the voles didn’t go away.  They’re still on the property, living under mulch, in weedy areas, or somewhere undercover hiding from their predators —  cats, hawks, and owls.

Voles are vegetarians and they can munch their way through a lot of additional plants after messing up lawns.  So if you did suffer vole damage on your lawn, keep an eye on your perennials this spring, especially  hostas.  If they don’t come back, they were probably lunch for some voles.  Tulips planted last fall that don’t show up this spring were probably snacks.  Voles also love to dig down and eat the tender roots of newly planted trees, shrubs, and flowers, so keep an eye on new transplants. The good news is voles don’t eat daffodils

Getting rid of voles is the next step to saving what’s left of your lawn and garden if you’ve been victimized.

Some folks rig barriers around trees and shrubs using hardware cloth, but that approach requires a fair amount of time and trouble.  While there are repellents to get rid of voles, they haven’t worked very well for me.

I recommend trapping voles with those old fashioned wooden snap traps, just like the ones my grandmother used to catch mice behind the wood stove 60 years ago.  Voles won’t go near a trap set in the open.  It has to be covered with boards leaning on a stone or even better in upturned clay flower pots.  While peanut butter bait is often effective, apples are a special treat for voles.  The technique begins with putting a slice of apple under five or six upturned clay flower pots set at least 10 feet apart in areas where you suspect voles to be hanging out – garden beds, weed patches, or mulched areas adjacent to the damaged lawn areas. Set a brick or rock on top to keep the raccoons from interfering.  If in a day or two, you find an apple slice with little teeth marks, you then place a snap trap under the pot with apple for bait, but do not set the trap.  After providing the voles a buffet for two or three nights , you set the trap. That is when you begin a serious reduction of your vole population.  This  may seem like a lot of work but you are dealing with cagey critters.

Do this again in late September and October and you can reduce the chances of being faced with lawn damage next spring.

Meanwhile, don’t assume that those vole paths in the lawn will disappear naturally as the grass plants reproduce.  If you don’t do anything, you’re just inviting weeds to grow in the bare spots. The area damaged by voles needs to be overseeded.  Don’t do that job until the weather and the soil warms in May.

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Jeff’s Perfect Lawn Care Secrets – Week 15 of 2010


This is a good time to fertilize with a slow-release type of lawn fertilizer if you do not plan to do major renovations or over-seeding.  If such projects are planned, hold off fertilizer till mid-June.  Options include Ringer’s Restore, Espoma Organic Lawn Fertilizer, or Milorganite.  For complete fertilizing tips go to www.yardener.comFertilize Lawns


Optional – Late April and all of May are the times to over-seed the lawn or to take care of any repairs that are needed.  If you can, use a grass seed mixture that is predominantly perennial ryegrass.  In the fall you can use a mixture that is predominantly tall fescue or Kentucky bluegrass.  Perennial ryegrass withstands the heat of summer in seedling stage better than the other two common species.  Overseeding advice is at www.yardener.comOverseed Lawns.

Level Lawn

Optional – If areas of your lawn are uneven from frost heaving or rodents tunneling, add a thin layer of topsoil to bring the low spots up level with the high spots. Rolling the lawn, trying to flatten the high spots, just compacts our already compacted soils. Adding topsoil, raking it smooth, and over-seeding will level the yard surface.

Mowing Lawn

Set the mower height to 2 to 2½ or even 3 inches in anticipation of a new mowing season.  Having the blade sharpened is a very good idea.  If the blade is over three years old, buy a new one.  Mowing advice at Mowing the Lawn.

New Herbicide On The Scene

The first step in overseeding is killing all the broad-leaved weeds in your lawn about two weeks prior to laying out the seed.  PBI Gordon (www.pbigordon.com) has introduced a new herbicide called SpeedZoneÒ Lawn Weed Killer which you may wish to consider.  Like many competing products, SpeedZone kills just broad-leaved weeds and does no harm to the turf grass.  What makes this new product attractive is that it works about twice as fast as the other lawn weed herbicides. It will work in cooler temperatures down to 40 degrees, which means you can use it now.  In addition, it uses less active ingredient per thousand square feet which means it introduces less toxicity into the environment.  A 20 ounce bottle of concentrate will cover 16,000 to 18,000 square feet while the same amount of most competitors will cover 5000 to 8000 square feet.

