February 28, 2010

New ideas on nourishing the lawn

By Tom Atwell
Staff Writer

Lawns are important. They make the landscape look better. They improve visibility along roadways and around the home. They keep pests away. They provide a place to play.


OUR LACK OF SNOW plus relatively warm temperatures are probably not going to hurt your perennial gardens. It wasn’t  bone-chillingly cold – as in well below zero degrees Fahrenheit – while the ground was bare.

IF YOUR BULBS push out of the ground and you find them before they push out shoots, step on the bulb to force it back into the ground (or use a shovel if your soil is soft enough). If the bulbs are in the ground but their shoots look like they are growing too tall, too early, there is nothing you should do about that. Anything you do may very well hurt your bulbs more then help them.

GENERALLY THE BULB shoots come up earliest in sheltered locations near buildings. If we get several back-to-back blizzards (which we’re due for), the snow will cover the shoots and the bulbs won’t push up blooms until your soil once again warms. It’s all part of gardening in Maine.

“Turfgrass is an important part of the landscape,” Jesse O’Brien of Down East Turf Farms in Kennebunk recently told a group made up mostly of lawn-care professionals at O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham. “The more people care about their property, the more turf is an essential part of it.”

Even people with a lot of gardens use lawns as a pathway to walk among the gardens, as a buffer between the pavement and the gardens, and as a decorative element.

But lawns and the way they are cared for are coming under attack. Many people believe they use too much water, fertilizer and pesticide. Others oppose them because they are sterile, providing little habitat for wildlife and a single color instead of the flowers of perennials.

O’Brien, who also teaches turf management at the University of Maine, says due to that opposition – and to limit damage to the environment – the lawn-care industry has to change.

And the biggest change, he says, is that the lawn-care companies have to start selling their expertise, not the products. For the homeowner, the biggest thing they should know is when the lawns should be fertilized.

There are only two times a year when lawns should be fertilized – in the spring, when the ground first gets to about 50 to 55 degrees and the light increases, and in late summer or early fall, when the rains begin and the soil temperature has dropped enough that the lawn has come out of the semi-dormancy of summer.

“Too early in the season does no good,” O’Brien said. “Too late is no good.”

Scott’s and other lawn-care companies have for years pushed a process in which lawns are fertilized four times a year, at least two of which do no good.

So those who use lawn companies to apply fertilizer and pesticides should find out how many applications the company is planning to make. You should insist the company do no more than two.

O’Brien was part of a group that set the target dates of April 15 and Sept. 1 for fertilization – with the Sept. 1 application being better – but added that the decision should be based on the phenology (or seasonal life cycle) of the grass. In simpler terms, when the grass is growing, you can fertilize it.

He urged all lawn-care providers to mulch grass clippings and leave them on the lawn because it reduces the need for fertilizer, although a number of the providers responded that their customers would not accept that.

Soil is the most important factor in having a healthy lawn. An ideal lawn soil should have 5 percent organic matter. The rest should be 25 percent air, 25 percent water and 45 percent minerals – sand, silt and clay in various mixtures.

In most home lawns, there is not enough organic matter because the topsoil or loam was scraped away and sold off before the house was built. Once the house is finished, the contractor brings back enough topsoil to create a 2- or 3-inch layer on top of the gravel and construction rubble. But on O’Brien’s turf farm, the best grass grows where he has a foot of topsoil.

If a homeowner is having trouble with the lawn, in some cases the best thing to do is to tear out the lawn and start over. You simply can’t add compost to the soil without damaging the turf.

O’Brien said you can improve the soil by spreading compost on top of the lawn. You need to use finely screened compost and a lot of it, probably over several years. When you apply the compost, you have to leave part of the grass blades showing above the compost.

So while your lawn could use 2 or more inches of compost, you won’t be able to add much more than a half an inch a year. And just so you know, it takes a full cubic yard of compost to cover 1,000 feet of lawn a quarter inch deep.

O’Brien said he is hearing anecdotally – with no scientific research – that compost tea does add microbial activity to the soil, so he is going to try it.

As far as nutrients go, the big three are nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, but most experts are recommending against phosphorous now. O’Brien is hearing, again anecdotally, that soluble calcium improves the lawn greatly by making the other nutrients work better.

One product called GSR Calcium is used with only 45 grams per acre, and the consensus was that it was only available to the trade.

Another product that is said to work is SoluCal, which is available to consumers.
When it comes to choice of grass, O’Brien said Kentucky bluegrass is the Cadillac of grasses because it has the best texture, stands up to traffic and creates new plants best, which means it spreads quickly and replaces the older, dying plants better. But it does require full sun and more water than most.

Fine fescue – including red fescue, which is the only native of the turf grasses (or so O’Brien quoted Lois Berg Stack of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension as saying) – stands up best to shade and is lower maintenance. Turf-type tall fescue is a good grass that is tough. Perennial ryegrass comes in quickly but doesn’t create baby plants well.

Because watering is an expense, O’Brien waits until the grass is in serious danger before doing so. That means the blades are beginning to curl and walking across the turf leaves visible footprints. Then he waters deeply.

For home gardens, he recommends people have a rain gauge and water deeply and infrequently. The benchmark is that the lawn needs an inch of rain a week. If it is hot and windy, the lawn might need much more; if it is cloudy and cool, it might need less.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

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