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The 7 Secrets of Highly Successful Sod
It's Easy to Have a Healthy, Weed-FreeLawn Without Chemicals—JustFollow These Seven Steps!

Q. Mike: Our substantial lawnis presently very weed-filled. What's the best plan of attack at thistime of the year (and forward) for ultimately establishing weed-freeturf?
                              ---Gerald; Temple UniversityTyler School of Art; Philadelphia

Mike: Thanks so much for your show's insightful information andencouragement. I am finally ready to fix my once beautiful, nowweed-infested lawn. I think I caused the worst damage by 'weed andfeeding' it in the middle of a drought and then not reseeding the barespots I created. I am a poor schoolteacher (and a tightwad to boot!)What is the cheapest and easiest way to bring my lawn up to goodhealth?  
                              ---Keith in Downingtown, PA

We have some very stubborn weeds in our lawn, especially in the front,which gets a lot of sun. We would gratefully appreciate your advice andguidance.
                              ---Ramesh in McLean, Virginia

A. Most lawn problems arecaused by lawn owners who overuse chemical fertilizers and pesticideslike mad, cut their grass WAY too short and water it all wrong. People,People, People!: Any flower or vegetable gardener can assure youthat grass itself is a VERY hardy and tenacious 'weed'. If you simplystop trying to kill it, you should be able to achieve a lush weed-freestand with VERY little work. Just follow these 7 Secrets of SuccessfulORGANIC Lawn Owners:

1.    Grow the rightkind of grass for your region and conditions. In the North, youwant to grow a 'coolseason' grass like Kentucky bluegrass, ryegrass orfescue; down South, you need a 'warmseason' variety, like Bermuda, St.Augustine or zoysia. Sunny spots need a grass that thrives on lots oflight, like Kentucky blue or Bermuda; shady spots demand a turf thatcan get by on very little light, like fescue or St. Augustine.

2.    Prevent weedseeds from sprouting with corn gluten meal. Applied in theSpring—when the forsythia shrubs in your neighborhood begin tobloom—this all-natural by-product of corn starch processing stops newweeds, weakens old ones and gives your lawn the perfect amount ofslow-release nitrogen for strong roots and beautiful green growth;without nasty chemicals that threaten people, pets and the environment.See lastweek's column for more details. And gee…I wonderwhere you might be able to find some?

3.    Cut your grassat the right height! Most people cut their grass way too short,thinking it will help them mow less often. But scalping your lawn ofall its green forces the grass to try and grow super-fast to replacethe solar collectors you executed. This weak new growth looks terrible,so you cut it again—way too soon and way too short—andagain…and…   Meanwhile, those roots aren't growing atall—allowing weeds to throw wild parties with loose flora where yourturf should be.

Your lawn should be AT LEAST two inches high AFTER YOU CUT—an inchhigher for cool season grasses and shady lawns. Use a ruler! And nevercut off more than a third at any one time. Your grass will grow slower(because you aren't trying to kill it anymore), look much greener thana crew-cut lawn, and form DEEP roots that crowd out weeds naturally.How deep? Our old buddy (and corn gluten meal creator) Dr. NickChristians, turfgrass Professor at Iowa State University, explains thata fescue grass cut two inches high will have 18-inch deep roots (whichsounds pretty good). But if you raise the cutting height to thefescue-recommended three and a half inches, those roots will go downFOUR FEET—that's a lawn that can find enough water and nutrients totake care of itself!

4.    Feed it right!Cool season grasses should get a big feeding in the Falland a lighterone in the Spring;neverfeed them in hot weather. Warm season grasses are the opposite—givethem three equal feedings from early to late summer. If you use amulching mower to return those nitrogen-rich clips to your turf, feedless; if you collect your clips for other uses, feed more.

5.    Water correctly!A light sprinkling every day is the worst thing you can do—with nowater to reach for down deep, roots stay shallow and weeds move in.Long, infrequent waterings = deep roots that stop weeds with a terse"and where did you think YOU were going?" Most lawns need an inch ofwater a week; if Nature provides this, sit on your hose. If shedoesn't, apply that weekly inch (use a rain gauge) all at once on lawnsin clay soil. But break it up into two, ¾ inch-deep soakings perweek if your soil be sandy. Lawns in sun need more water; lawns inshade, less. Some grasses, like Kentucky blue, are notoriously thirsty;others, like Bermuda grass, like it dry. It is never wrong to water alawn in the early morning; but it can be disease-inviting Death on a Stickto water in the evening—especially in the North.

6.    Tap your localexpertise. No matter where you get your basic lawn-careinformation, always fine-tune it with advice from your local countyextension agent and their amazing volunteer Master Gardener helpers.Just type the word "extension" and [your state] into a search engine,and you'll find your local office at your state's web page. They cantell you what grasses work best in your specific microclimate, testyour soil for problems, and even identify your current grass if you'reclueless. (Note: They MAY recommend chemical treatments. If they DO,ask for organic options. If they won't provide them, ask US—we be herefor you!)
7.    Don't be afraidto 'Take The Pipe' and start over. If you've been trying to growa WAY wrong type of grass for your region and/or conditions, have nukedwhatever you did have with chemicals (or over-attention), or have a'lawn' that's more than 50% grass-free, start over. In the North, youshould always wait till early Fall to seeda new cool season lawn; sod ismuch more expensive but can be laid anytime—just be sure and keep itwell-watered till its roots establish. Down South, start your new warmseason lawn in the Spring; some warm season grasses can be seeded; withothers you plant plugs, sprigs or sod.

You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week  ©2005Mike McGrath

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