SpeedZone is labeled to handle virtually all the weeds found in a lawn including the tough-to-kill  creeping Charlie (ground ivy) and clover.  It will not kill any grassy weeds such as creeping bentgrass.

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Jeff’s Perfect Lawn Care Secrets – Week 14 of 2010

I had to put some gasoline into my lawn mower last week.  I was using one of those bright red plastic five gallon gas cans that I have had for years.  The nozzle that comes with the can has always been awkward so I use a funnel to guide the gas into the tank.  And as has happened a few times in the past I put a bit too much into the funnel and the tank overflowed, maybe a half a cup of gas. After wiping the gas from the engine surfaces with an old rag I let the mower sit for ten minutes to make sure the fumes evaporated and there would be no problems when I started the engine.

I have since learned that by spilling a little gasoline I am a hazard to the environment.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans homeowners spill over 17 million gallons of gasoline every year as we fill our various gas powered yard care equipment. I found that figure to be astounding.  Then I learned that those 54 million yardeners use over 800 million gallons of gas each year in caring for their yards.  Think about that figure in relation to today’s price of gasoline.  At $2.50 a gallon Americans waste $42 million worth of gas and that isn’t the most serious problem.

The real problem is the impact of that spilled gasoline on the environment.  Obviously spilled gasoline can seep down into the soil and may eventually pollute the water table.  That is bad enough, however the really serious problem caused by spilled gasoline is the air pollution that is created as the gasoline evaporates.  In 2001 the California Air Resources Board (CARB) determined that the gas fumes from spilled gas, fumes from gas cans with vents left open, and even fumes from just putting gas into a lawn mower created about 87 tons of smog producing pollution per day, equal to the daily fumes from a million automobiles.  That’s just one day.

The culprit is that gas can.  Whether you use the spout or a funnel, there is no easy way to determine when the level of gas in the tank is reaching full.

It turns out that there are gasoline cans that have what are called “spill proof” nozzles.  The nozzle automatically stops the flow of gas when the gas level in the tank makes contact with the end of the nozzle.  In the past five years, California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware have established regulations requiring all new gas cans sold to consumers in those states to have the “spill proof” nozzles.  They estimate that in ten years, as the older cans are replaced with these new designs, the spillage in those states will be reduced by a whooping 75%.

Armed with this new information I went shopping for a replacement for my old fashioned gas can.  After visiting three stores selling gas cans I found that the new technology in gas can nozzles is not readily available. After calling the Clean Air Division of the Department of Environmental Quality in Lansing, I learned that this problem of air pollution from the evaporation of spilled gasoline by homeowners has never been brought to the attention of that organization.  If those new spill proof cans are not required in Michigan, I guess the stores figure why stock an item that will cost $6 to $12 more than the traditional gas can.

Several years ago, Consumer Reports evaluated the gas cans that were advertised to be spill proof.  The can with the best evaluation was made for Briggs and Stratton. Called the “Smart Fill” fuel can, the nozzle is unlocked before filling the tank and then is inserted into the tank in a vertical position.  When the gas level in the tank reaches the end of the Smart Fill nozzle, it shuts off and you can remove the nozzle from the tank with no spills.  Holding 2.5 gallons of gas, Smart Fill fuel cans can be bought at http://www.jackssmallengines.com Jack’s Small Engines Web Site for $25.  I have ordered two; one for regular gas and one for gas mixed with oil for my tools with two-cycle engines.  Jack’s also sells another gas can, the envroflow, which looks just as good.

I put my lawn mower back into the tool shed; it’s much too early to mow the lawn.

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Jeff's Dream Of Perfect Lawn

March Not Time To Start Mowing

Nancy and I continue to find magazines, newspapers, and even books too frequently giving out bad advice about growing plants.  Nancy reported reading in the book Month to Month Gardening In Michigan the advice for March to begin mowing the lawn.  To make matters worse the author advised lowering the mower one inch lower than normal mowing height to supposedly cut off winter injury on the grass blades.

Last year there was an article in the Detroit Free Press about a new lawn care book just published.  Again, this author recommended beginning the lawn mowing season in March.

Why is this very bad advice?  First of all, the soil under the turf is still soaking wet during March.  Walking behind a lawn mower, or worse riding on a riding lawn mower, over wet soil seriously compacts that soil; soil which is usually already badly compacted.

