How to Care for your Lawn
Story by Helen McMenamin

The basics of lawn care are quite simple - fertilize, water and mow. But, if you want to really make your lawn more of a feature of your landscape and make your home look much better, there's more to it. Fortunately, some of the chores can be mechanized. Be careful though: lawn equipment may be simple and relatively small, but it can cause serious injuries.

POWER RAKE

A fresh lawn starts in fall or early in spring, when it's getting warmer and buds are swelling on trees, but there's little green to be seen. That's the time to rake the lawn - by hand, or replace your lawnmower blade with a dethatcher tool. A bag on the lawnmower makes it easier to clean up afterwards.

Gardening specialist Buffy Clynes advises setting the power rake to just graze the soil surface. "You want to cut the stolons, underground grass stems to stimulate more growth," she says. "You don't want to rip out whole plants. That's too much damage and allows weeds to invade before the grass can recover."

Apply fertilizer right after raking to help damaged plants recover. Then overseed to fill in any bare spots, and water. Early spring is ideal, but you can power rake in late summer or early fall - just leave time for grass seedlings to establish before the stress of summer heat or winter.

AERATION

Lawns are often seeded on soil excavated when the house was built and compacted by heavy equipment, or they may be installed as sod so the soil and the sod form separate layers. Grass areas may be heavily used by vehicles or as a playground. For whatever reason, the lawn absorbs very little water - you see run-off, but if you open the soil with a shovel, you see the moisture hasn't penetrated any distance into the soil.

The problem is compaction and the answer is to aerate using a core aerator. You can aerate small areas by poking holes with a garden fork, but this works only for minor problems and doesn't last long. A core aerator removes a plug of soil, generally 5 to 7 cm deep and 1 or 2 cm wide leaving space for air and water to reach the roots.

It's best to aerate in spring or fall, when soil is moist. Water the day before to ensure good moisture in the ground. Leave the soil plugs to dry out so they'll break up next time you mow. Don't forget to sharpen the mower blade afterwards.

Compacted soil is hard for plant roots to grow through and almost impossible for air, moisture and fertilizer nutrients to penetrate to the roots. With air to breathe and water, roots can grow more and support a healthy ecosystem of soil microbes. The roots and microbes then support healthy soil and strong, healthy plants.

ROLLING

Rolling a lawn in spring can help level bumps, cracks and hollows, especially if you spread compost or good loam beforehand. You can get a nice even lawn that's easier to mow. Rolling the seedbed before or immediately after spreading grass seed makes the ground firm, and helps make good seed-to-soil contact to give seedlings a good start. If you're laying sod, rolling can help bond the sod to the underlying soil so the grass roots can grow into it.

If your goal is grass as smooth and bright as a golf green, rolling alone won't help. Rolling golf greens is just part of an intensive schedule that starts with a base of special sand and continues all summer with fungicides, fertilizer, mowing - and rolling.

REGULAR MAINTENANCE

Two applications of fertilizer per year are generally enough to keep your lawn green and healthy. Use fertilizers designed for spring and fall. For spring, the nitrogen content - the first number on the label - is most important to stimulate leafy growth. In fall, the phosphorus and potassium - the second and third numbers on the label - are important to ready the grass for winter and early spring growth.

Apply the right amount of fertilizer. Too much fertilizer makes grass more susceptible to disease. Also, it is washed out of the lawn and eventually runs into rivers and lakes, where it increases algae and damages the ecosystem.

Watering is best done early in the morning: 4am to 9am is ideal, because there's less wind and heat. Watering in the evening leaves the grass wet and cool - ideal for fungal diseases.

Apply 2 to 3cm of water each time you water and aim for a little under 3cm a week. You can measure with a rain gauge or with marked straight-sided shallow can, like a tuna can. Try not to water beyond the lawn - it wastes water that has been expensively treated with considerable energy inputs, as well as carrying plant nutrients from your lawn to the river.

A travelling sprinkler makes it easy to water the whole lawn evenly. You just set the speed and adjust water pressure to the cover the right width, and the sprinkler moves slowly across the lawn.

Sharpen the blade of your lawnmower at least once a year. The sharp blade makes a clean cut that stays green rather than the ragged tear of a blunt blade that gives the lawn a brown tinge. And don't cut too low: leave enough leaf (7cm) to capture energy from the sun, to fuel regrowth.

If there is a drought, the lawn experts at Briggs and Stratton advise letting your lawn go dormant, avoid mowing and definitely do not apply fertilizer or herbicides or aerate. In a drought soil becomes warmer and water evaporates quickly, further stressing the grass. If you do mow, take no more than a third of the leaf and leave clippings on the lawn, to slow evaporation.