Appropriate Turf Maintenance
It is possible to have an ecologically friendly turf, even if you choose bluegrass or turf type tall fescue. But it’s still high maintenance and high water-use.
My turf is fescue, and I had to make an exception to fit into my personal gardening statement. When I finally wrote out my gardening statement years after our fescue lawn was established, I elected to leave it and not replace it with a low maintenance and low water-use lawn. But I did decide to maintain it in an ecologically friendly manner. To me, that means no herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. And I learned how to make it lower, but not low water-use and lower maintenance.
My lawn wasn’t in the best shape when I made this decision. In fact, I was embarrassed by it. It was weedy, yellowish green with thin turf and bare patches. My goal was a thick, green healthy turf. The road to turf health was a four-part program. I studied the proper way to care for my fescue turf and I made the decision to use a weed killer to lessen the weed problem. Immediately following that second part, I implemented a program to build the health of the soil with worm castings and composted manure and then over seeded the turf to fill in the thin and vacant areas. I noted ten steps that will help your achieve a healthy, lower water-use and lower maintenance lawn of bluegrass, fescue and bermuda turf grasses. The water use and maintenance are lower, but still considered high.
Ten steps to a healthy, lower water-use lawn.
Bed preparation is all-important. Amend the soil with organic matter, and other materials for better drainage, if required. Turf beds with ample organic matter require less water for growing a healthy turf than organically deficient soil. Soil amended well with organic matter helps buffer soil alkalinity for a greener lawn without adding nitrogen fertilizer. Well-amended soil provides nutrients for beneficial microorganisms and the turf.
Reduce slopes and berms for water conservation. It is difficult to keep high water-use plants adequately watered on slopes and berms. Bare patches will develop and weeds will ultimately move in. Keep high water-use plants on the level.
Lawnscape to avoid runoff situations and to avoid watering sidewalks and driveways. What this means is to create buffer zones of low or lower water-use plants between the sidewalks/driveways and the high water turf. You'll be watering turf areas more frequently, so set the sprinklers far enough away from the cement areas to prevent waste of water.
Match the turf grass with its appropriate maintenance. The different turf grasses all have different planting, feeding, watering and irrigation requirements. Meet the needs of the plant you choose.
Based on turf selection, select an efficient irrigation system. Avoid mist systems. Adjust irrigation heads for larger droplets. Know how much your irrigation system puts out for your sprinkler cycle. Water your turf according to the turf’s needs and growth -- adjust your sprinkler timers for the seasons and precipitation received.
Decide to seed, plug or sod. You save water by laying sod, if it’s available for your turf selection.
Properly feed your turf grass. Amend existing soil by topdressing with composted manure or other composted material if you decide to garden in an ecologically friendly manner. Top dress in the fall with up to ¾ inch layer of well composted material. Otherwise, at least don’t over fertilize. Most people over fertilize their turf. I don’t fertilize for the same reason I rarely use pesticides and herbicides – they are counter productive to what I want to achieve. Over fertilization suppresses root growth, reduces cold tolerances, contributes to salt build-up in the soil, requires excessive watering and mowing, causes thatch to build up in the turf. Over fertilization kills beneficial microorganisms. Excessive chemical fertilization leaches out of the root zone and into our rivers, lakes and streams. If you employ a lawn service, enquire whether they will feed lawns organically – some will.
Mow high, mow often, mulch mow. Mow to the proper height, mowing not more than a third of the blade at any single mowing. Mow by growth rate of the blade, rather than by schedule. If we mow too low, we reduce the surface area needed for the leaves to store food (energy), thus weakening the plant during times of heat, cold, chemical or drought stress. If our grass dies or declines during this period, we wrongly conclude it died from extreme weather, when in fact, it died of carbohydrate shortages due to cutting the grass too low. Mowing low decreases shading of the soil, increasing evaporation. Mowing high shades the soil and cools the crowns, the temperature sensitive growing points of the turf grass. You may elect not to mow yourself, but hire a lawn service. Lawn services enforce their schedule on the lawn (refer to design theories, control oriented gardening). Proper mowing itself can go a long way towards a healthy lawn. Don’t bag it, use a mulch mower. Choose a lawn service that uses mulching mowers. Mulch mowers do not cause thatch – over watering and over fertilizing causes thatch by over stimulating growth in grass and by killing the beneficial microorganisms whose job is to decompose this matter. Mulch mowers with blades sharpened periodically will not leave visible clippings. Grass blades are finely chopped and forced to soil level for decomposition. When bagging lawn clippings, you will loose 50% of the nitrogen laid down with the first two mowings after fertilization. Mulch mowing returns the nitrogen to the soil and spares landfill space. Sharpen the mower blades monthly. Jagged leaf blades cause disease, heat and drought stress and causes leaf die-back below the cutting point, thereby giving your turf a lower cut than intended.
