Sharpening your lawn-care technique

Wednesday, October 2, 2002

Every neighborhood has one. That one standout home with a beautiful carpet of rolling green lawn that draws oohs and ahhs from passers-by.

Envious? Here are a few things you can do to put your turf back on track.

A beautiful lawn doesn't just happen.

A decision has to be made. Which is better -- seed or sod? Seed is the most economical way to start a lawn. But it requires a great deal of attention and nurturing to get it successfully under way. With seed, there are four important things to remember:

Buy only top-quality seed. Bargain purchases often contain weeds and odd grass blends that grow in weird "mystery" clumps. Both spell trouble that you'll have to deal with down the line.

Prepare soil properly. Till to create small clumps, from pea to marble-size. If soil is too fine, the surface will crust over after watering and dry out too quickly. Also, level the area to keep seeds in place.

Seed and fertilize the same day to get seedlings off to a strong and healthy start. Use a drop or rotary spreader. It doesn't matter which you apply first.

Water often, rather than deeply. It is critical to successful germination. Only the top 1 inch needs to be kept moist until seedlings are well under way.

If you're in a hurry, or have a difficult area to seed (such as a slope), sod is the answer. But, it is also more expensive. Some species, such as warm-season grasses, should be started only with stems or sod. If in doubt as to which is best for you, consult an expert at a local nursery or garden-supply dealer.

The next area of concern is watering -- when, how much and how often. If you leave footprints in the grass, it is a good indicator your lawn needs watering. Moist grass springs right back; dry blades do not. Also, a lawn that appears silvery blue indicates severe lack-of-water stress, and -- if not promptly watered -- will soon turn brown.

Wondering if you are over- or under-watering? One-half inch twice a week (1-inch total) from rain or watering is sufficient. To measure it, use a plastic rain gauge from the hardware store. The best time to water is from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Contrary to popular belief, daytime watering will not burn or cook grass -- rather it cools it down. Avoid windy days though as it speeds surface evaporation.

If you tire of hand-watering and dragging hoses and sprinklers around your yard, look into an automatic sprinkler system. Most dealers offer free planning services with layouts showing where each sprinkler head goes and what type is needed for that specific area. They'll also tell you to what depth to install your pipes, what water pressure is needed and what permits are required. The biggest cost is labor. Plastic PVC pipe is easy to install and doing it yourself saves big bucks. Then add an automatic timer. Set it and forget it.

Once grass is well under way, mowing is the next area of concern -- and it will make the difference between a ho-hum lawn and the neighborhood superstar mentioned earlier. One trick to remember is to not cut off too much at one time. Never trim more than a third the length of the blade in a single mowing. When too much is cut -- especially in hot summer weather -- the sun beats down, cooking the tender base and drying out the top soil.

If mowing is way overdue, and blades are exceedingly tall, mow high at first. Then lower the blade setting and make a second pass.

On average, mowing once a week is sufficient. In heavy growth periods, like spring, twice a week might sometimes be needed. As for clippings, they should be removed after mowing as they can smother the grass. If you want to leave clippings, only do so when using a mulching mower, so that its finer residue settles down at ground level.

One of the more common lawn problems is a grayish cast that appears after a lawn is mowed. This condition is caused by a dull lawn mower blade that rips the grass blades off, instead of making a clean cut. The resulting ragged ends not only discolor and look bad, they provide easy entry for all sorts of sneaky turf disease.

Today, there are a number of ways to keep a lawnmower blade sharp and balanced. You can either remove it and hand-sharpen it using a file or hold it to a bench-mounted grinding wheel. A simpler and more foolproof method is an inexpensive sharpening attachment offered by many manufacturers of small hand-held rotary tools. The easy-to-use guides are preset at a proper 30-degree angle and generally cost less than $10. As always, be sure to disconnect the spark-plug wire before attempting to inspect or remove the blade.

The final word to remember is "maintenance." Beyond watering, fertilizing four to five times a year helps produce a thick, green carpet of grass. Twice a year (in spring and fall) should be the minimum. Mower maintenance is important, too, especially at the start of each summer season.

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