Neil Sperry: Answering common queries about lawn care

Posted Friday, Apr. 25, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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As I was taking photographs a day or two ago, an odd topic in lawn care came to mind. And then another. And another. These are all things I’ve never really addressed here, but they’re all questions I’m asked every spring. I hope you find them interesting, or maybe even useful.

“Is aerating a lawn something that’s beneficial?” In most cases, no. Unless you have compacted soil due to repeated pedestrian or vehicular traffic (kids playing football all winter or cars parked on the lawn) or known accumulations of thatch (undecomposed organic matter on top of the soil and beneath the runners), there probably is no need to aerate. Many of us have gone through entire lifetimes of lawn maintenance and never found aerating necessary.

“Should I spread a layer of topsoil or manure across my lawn?” Probably not. This is an old Texas tradition, but it isn’t well grounded in agricultural science. It introduces the chance of bringing weeds like nutsedge into the lawn. If you have low spots, it’s certainly fine to fill them, but it’s hard to make a case for area-wide coverage.

“Can I plant Bermuda seed to fill in bare spots in my yard?” If they’re large areas, perhaps, but in most cases, no. Bermuda seed is extremely tiny, and it cannot compete with established grass. If you don’t loosen the soil surface, for example by rototilling, the grass seeds will wash away with the first watering. Your better option would be to dig 4-by-4-inch plugs from other parts of your yard and transplant them into the voids.

“Should I not fertilize my grass this spring because of the drought?” It surprises me how many people seem to have this belief. Your best way of keeping your lawn alive until better conditions return is to keep it as healthy and vigorous as you can. That does include feeding, and this is the ideal time to do so. Most North Texas soils have excessively high levels of phosphorus already, so you’ll probably want to apply a high-quality, slow-release, all-nitrogen plant food.

“Is there a type of grass I can grow from seed in fairly shady parts of my yard?” You’ll read and hear tons of extravagant claims this time of year — claims about grasses that grow in heavy shade, that need hardly any water, that seldom need to be mowed, and even that can be started from seed. Oh, if only those claims were even partially true. Do a little background searching. See what types of grasses are included in the seed mix, and if they’re even remotely adapted here. See where the seed is produced (some blends are from Canada!). Ask your local Texas certified nursery professional for advice for your specific situation. And use your common sense: If there were such a miracle grass, it would be everywhere. But it won’t be. These claims are usually highly suspect.

“My tree’s roots are growing up out of the soil. Can I add a layer of soil to cover them, so that mowing would be easier?” We should start by explaining that 90 percent of any tree’s root system will be in the top foot of soil. Roots that are near the soil surface initially will increase in diameter until they do extend above grade. But adding soil, even if it wouldn’t put the grass and the tree at risk, would merely create a mound. Two years later, the roots would be larger, and you’d be out there adding more soil and creating a higher mound. It’s a race you never will win.

Roots are a part of any healthy, vigorous tree. If a few of them become visible at, or above the soil’s surface, that’s part of the game. Either live with them, carefully remove one or two of them in the fall (after summer’s hot weather has waned), or plant a shade-tolerant ground cover to conceal them. But don’t try to cover them.

“Can my lawn possibly survive if we’re only allowed to water once a week (or less often) this summer?” Yes. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but you can certainly come out the other side of this drought and still have a lawn. It may not be lush, and it may have some bare spots, but it will be there to recover when better times return. You’ll want to take every possible step to conserve available water, from having a “smart” controller installed to keeping irrigation equipment in perfect working condition. That also includes keeping weeds out of your lawn, since they’re known to use water faster than turfgrass. If conditions persist, we’ll address this whole topic in more detail here in the next several weeks.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: www.neilsperry.com.

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