Fall Real Estate 2005

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Double-edged blades
A lush lawn requires lots of care

by Susan Golovin

Lawns provide cleaner air by trapping millions of tons of dirt. They also prevent erosion and absorb global-warming gasses. But, let's face it, most of us like a beautiful lawn because it just plain looks good -- and, because it looks good, it increases property values.

Steve Biddle of Jim Lord Landscape Services presses his boot into the soft turf raised by a mole at a home in Atherton.

How did this obsession with creating these outdoor carpets begin? And, now that it's established, how can homeowners most effectively deal with the upkeep?

Wealthy Americans brought the idea of lawns home with them from travels to such places as England, where the climate favors lush spreads. However, it wasn't until the late 18th century, after the American Industrial Revolution (which allowed for more leisure time), plus the invention in 1899 of the rotary lawn mover (which effectively sucks up that free time), that a green lawn became practical for the average American.

Further, since not all Americans traveled to Europe, dissemination of the idea required a publicity agent. Enter the American Garden Club, which proselytized and successfully converted even the most abstinent. Lawns began to spring up like, well, grass.

Pennywort, an invasive weed, makes its way into healthy lawns from bird droppings, the wind and uncleaned lawn mowers.

There are approximately 10,000 species of grass and only about 50 are useful for picture-perfect lawns. Scientists experimented for years to come up with varieties that would successfully adapt to conditions in the U.S. You can now peruse a map that delineates which grasses will thrive in various climate zones.

"Our climate lends itself to cool-season grasses," said Steve Biddle, a turf expert at Jim Lord Landscaping, Redwood City, who majored in natural resource management in college. "The most common is a dwarf fescue blend, bred to be lower growing," he added.

According to Biddle, the impediments to a perfect lawn are: fungus (which can be a water-management problem), over- or under-watering, incorrect fertilization and improperly maintained equipment.

"It takes someone with a trained eye to distinguish the difference between a fungus problem and one of over-watering," he said. Fungus creates the mottled brown and yellow spots in turf.

"This has been a difficult year for fungus due to the June rains. Normally, it isn't a summer problem in this area," he added.

The lawn can be restored with proper fertilization, and/or chemical or organic fungicides. In the ongoing discussion about the latter, there is certainly a push to use organic products, which are less hazardous to water sources and living creatures.

"When it comes to treating the lawn for fungus we always try to fertilize first," Biddle said. "If that doesn't work, then we try a fungicide, and we always begin with the least toxic that will still be effective."

It's important not to fertilize a wet lawn. The fertilizer will stick to the wet blades, creating the potential for burn -- though that is less likely now that fertilizers are coated. "Ideally, you should get the fertilizer down before the rain, and then let the rain water it in," Biddle said.

As far as water management goes, "If you water every day, you'll get lazy grass," he said. By that he means that the root system will not be encouraged to go deep for resources. "What you really want to do is soak the root zone, and aim for a thorough watering three to four days a week in the summer."

To avoid tearing the grass, ensure that lawnmower blades are razor sharp. The blades also have to be set at the correct mowing height. If you mow more than one-quarter of the total blade, it stresses the turf. "The roots correspond to the length of the turf, so it's better to leave it longer if you're generalizing," he said.

Of course, some grasses are bred to be mowed shorter. These are typically used on golf courses.

If you use a lawn service, make sure that the lawnmower is washed between clients. This will help prevent sharing of such problems as weeds and unwanted strains of turf.

Biddle also recommends a yearly aerification and de-thatching program. The former pulls plugs out of the ground and creates a way for water to penetrate. The latter also favors better irrigation by removing the impenetrable layer of dead grass.

Weed control is yet another regularly scheduled task, preferably in late spring and fall. Biddle advises applying a pre-emergent, which stops seeds from germinating. "There's only so much you can do to prevent them though, with birds and wind," he said.

For intransigent weeds, as well as destructive insects, the same theory applies to pesticides as fungicides: Use the least toxic that will still be effective. Luckily, in this area there isn't a major problem with grubs, insects that live in the root zone.

As for those pesky moles, trapping works. However, for gardeners who want to spare the animals -- and for those who have small children or pets -- an application of harmless castor bean oil can work as a deterrent because the moles dislike the smell.

Even with all this upkeep a yearly re-seeding is recommended.

Parts of the lawn will always look better than others. Yards really consist of a series of mini-climates, depending on which areas receive more shade or sun, which are sloped, etc. These differences are minimized by using the dwarf fescue blend, which includes grasses that will each adapt to its own best situation.

Along with all this regular maintenance, he has had some unusual requests. "I was once asked to create a temporary turf labyrinth on an estate. It consisted of varied heights from three inches to one inch," he said.

"I also had a request to paint a lawn for a party," he said. The water-soluble green paint is available at commercial gardening centers, and can last for a number of weeks.

Biddle recommends www.scotts.com as an excellent source of information. All said, however, he feels that common sense should prevail. The first thing to determine is how much a lawn really matters to you. Perhaps you're willing to accept the fact that kids, dogs, finances and/or quality of lifestyle issues dictate less emphasis on perfection.