Proper Watering. When watering, water early in the morning or in late afternoon. Avoid watering during windy conditions (hard to do in the Panhandle, I’ll admit). Don’t water on schedule but according to the need of the turf. Water an inch at a time. (In step 5, you should determine how long it takes to water an inch, then set your system for that). How often should you water an inch? Water according to the evapotranspiration (ET) rate for your turf type. Evapotranspiration is the rate of the combined water loss from soil, plants and weather conditions (temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation and wind speed) and is normally calculated for Bermuda, Buffalo, Blue, and Tall Fescue grasses. The ET rate is represented by a number usually less than one inch, such as .19, .24 or .29, etc. At the present time, I do not know of a source for our local ET rates. Keep a log from the date of your last watering. When this total adds up to an inch or more, it's time to consider watering again. If it rains during this time period, subtract that amount of rainfall and wait until the total is at least 1 inch again. Buy and install a rain gauge so you will know how much rainfall you receive, rainfall amounts vary greatly across the area. Remember, if your soil is well amended with organic matter, less water is required by the plant. The ET rate does not take into account the variety of soil conditions across the area.
Aerate and re-seed when necessary. Aeration in spring and or fall helps to correct soil compaction. Compaction prevents irrigation and rainfall from soaking in. Aeration should be performed when the turf is actively growing and not during periods of excessive heat or drought. If you have followed the above 9 steps, aeration and re-seeding need not be routine. Re-seed thin areas of your turf to prevent the entrance of weed seeds. A thick healthy turf crowds out weeds and prevents their germination. Re-seeding may be necessary for shady areas and when restoring a lawn.
Use of Herbicides and Pesticides
Even though I garden in an ecologically friendly manner, that doesn’t prohibit a rare use of a synthetic herbicide or pesticide. For instance, ridding an area where Bermudagrass has crept in, and kept on creeping. Some situations or problems may dictate chemical use to stop the problem from continuing or getting worse. My decisions are guided by following the principles outlined in Integrated Pest (or Problem) Management, known as IPM. IPM dictates first using the corrective measure that is least harmful to the environment, gradually progressing up the harmful scale until management (not eradication) is achieved. For instance, checking the advance of Bermuda grass into unwanted areas may be best achieved by spraying with a synthetic chemical (Roundup).
Using Chemicals Responsibly
- Any application of organic or synthetic remedies should be used according to label instructions and only in recommended amounts. More is not better.
- Limit usage to spot treatment, rather than blanket coverage, if possible.
- Wait for calm wind conditions whenever spraying.
- Be sure you are applying the herbicide, pesticide, fungicide or miticide during the appropriate growth stage of the plant, insect, fungus or mite. Few chemicals will only affect your target, almost all with affect several or numerous life forms. Everything is interconnected.
- Begin to remediate the soil with a microbe stimulator or organic matter such as worm castings, composted manure or composted cottonseed hulls after application of these ‘cides”.
Herbicide Carryover – Killer or Contaminated Compost
Farmers and home gardeners across the United States have reported damage to vegetable, flower and fruit crops after applying composted manure (whether from cows or horses) or composted hay, straw or grass clippings to the soil. Shortly after these applications as soil amendments or mulch, they noticed stunted growth, poor germination, death of plants, deformed plants and fruit. In most cases, the damage was caused by a group of synthetic chemicals known as pyridine carboxylic acids, sometimes referred to as pyralids, namely, aminopyralid, clopyralid, fluroxypyr, picloram, triclopyr and/or aminicyclopyrachlor. Products containing these chemicals include Curtail, Forefront, Grazon Next, Grazon P+D, Milestone, Redeem R&P, Surmount, Confront, Lontrel, Millennium Ultra Plus and Plus2, Clopyr AG, Stinger and Imprelis. In September, 2009, Mother Earth News reported that a previously considered organic product, Grab 'n Grow, contained one of the above chemicals and caused damage to a vegetable garden of Grab 'n Grows manager, Don Liepold. Subsequently “I have been testing and detecting herbicide residues and thus rejecting cow manure, horse manure, turkey mulch, rice hulls, mushroom compost and yard trimmings,” says Grab n’ Grow manager Don Liepold. “I spent $20,000 in lab fees in 2008, and am on the same track for 2009,” he says.”
