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"In pursuit of the Perfect Lawn," by the Whistling Gardener

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A lovely display of colors and textures. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside  Nursery.
A lovely display of colors and textures. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Let’s face it; for the most part the lawn is the man’s domain. It is literally his “turf” and when left alone he can spend endless hours mowing, edging, aerating, de-thatching, feeding, reseeding, watering and weeding, not to mention the time it takes to keep his trusty John Deere steed in good running condition.

If this man is also a golfer, then his passion for his lawn is even more intense. Some would say it is obsessive, but I would submit that the lawn is probably the safest place in the garden for the man to be (and all the wives say Amen)!

We have the British to thank for the evolution of the modern day lawn (the Scots also had a hand in it). Originally reserved for the aristocracy, lawns slowly trickled down to the working class and in the US, after WWII, they became synonymous with suburbia.

With the advent of the modern day mower, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, homeowners now spend countless hours and dollars maintaining their pride and joy. Depending on how the turf is maintained, this can either be an ecological disaster or a valuable bio-filter and climate moderator. Here are some thoughts to consider:

A healthy lawn starts with good soil preparation. This seems obvious, but the reality is that contractors leave homeowners with an abysmal mess when it comes to soil. One to three inches of topsoil on top of a compacted base causes lawns to have shallow root systems, which in turn increases the need to irrigate. It also encourages diseases, not to mention that the lawn will usually be saturated and squishy all winter.

If there was only one thing a homeowner could afford to do in the garden it would be to rip out the lawn and build up the soil so there is six to twelve inches of good friable soil. While this may seem expensive at first, in the long run, the upkeep will prove to be much easier and less costly. (I keep hoping that someday the light bulb will go off with our city and county planning departments and they will start requiring contractors to provide 12 to 24 inches of good soil to grow stuff in. If they did this, they would completely eliminate the need for rain gardens and retention ponds. But alas, I am just a lowly garden center owner, what the heck do I know?)

The second thing I would recommend would be to kick the synthetic fertilizer habit and adopt an organic lawn food. Again, this may cause sticker shock at first but as the organic fertilizers build up a residual of nitrogen in the soil, less and less will be needed.

A synthetic fertilizer typically needs to be applied four to six times a year. With organics, once you are on a program, twice a year is usually adequate. And as a bonus, the organic fertilizers also encourage healthy soil microorganisms, which in turn result in deeper root systems. What is even more ironic is that using an organic fertilizer is so simple, in that there is just one formulation that you can use year ‘round. There is no need to worry about “fall formulas” or “weed and feed” or “starter blends.” One size seems to do the trick all season long. (I am a big fan of the KISS approach (Keep It Simple Stupid).)

Thirdly, I would avoid all weed and feed products like the plague. It’s fine in my book to spot spray an occasional weed, but to apply an herbicide over the entire lawn is shear lunacy (and it is costly). While the best broadleaf weed killers are synthetic, there are some new iron-based formulas that are natural and fairly effective. They are certainly worth trying.

Finally, I would mow my lawn around two to three inches tall year ‘round and only water in the summer when the soil is dry two inches down (I water my lawn once a week believe it or not and it does just fine). As with the rest of the garden, deep and infrequent waterings are the best.

For much more detail on how to control bugs, weeds, moles, diseases and all the factors that stand in the way of a perfect lawn, come to our LAWN CARE CLASS on September 16, 2017, at 10:00 am here at the nursery. Instructor Trevor Cameron is a Certified Professional Horticulturist AND A GOLFER, so you know he has a passion for the perfect lawn.

There is no need to vilify lawns. When they are properly cared for they are an environmental asset, which act as a bio-filter and a moderator of the climate around our homes. Maintain them responsibly; keep reasonable expectations about their purity and everyone will win.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA and can be reached at info@sunnysidenursery.net.


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