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Diggin' In: Fall is a good time to give your lawn some TLC

October 27, 2014

If your cool-season lawn needs a little TLC or a total redo, fall is the time to do it.

During autumn, there’s still enough warmth in the soil and warmth from the sun to help fescue or rye seed germinate and establish young roots before the first frost arrives. It’s also a good time to lay cool- or warm-season sod.

"Fall is unquestionably the best time for establishing, renovating or maintaining a cool-season lawn," says master gardener Larry Riddick, a York County Virginia master gardener. He’s also one of the county’s new Smart Turf experts who visits yards, helps with soil samples and provides feedback.

"In southeastern Virginia, almost all cool-season lawns consist of fescue turfgrass, and the goal is to have the best conditions for seed germination and root growth. That occurs when the soil temperature reaches the 50 to 65 degree range. That’s about now! Actually fescue roots can continue to grow as long as the soil temperature is above freezing."

A master gardener since 2001, Riddick says he’s learned the importance of a soil test to avoid adding unnecessary nutrients.

"The $10 cost for this test is money well spent," he says of the kits available through Virginia Cooperative Extension offices. Soil samples are sent to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., where an analysis is done and reports are returned to the homeowner and a nearby extension agent who can help with consultations. Nationwide, state cooperative extension programs offer similar lawn-care services and help; one near you can be found through the U.S. Department of Agriculture at www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension .

"The soil test report tells the homeowner two critical things: what is necessary to obtain the correct pH and what their fertilizer requirement is.

"I have seen many soil test reports over the years, and I can’t recall seeing one where the soil content of phosphorous was inadequate."

Sometimes, green grass is not always the only answer to an eye-catching yard.

In Richmond, Va., Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden replaced 9,200 square feet of existing traditional turf with attractive, low-maintenance ornamental grasses to showcase sustainable best-practices in one of the most prominent sites on the garden’s property — in front of the elegant glass conservatory — www.lewisginter.org . This concept can be done on a smaller scale in a home setting.

"We want to show how ornamental grass can be used in the landscape, including a formal one," says horticulture director Grace Chapman.

Plantings of 2,000 grasses include prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), purple muhlygrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), and switchgrass Northwind (Panicum virgatum Northwind).

"The garden trialed seven different grasses for two years and chose these three," says garden spokeswoman Beth Monroe.

Ornamental grasses are good lawn alternatives, adds Monroe, because:

They’re good for the environment. Since many ornamental grasses can grow in poor soil, they don’t need fertilizer. Their deep roots reduce stormwater runoff and help prevent erosion. They also support wildlife, for instance providing seeds and nesting habitats for some birds. Doug Tallamy, author of "Bringing Nature Home," makes a strong case for carefully considered plant selections.

They require less care. While traditional turf must be mowed frequently, ornamental grasses only need to be cut back annually. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden does this in early spring, allowing the grasses to provide seeds and structure in the landscape throughout winter. Also, once established, ornamental grasses need little to no watering.

They’re beautiful. Color, texture, movement, sound, four seasons of interest – ornamental grasses have it all.

 

 


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