The Mother Earth News article continues “It is extremely difficult to keep contaminated materials out of commercial compost. “One load of contaminated grass clippings can ruin a batch of compost,” says Eric Philip of Anatek Labs in Moscow, Idaho. Philip has seen so many positive tests for clopyralid residues in compost that he would not use untested compost in his own garden.
“When folks have plants die in their home gardens, their first assumption is that they did something wrong,” Philip says. But with pyralid-laced commercial compost becoming more common, contaminated soil amendments are often to blame.
The effects of contaminated compost and composted manure might be transferred to foliar sprays as well, although I have not read any reports mentioning them specifically.
The source of pyralid pollution can be impossible to trace. For example, a horse stable may use hay brought in from a neighboring state, without knowing that it is laced with pyralid herbicides. If the horse’s manure or stable litter ends up in a garden, disaster is ready to strike. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Liepold stopped making one of Grab n’ Grow’s most popular products, Mango Mulch, for more than a year because he could not find an uncontaminated manure supply. Now he’s getting it from two local organic dairies.”
Mother Earth News first sounded the alarm on “killer compost” in 2008, and has continued to report as new information comes to light. In 2011, Dupont's Imprelis, an herbicide praised for being a “green alternative” because of its long residual, made headlines as it killed trees and shrubs in numerous states from New England across the Midwest into the northern Plains States. Currently, the EPA Stop Sale Order on Imprelis, but not on the other products by Dow AgroScience and Dupont.
Dupont did notice that Imprelis could create killer compost. From Page 7 of the 9 page label on Dupont's Imprelis: “Do not use grass clippings from treated areas for mulching or compost, or allow for collection to composting facilities. Grass clippings must either be left on the treated area or, if allowed by local yard waste regulations, disposed of in the trash. Applicators must give verbal or written notice to property owner/property managers/residents to not use grass clippings from treated turf for mulch or compost.”
It is well known that the “label is the law”. How many people do you imagine read the entire label when purchasing herbicides? Although Imprelis was sold only to licensed applicators, how many of them read the label or warned home or corporate owner/managers when they applied Imprelis of the long term effects regarding compost? In areas where community composting is practiced, it is easy to see how contamination of these resources can occur.
North Carolina University Cooperative Extension issued an excellent bulletin entitled “Herbicide Carryover in Hay, Manure, Compost and Grass clippings warning “farmers and home gardeners of reported damage to vegetable and flower crops after applying horse or livestock manure, compost, hay or grass clippings to the soil,” (http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/fletcher/programs/ncorganic/special-pubs/herbicide_carryover.pdf). Although the above mentioned products were licensed for use in agriculture by licensed applicators, Imprelis was licensed for use on residential lawns by licensed applicators.
Just because many of these products were for agricultural use, doesn't mean home gardeners are safe from the herbicides long term effects. The warning for vegetable growers and home gardeners is to be aware of your source for hay, straw, manure or compost from hay, straw or manure. These herbicides can be active up to four years or more. The person you purchase or receive these products from may not even know this class of herbicides have been sprayed on them, or be aware of the longterm effects.
Here is an example of why it is difficult to find out. A friend of yours offers you horse manure that has been composted. You might ask him/her if herbicides were used, with the farmer replying the manure/compost is "safe" because the animal has not been effected. The horse or cattle were fed hay that was sprayed with one of these herbicides (it's reported not to be harmful to animals). The horse eats the hay, and the resulting horse manure contains active residues of the herbicide, even after it composts. You spread the manure in your vegetable garden and your vegetables are stunted and fail to thrive, or die outright.
You might think this couldn't happen to you, but a case very similar to what I described happened to a family member of mine. After he did some research, he went back to the neighbor where he got the manure and found out the man did indeed spray his hay with one of these chemicals.