Mowing the grass so early in the season, especially at a low mower setting is going to put that grass into survival stress.  In March, unless it is incredibly warm in late February and into early March, the grass is still dormant or just beginning to awaken from its winter dormancy.  The blades of grass plants are the means for that plant to generate energy from the sun.  By cutting the blades back, just when it is starting to grow causes that plant to have to put maximum energy into growing more blades quickly, cutting off almost all energy going into the roots.

So mowing the grass in March throughout most of Northern U.S. will cause serious soil compaction and put the grass plants in serious stress right off the bat.  Why would anyone make such a recommendation?  The answer is that both writers got their information from sources dealing with the care of turf on golf courses and athletic fields.  In those areas, it might very well be okay to mow early as March.  The techniques used for commercial turf management have nothing to do with the techniques appropriate for the home landscape.

The general rule of thumb is to mow the grass in the spring when it gets to be about 3 to 4 inches tall.  Then you mow it to 2 to 2 ½ inches tall; never lower than 2 inches.  That situation will generally occur about when the soil has warmed up and dried out enough so walking on that soil will not cause so much compaction damage.

Proper Way To Mow In March

So instead of rolling your lawn, or overseeding, or mowing your lawn in March, get your lawn mower blade sharpened so you will be ready for the first mowing job in late April.

Nature’s schedule this week

The miniature crocus should start blooming. Unfortunately the poison ivy starts leafing out. The mourning cloak butterflies come out of hibernation on days that are warm. Those cute salamanders return to the ponds to mate and lay eggs. The bluebirds will be returning so it is time to put out a bluebird nesting box. For you birdwatchers the eastern towhee returns.

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Jeff’s Perfect Lawn Care Secrets – Week 12 of 2010

Good Gas For Mower

When you add new gas to the lawn mower, remember to include a gasoline preservative or stabilizer in the mixture to avoid any problems of the gas going bad.

Sharp Lawn Mower Blade

Get your lawn mower blade sharpened so you will be ready for the first mowing job in late April. As I have discussed in the past it is wise to replace your lawnmower blade every few years rather than trying to have it sharpened year after year. Usually the place where you buy the blade will install it.

Leave Crabgrass Preventer to Neighbors

While I may have ranted about crabgrass preventers many times, I will say again that I believe it is better to overseed in the spring and again in the fall as the best method for getting rid of crabgrass.  If you use crabgrass preventer this spring, you cannot overseed until next fall, letting more weeds develop in the meantime.  It does not make any sense.  Thick turf mowed tall has no weeds, including crabgrass!

The Crabgrass Conundrum

Crabgrass is one of the many pesky “grass like” weeds found throughout the United States. Again, it is particularly bad in the east and southeast. Unlike dandelion, crabgrass is an annual plant, dying each year in the fall. However, before it dies it leaves tens of thousands of seeds to keep the family going next year. The common reaction to a crabgrass problem is to spread what is called a “pre-emergent” herbicide (Team, Betasan, or Dacthal) on the lawn in the spring to prevent the seeds from ever germinating. There is no question that such an herbicide will definitely work if properly applied, but there is a problem with this strategy. Unless you overseed that lawn, previously inhabited by lots of crabgrass plants, the grass is going to stay thin and there will be a need to protect yourself with pre-emergent herbicide every year. But you can’t plant grass seed because the crabgrass killer kills all seeds, including grass seeds. It is a classic Catch 22.

Crabgrass is probably the most common grassy weed found in the lawn. There are other grassy weeds, but the technique for dealing with them is about the same as for dealing with crabgrass described below.

The Crabgrass Strategy

So here is a strategy to rid your lawn of crabgrass and many other similar grassy weeds. In the spring, instead of using crabgrass killer, overseed your lawn to make it more dense. Then you raise your lawn mower to 2 or better 2 ½ inches for the whole season. You will still have some crabgrass, but not as much as last year. Then in the fall, overseed the lawn again. Keep that lawn mower high from then on and by the third year you will see very little crabgrass. You can be sure the crabgrass seeds will still be there, but there will be no room and no light available for germination.

Nature report

In the next few weeks you should be seeing the honey bees emerging from their hive on warm sunny days. In addition the Queen bumblebee should begin appearing, perhaps in your flower bed. The dreaded woodchuck whether he saw his shadow or not is likely to call it a winter and begin eating everything in sight. Now is the time to look for that first Robin. Dandelion leaves should be emerging and while they are young they are quite edible.

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