Neil Sperry

Neil Sperry: How a soggy spring affects your lawn

Photo courtesy of Neil Sperry

For the first time in several years, because we’ve had so much wet weather in North Texas, we’re going into “prime time” for lawn maintenance with our grasses growing actively. Lakes are filled — and then filling some more — and things are looking better in that regard than they have in some time.

Gardeners, however, are left to wonder what all this means to our water conservation efforts. My old saying, when it comes to rain and the occasional abundance of it, is that “this could be the beginning of our very next drought.”

But lawns are very important to our lives. They cool us and provide us with oxygen. They also slow or stop erosion and give us a place to play with the kids. It’s hard for me to imagine life in the Metroplex not being surrounded by some amount of lush turf. So, it’s a topic of interest and worthy of some discussion.

Fertilization issues

If you haven’t fed your lawn yet, it’s time that you did. All of those recent rains have leached most of the nitrogen out of the soil — assuming you had any to start with. Your fertilizer will definitely need to include nitrogen — the first number of the three-number analysis on every product’s bag.

Phosphorus, the middle number, doesn’t dissolve as readily as nitrogen, so there still is an ample (or more commonly, excessive) amount firmly attached to our Blackland Prairie clay gumbo soils.

SO, to be clear: Add no more phosphorus.

Potassium, or potash, is the third number in the analysis, and it gives plants better resistance against summertime stress. Generally, our soils do have potassium in them, but if you find a good fertilizer that’s mostly nitrogen with a little potassium thrown in, that will still work fine.

Ask a Texas Certified Nursery Professional to show you the options and to help you determine which product best meets your needs. As an added bonus, it’s highly likely that the same fertilizer will be perfect for all of the other plants that you’re growing, be they trees, shrubs, flowers or vegetables.

New growth

It’s likely that your lawn is far from good looking. Maybe this was the year you had vowed to get it ramped up and growing. And, indeed, May is the ideal month to start new grass. It’s still reasonably cool (makes watering easier), but it’s also warm enough that the new grass will establish quickly.

Bermuda is our best choice for areas with high pedestrian traffic. Besides being easy to maintain, it’s also our most drought-tolerant grass. St. Augustine is our most shade-tolerant grass type, although it does grow best in full sun. Zoysia varieties are growing in popularity, but ask your sod dealer for referrals to see how well you like the look before you decide.

The variety Palisades is recommended by many turf authorities. Remember that zoysias won’t take traffic as well as Bermuda and won’t take as much shade as St. Augustine.

Bermuda can be started from seed, but its seed is far too tiny to be broadcast into existing lawns (“overseeded”). You’ll want to fill voids in Bermuda turf with plugs dug from your own lawn. St. Augustine and the various zoysias need to be planted from sod.

No matter which grass you decide to plant, and whether you intend to sow it or sod it, the ground preparation will be exactly the same. Rototill moist soil 3 or 4 inches deep, then use a garden rake turned upside-down to smooth the soil’s surface to drain away from the house. You need add no organic matter or other type of soil amendment, because the new grass is eventually going to have to succeed in your native soil anyway.

Take delivery of your sod early in the morning, while it’s still very fresh. Have a crew lined up to help you lay it in place over the tilled and raked soil. Snug the pieces up tightly, trying not to leave any voids. If there are voids, use torn, irregular pieces to fill them.

Water the new grass as soon as it’s down. If you’re sodding a large area, water within the first hour or two of the time that you plant, even if you’re still planting elsewhere. Keeping the new grass moist for the first two or three weeks is critical.

When shade is excessive

The most common question I’m asked over the course of a year is “What grass will grow best in the shade?” As mentioned earlier, that would be St. Augustine. However, if you have already tried St. Augustine in a shaded part of your yard and it died out soon afterward, there’s no point in trying St. Augustine again. The same can be said if you had a good stand for a while but it has been thinning badly over the past couple of years. Those are both solid signs that you don’t have enough sunlight to sustain grass in those areas.

Unless you have trees you can sacrifice to gain more sunlight — usually not a good plan — you’ll want to shift to shade-tolerant ground covers like mondograss (“monkeygrass”), liriope and English ivy (well-draining soils only). Other possibilities are Asian jasmine and purple wintercreeper euonymus. They’ll handle the shade famously, and while you won’t be able to play croquet on any of them, you’ll still have a lovely landscape.

Supplement that by planting various hollies, aucubas, oakleaf hydrangeas, viburnums, mahonias, redbuds, Japanese maples and other shade-loving plants.

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens Magazine” and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.

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