- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Matt Peterschmidt is part of a team that keeps 30 acres at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Garden in Alexandria in pristine condition.

The duties of the site’s garden and greenhouse supervisor differ little from those of the average homeowner — keeping the lawn lush, healthy and the richest shades of green — despite the disparity in scale.

Home lawns can both vex and delight their owners. Water the grass too much, and the blades won’t grow as strong. Cut the grass too short and risk the overall lawn’s health.

Lawns “really start with the soil,” a mixture of sand, clay, silt and organic matter, Mr. Peterschmidt says.

County agencies provide soil testing, upon request, for less than $10, he says.

“They provide a box with directions, you send it off, and they examine the soil and tell you what you need,” he says. “Without it, you don’t know what you should be applying [to the lawn].”

Soils richer in clay tend to retain water and nutrients, while sandy soils are more porous and are more likely to suffer during droughts.

Soils also should be aerated from time to time as part of a regular lawn renovation plan, Mr. Peterschmidt says. Generally, homeowners should aerate their lawns — removing plugs of soil and grass up to 2 inches deep — once every three years. Should a lawn’s health be in jeopardy, he recommends yearly aeration until it returns to its original, lush shape.

Aeration allows water and fertilizer to seep deeper into the soil, and it also promotes better root growth. Roots continually renew themselves by sending out new shoots into the soil, a process made easier with loose soil. New roots stay closer to the surface in heavily compacted soil.

The process can be done in either the fall or spring.

Possibly the biggest factor in a lawn’s overall health involves watering rates. Water comprises up to 80 percent of the grass weight and nearly 90 percent of clipped grass, according to Turfgrass Producers International in Rolling Meadows, Ill.

Mr. Peterschmidt suggests watering lawns once a week for “a good, long period of time,” or two or three moderate soakings over the same span. A series of brief dousings won’t help lawns nearly as much as the thorough soakings.

“A lot of time water never has a chance to sit and soak, and it runs off,” he says.

“Ideally, it should amount to an inch of water a week,” he says. Placing a bowl within a sprinkler’s range can help the homeowner measure how much water has been applied.

Watering should be done in the morning, preferably. Nighttime watering causes grass to stay wet longer, increasing the risk of fungus developing. Grass sitting in direct sunlight should get more water than blades in shaded areas, he says.

Gary Clayton, executive vice president of the Professional Lawn Care Association of America in Marietta, Ga., says grass without enough moisture won’t spring back when tread upon.

“If there’s not enough moisture in the plant,” Mr. Clayton says, “the grass blades stay put.”

Clippings also should remain on the lawn after mowing. Grass clippings “are a valuable source of fertilizer,” says Mr. Clayton, adding the old saw that no more than a third of the grass length should be cut at one time still holds true. And it should be cut by a mower with a sharp blade. Rough blades tend to rip at the blades of grass, upsetting their roots.

The grass, ideally, should be a blend of at least two types of seeds. With a blend, if one type of grass suffers from a fungus or other disease, then the other could remain to make up at least part of the lawn.

Like any plant, grass must fend off attacks from both pests and fellow plants eager to soak up water and nutrients.

Gene Wright, product manager with Preen of Lebanon, Pa., a weed-fighting manufacturer, says the image of the hunched gardener forever pulling weeds isn’t the best method of attack.

“If you don’t get that whole root system,” Mr. Wright says, “It will come back in multiples because you broke the root.”

Preen’s products, when sprinkled on lawns, attack annual weeds like crab grass, foxtail and chickweed. Perennial weeds include dandelions and buckhorn, he says.

Weeds aren’t just eyesores in an otherwise elegant lawn. Weeds compete with healthy grass for the available water and soil nutrients.

“They’ll crowd out the good grasses. If you have had a drought year, the weeds are more aggressive, and they’ll get more of the moisture,” he says. “There’s only so much room in the garden.”

Homeowners have another option should they tire of battling for a green, full lawn — replacing it with sod, says Kirk Floyd, chemical manager and plant health care technician with Landscape Projects in Bethesda.

Sod is squares of mostly weed-free grass with a layer of soil still attached that can replace troubled lawns or provide a fresh bed of grass where none previously existed. It also can be helpful as a sediment-control tool for anyone looking to secure recently disturbed soil during landscaping work.

“I’ve seen sod survive on concrete, if it’s watered enough,” he says. Typically, it takes two to four weeks before sod takes root in a yard.

He says that sod might provide “instant gratification” for those struggling with their lawns but that it is an expensive proposition for those with generous acreage.

Lawns can be comprised of any number of grass types, from Bermuda to Kentucky bluegrass. For the Greater Washington area, experts agree the tall fescue grass represents the best solution for our weather patterns.

Kevin Mathias, turf grass extension specialist and instructor at the University of Maryland, describes our region as a “transition zone” between warm and cool season grasses.

“The tall fescue is a cool season grass that does pretty well in our area,” he says. “It’s relatively deep rooted. It’s more drought-resistant.”

The grass may fight off Washington’s dry weather, but it can’t always stave off grubs, a key pest concern for local lawns.

Mr. Floyd says the white grubs are Japanese beetle larvae, which thrive in sunny areas.

“They’re chewing on your lawn right now, [but] you’re not noticing it,” Mr. Floyd says. The adult beetles lay their eggs in the summer, the larvae eat grass roots through the fall, then burrow underground until spring when they feast anew.

A healthy lawn can survive a small number of the grubs, but if their numbers increase, an over-the-counter pesticide should be considered.

The creatures’ handiwork can be seen in brown splotches in the grass, or the blades will come up easily if they are tugged.

Some lawn-care tips are universally true, but other lawn wisdom seems to change with the seasons, Mr. Floyd says, so homeowners should trust their instincts.

“The best thing to do is to look at the turf itself and know what your average color is,” he says.

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