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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath
Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.
Last Call to Plant a Real Cool Season Lawn This Season
Q. We removed our entire front lawn this spring when we had our gutters routed underground to carry rain water further away from the house. (It wasn't much of a lawn; riddled with weeds and very uneven.) We re-planted using a "Pennsylvania Mix", "Grass Seed Accelerator" and "lawn starter soil", and now have quite a few weeds. My husband wants to treat the lawn to eliminate the weeds. In scouring your A-Z Garden Answers section I see that proper cutting height, wise watering, and corn gluten are the best defense against weeds in a well-established lawn. But our lawn is still in its adolescent phase, hopefully on its way to becoming well-established, but not there yet. I have been hand-pulling a LOT of weeds and trying to persuade my husband to NOT use chemicals. What do you suggest?
---Gretchen in Bethlehem, PA
A. Gretchen didn't much like my suggestion when I emailed it to her, but the only thing that's going to work here is a do-over. They did the right thing by fixing their drainage problem—which was probably the cause of the previous lawn's problems—but they did it at the wrong time of year. If you're going to tear up a lawn in a cool-season grass region like the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania and want to replant right away, you should have the work done in summer.
As Iowa State Turfgrass Professor Dr. Nick Christians (the 'inventor' of corn gluten meal as a natural pre-emergent and lawn food) has told me many times, planting mid-August through mid-September is the key to having a weed-free cool-season lawn. Nick has said that you can make 18 mistakes later on and still have a good looking lawn if you planted in late summer, but if you sow the seed in the Spring, you'll always have a sea of weeds. You can spray those weeds all you want with whatever you want and it's not going to change the fact that there's probably not much grass out there, and what is there had a very poor childhood education.
So they can either tear it all up and replant now—the absolute perfect time of year to do so—or they can spray and pull and curse and fume for a season or two and then finally realize they have to tear it up and replant it. They already did the right thing with the drainage problem, and I hope they do the right thing here.
Remember kids: Killing weeds won't grow good grass; but growing good grass will kill weeds.
Q. Due to an exceptionally wet Spring my neighbors and I have areas of lawn that will not dry out and can't be cut. Mowers simply sink. It is apparent that there are underground springs being fed by our heavy rains. What can be done to help this landscape?
---Mike in Kansas City
A. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that poor drainage is a distinct possibility here. Or, as Jeff Foxworthy might say: "if your lawnmower came with a personal flotation device, you might have poor drainage".
Anyway, there are two big options here. One is to install what are called drain tiles; they carry excess water away underground, so that the grass can dry out between waterings, which is crucial.
This is somewhat like the people who sent our first question did; they buried pipes to take away their gutter water. But that could also be part of the problem here; poorly designed gutters can cause a lot of drainage problems. That's why the builder who put an addition onto our home years ago told me he routinely installs buried piping to carry gutter water away from the house and yard. (It made a huge positive difference in our back yard.)
So the situations and solutions are very similar, although it sounds like Mike's problems are bigger—maybe make that deeper—than poorly aimed gutters.
The other option is to transform at least some of the lawn into a rain garden; a re-graded area that channels excess water to a series of well-designed plantings. It's a great solution that allows you to still have a lawn area while adding a landscaped garden feature that attracts birds, butterflies, toads, pollinators and beneficial insects. Looks nice too. You'll find lots of details at State Extension websites and in this previous Question of the Week.
Q. And finally, we end with a non-question. We actually get a lot of these, but it would get boring if we did too many "told you so's"—but I think it's also important to include one every once in a while to reassure people that getting a lawn off chemicals is just not that hard.
Ken in Norman, Oklahoma writes: "I wanted you to know that I (finally!) took your advice and discontinued using chemicals on my lawn this season. I fired the lawn chemical people I had been using (the rep was not happy), then waited as the weather warmed and the Bermuda grass began greening up. Some weeds also greened up, but not that many.
"Early in the season, I patrolled the yard once a week, digging up the offenders. Now I do this maybe every two or three weeks. Doesn't take much time at all—maybe 15-20 minutes. My grass is beautiful, thick and green, and I have more pocket change. Thank you Mike, for your advice."
A. Thank you, Ken, for making your change and reporting the results!