Unless you are absolutely sure hay or straw does not have a history with these herbicides, I would not use them in compost or on your garden soil or ornamental beds.
The affected composted manure would be safe to spread on your turfgrass. To be safe, I would not compost the grass clippings or use the grass clippings in beds or borders. It would be safe to cut your turf with a mulching mow, returning the clippings to the soil if you had already used contaminated compost there. I'm unsure of the effects of these chemicals on trees (except for Imprelis). The North Carolina bulletin goes on to describe how to do tests to determine whether the compost or hay/straw contains residues of one of these herbicides.
The latest warning has come from Mother Earth News, published in the February/March 2013 issue. They noted that livestock feeds now contain the contaminated chemicals and are passed through the animal into the manure in this manner. Because of the growing contamination problem, Mother Earth News advises gardeners that “the time has come for the public to stop buying compost or manure products unless they come from suppliers that are able to afford testing and can screen feedstocks for herbicide residues.”
Once again, the buyer needs to be very aware.
Read More: a FAQ sheet from the US Composting Council on contaminated compost: http://compostingcouncil.org/persistent-herbicide-faq/
Three factors are necessary for the appearance of plant disease. Disrupting any of these conditions decreases the likelihood of infection.
- A virulent pathogen,
- A susceptible host and
- An environment conducive to development of the pathogen.
If you have built up your soil for turf as you did for any other high water-use and high feeding plant, you will probably not encounter turf diseases. You will be able to stimulate the beneficial microorganisms that fight disease pathogens and organisms that create turf problems even in lawns whose soil was not sufficiently amended but only topdressed with organic matter. Soil building is not an instant solution to problems accumulated over time, but the turn around begins quickly. If you follow the 10 guidelines mentioned above in caring for your turf, problems will be minimal, perhaps non- existent.
If you suspect a fungus or insect problem, analyze what your maintenance practices are to determine the cause of the problem. Fungus and insect problems are not normal or routine conditions for lawns. Lawns can and should be healthy. Healthy soils contain organisms whose job is to fight and kill predator insects and pathogens. Properly diagnose the problem.
Grubs in the turf is one common problem for turf owners. Noticing a few grubs in the lawn is not a problem, not all grubs are turf-eating grubs. However 5 or more grubs per square foot are indicative of a problem. Follow the steps in integrated problem management to manage the problem. (Call your country extension agent for their handout: White Grubs in Turf, Publication L-1131).
Turf Grass Guidelines
|Compost Needs / yr.
|or Fertilizer / yr.
#N / 1000 sq. ft.*
|Divide total #s &
Apply 3 times / yr.**
|¾ inch fall or spring
|2 to 5 #
|Fall to Spring
|2 to 3 inches
|3 to 4 ¼ inches
|¾ inch fall or spring
|2 to 4 #
|Fall to Spring
|2 to 3 inches
|3 to 4 ¼ inches
|Common Bermuda grass
|¾ inch in spring
|2 to 4 #
|Apr / June / Aug
|½ to 2 inches
|¾ to 3 inches
|Hybrid Bermuda Grass
Cynodon dactylon, & ssp.
|¾ inch in spring
|2 to 5 #
|Apr / June / Aug
|½ to 2 inches
|¾ to 3 inches
|½ inch in spring
|2 to 4 inches
|3 to 5 inches
|½ inch in fall
|2 to 2 ½ inches
|3 to 3 ¾ inches
Zoysia japonica and Z. matrella
|¾ inch in spring
|2 to 3 #
|Apr / June / Aug
|¾ to 1 ½ inches
|1 1/8 to 2 ¼ inches
*Fertilizer for Turf—if you decide to use fertilizer instead of an organic amendment:
Fertilizer application rates are based on 1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft. of turf. Fertilizers are based on 3 main nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). N-nitrogen is always written first on the bag. Use this formula to compute the actual pounds of nitrogen (N) in a bag of fertilizer per 1000 sq. ft to determine your fertizer needs for your turf. For example, in a bag with the analysis of 13-13-13, for 2000 sq. ft. of lawn:
13 ÷ 100 = 0.13; 1 ÷ 0.13 = 7.69; 7.69 X 2 = 15.38 pounds.