Six easy steps to a healthy lawn

Almost every establishment in the country has at least a patch of lawn that needs to be lovingly tended to ensure that it doesn’t disappoint.

1. Healthy soil

Good soil is the foundation of a healthy lawn. To grow well, your lawn needs soil with good texture, some key nutrients, and the right pH, or acidity/alkalinity balance.

Start by checking the texture of your soil to see whether it’s heavy with clay, light and sandy, or somewhere in between. Lawns grow best in “loamy” soils that have a mix of clay, silt, and sand. Whatever soil type you have, you can probably improve it by periodically adding organic matter like compost, manure, or grass clippings. Organic matter helps to lighten a predominantly clay soil and it helps sandy soil retain water and nutrients.

Also check to see if your soil is packed down from lots of use or heavy clay content. This makes it harder for air and water to penetrate, and for grass roots to grow. To loosen compacted soil, some lawns may need to be aerated several times a year. This process involves pulling out plugs of soil to create air spaces, so water and nutrients can again penetrate to the grass roots.

Most lawns need to be fertilized every year, because they need more nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium than soils usually contain. These three elements are the primary ingredients found in most lawn fertilizers. It’s important not to over-fertilize – you could do more harm to your lawn than good – and it’s best to use a slow-release fertilizer that feeds the lawn slowly. It’s also important to check the soil’s pH. Grass is more able to absorb nutrients in a slightly acidic soil, with a pH of 6.5 to 7.0. Acidic soil can be “sweetened” with lime; soil that’s not acid enough can be adjusted by adding sulphur.

Have your soil tested periodically to see whether it needs more organic matter or the pH needs adjusting. Your local nursery should be able to tell you how to do this. These experts can also help you choose the right fertilizer, compost and other “soil amendments”, and they can advise you about aerating if your soil is compacted. If a professional service takes care of your lawn, make sure it takes these same steps to develop good soil. There’s no getting around it: your lawn’s health is only as good as the soil it grows in.

2. Choose the correct type of grass for your climate

The right type of grass – one that suits your needs and likes the local weather. Grasses vary in the type of climate they prefer, the amount of water and nutrients they need, their resistance to pests, their tolerance for shade, and the degree of wear they can withstand. If you are planting a new lawn, do some research to identify the best grass type for your needs. If your lawn is established but fails to thrive despite proper care, you might consider a different type of grass.

3. Mow high, often and with sharp blades

Mowing high – that is keeping your lawn slightly longer – will produce stronger, healthier grass with fewer pest problems. Longer grass has more leaf surface to take in sunlight. This enables it to grow thicker and develop a deeper root system, which in turn helps the grass survive drought, tolerate insect damage, and fend off diseases. Longer grass also shades the soil surface keeping it cooler, helping it retain moisture, and making it difficult for weeds to germinate and grow. A lawn’s ideal length will vary with the type of grass, but many turf grass species are healthiest when kept between 21/2 and 31/2 inches. You may have to readjust your mower – most are set too low.

It’s also important to mow with sharp blades to prevent tearing and injuring the grass. And it’s best to mow often, because grass adjusts better to frequent rather than infrequent mowing. Just adding an inch will give most lawns a real boost.

4. Water deeply but not too often

Watering properly will help your lawn grow deep roots that make it stronger and less vulnerable to drought. Most lawns are watered too often but with too little water. It’s best to water only when the lawn really needs it, and then to water slowly and deeply. This trains the grass roots down. Frequent shallow watering trains the roots to stay near the surface, making the lawn less able to find moisture during dry periods. Every lawn’s watering needs are unique: they depend on local rainfall, the grass and soil type, and the general health of the lawn. But even in very dry areas, no established home lawn requires watering daily.

Try to water your lawn in a way that imitates a slow, soaking rain, by using trickle irrigation, soaker hoses, or other water conserving methods. It’s also best to water in the early morning, especially during hot summer months, to reduce evaporation.

Apply about an inch of water – enough that it soaks 6-8 inches into the soil. Then let the lawn dry out thoroughly before watering it again. The best rule is to water only when the lawn begins to wilt from dryness – when the colour dulls and footprints stay compressed for more than a few seconds.

5. Correct thatch build-up

All grass forms a layer of dead plant material, known as thatch, between the grass blades and the soil. When thatch gets too thick – deeper than one-half inch – it prevents water and nutrients from penetrating to the soil and grass roots. Some grasses tend to form a thick layer of thatch. Overuse of fertilizer can also create a heavy layer of thatch. You can reduce thatch by raking the lawn or using a machine that slices through the thatch layer to break it up. Sprinkling a thin layer of topsoil or compost over the lawn will also help.

In a healthy lawn, micro-organisms and earthworms help keep the thatch layer in balance by decomposing it and releasing the nutrients into the soil.

6. Set realistic goals

Setting realistic goals will allow you to conduct an environmentally sensible lawn care programme. It’s probably not necessary to aim for putting-green perfection. Did you know that a lawn with 15 percent weeds could look practically weed-free to the average observer? Even a healthy lawn is likely to have some weeds or insect pests. It will also have beneficial insects and other organisms that help keep pests under control.

Also realize that grass just can’t grow well in certain spots. Why fight a losing battle with your lawn, when you have other options? At the base of a tree, for example, you might have better luck with wood chips or shade-loving ornamental plants like ivy, periwinkle or pachysandra.

If your climate is very dry, consider converting some of your lawn to dry-garden landscaping. It could save time, money, and water resources.