May 23, 2014

Neil Sperry: The mystique of summer lawn care

Late May is the best time to start turf, plus more expert advice to mow — er, mull — over

Rants, raves, reviews and resources for Dallas-Fort Worth parents

Your lawn is growing at its fastest pace of the year. And, whether it’s a small patch of grass or something expansive, you’d probably like to do all that you can to keep it happy and vigorous. To that end, I’ve assembled some facts and fallacies of summertime lawn care here in North Texas. I think you’ll find them of use over the upcoming months.

• Late May is the premier time of the year to be starting new turf. I suppose many people might be confusing new lawn grass plantings with vegetables when they ask “Is it too late to start new sod or grass seed?” The answer is a resounding no, because all of our common North Texas turf grasses are what is called “warm-season” grasses.

That means that their most active growth comes in the warmest months. May bridges the gap. The soil has warmed sufficiently that new grass will take root and start growing immediately, but it’s still cool enough (for a short while longer) that you won’t have to water the new grass twice daily as it gets started.

• Buffalo grass is not more drought-resistant than Bermuda. While it may survive life on the Great Plains, even in drought, buffalo grass under those conditions certainly doesn’t look like a home lawn. When we try to water it, if only occasionally to keep it at least modestly green, buffalo grass will give way to Bermuda.

It happens to almost every buffalo grass lawn in an urban setting. And because Bermuda is equally drought-tolerant to buffalo grass, you might as well go with Bermuda from the outset — you’ll have it eventually.

• There is no grass that will grow in heavy shade. Forget that. You’re just going to waste a lot of money in a hurry if you succumb to the come-ons that promise that some new “miracle” grass will grow in total shade. St. Augustine is still our most shade-tolerant grass, and even it has to have four to six hours of bright, direct sunlight daily to hold its own and grow at least modestly.

If you see balding spots in St. Augustine, and especially if they’re near tree trunks and other places that are the shadiest parts of your yard, planting more grass of any kind will not solve the problem. You’ll have to remove one or two low branches or change to a shade-tolerant ground cover.

Thinning the trees is only a temporary fix, and it’s very short-term in most cases.

• Just as there are grasses that are given extreme claims, so are there lawn care products that are under-proven and over-promoted. They claim to activate the soil or loosen the clay, and it’s done in the name of better lawn and landscape root growth. These sprinkle-on fixes are virtually useless.

Oh, if only our state would only require proof of these claims before these things could be sold. But sold they are, to the tune of millions of dollars every year.

If the product claims to improve lawn and landscape growth, yet it doesn’t list any nutritional ingredients on its label (as a true fertilizer is required to do), it’s probably suspect. Look for test data from university research — not from private labs and personal testimonials.

If you can’t find good, repeatable research, and if the claims are weak, just move on. Maybe merchants will get the idea as the dust starts to collect. Your grass won’t grow any better when you waste good money on these snake oils.

• Water curtailments? Yeah. Probably. But they may teach us a very important lesson. That’s because North Texans have been wasting water on turf grasses for decades. There are two basic principles that will carry you far. Wait until the soil begins to feel dry to your fingertips before you run the sprinklers, and then, when you do water, water thoroughly to encourage deep roots.

Your lawn can survive once-a-week irrigation in water shortage emergencies, even in 100-degree weather. The grass may not be lush, but it will survive to live in another, more favorable season. And if you have a sprinkler system, but if you haven’t installed a “smart” controller just yet, that purchase alone could save you hundreds of dollars each year. They’re amazing.

• Raising the lawn mower blade by one or two settings does not help the grass survive the summer in Texas. Repeat: it does not help. That’s a commonly held fallacy. Tall grass quickly becomes weak grass. Grass blades start to grow vertically as they seek out the sunlight. Sun hits the exposed soil, drying it out more quickly, and weeds begin to move into the weakened turf.

Keep mowing your lawn at the recommended height.

It’s not easy being a lawn here in North Texas in summertime, but lawns can survive. They represent significant investments in our home properties, so it’s in your best interest to keep things perking along at least at a modest pace. Thinking positive thoughts about rain can’t hurt, either.

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