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Steps to a Healthy Bay-Friendly Lawn

In spring, feed your soil — not your grass

Warm-season grasses, including Zoysia and Bermuda grass, should be banned from Chesapeake lawns. They cause nothing but problems. Lawns planted with these grasses have to be fed monthly May through August with high-nitrogen fertilizers. They must be sprayed yearly with restricted-use pesticides to control billbugs and other insects. They must be mowed close to the ground, so they often become infested with weeds, which requires the frequent use of herbicides. The clippings must be collected and the lawn dethatched.
    Warm-season grasses are green during the summer months and yellowish-brown in fall and winter. Some homeowners go so far as to spray them with Greenzite in late fall to make them more attractive.
    For the best Chesapeake country lawns, plant bluegrass and fescue.
    Bay soil is better suited for growing cranberries and blueberries than for grass. If you want a lush weed-free lawn next year, late April and early May is when to take action.
    If you haven’t had your soil tested in the past five years, it is likely that you will have to lime your soil. Soil in the Bay area tends to be very acidic. When you apply lawn fertilizers on acid soils, the chances are great that much of the nutrients from the fertilizers will either be washed into the Bay or into the groundwater. If you want your lawn to be dark green and dense, this is the time to apply limestone — not fertilizer.
    Lawn grasses grow best on soils that are only moderately acid. It is not uncommon to find soils in the Bay area having a pH of 4.2 to 4.5. Since a pH of 7 is neutral, this means that such soils are very acid and would be ideal for growing cranberries and blueberries — if we had the proper climatic conditions.
    By applying limestone now, you’ll neutralize your soil, bringing it closer to the ideal pH for growing lawns, between 6.0 and 6.5. In this pH range, all of the nutrients essential for good plant growth are available to the roots of the grasses. In turn, fertilizers you may apply in fall — which is the best time to fertilize bluegrass and fescue lawns — will be effectively utilized by the grasses.
    Soil testing is the only sure way to determine the amount and kind of limestone to apply. If you don’t want to take the time to have your soil tested, then apply between 50 and 80 pounds of dolomitic limestone per 1,000 square feet. Do not use hydrated or high-calcium limestone, since most of our soils are deficient in magnesium, and dolomitic limestone contains magnesium.
    If you live near the Bay, you should not be using weed killers. Matter of fact, weed killers for lawns should be outlawed. Not only are they unnecessary and expensive, they contribute to the pollution of the Bay.
    Working with herbicides almost continuously since 1958, I have respect for them and their responsible use. But the application of weed-and-feed fertilizers is an irresponsible use of both herbicides and fertilizers.
    The time to apply a pre-emergent herbicide to control crabgrass, dandelions and other broadleaf weeds is within two to three weeks following petal drop of forsythia: no later than early May in the Bay area. Applying weed-and-feed fertilizer earlier means that by the time the crabgrass starts to germinate, the pre-emergent herbicide will have become ineffective.
    Applying fertilizer to a bluegrass or fescue lawn late in the spring means that you will be promoting soft, succulent growth that will be susceptible to disease. Then you will have to purchase a fungicide to control the diseases you caused by applying the fertilizer too late in the spring.
    If only a few weeds are growing in your lawn, why apply a weed-and-feed fertilizer over the entire lawn? I have yet to see a decent lawn that needs a weed-and-feed fertilizer treatment.
    If the lawn is nothing but weeds, it is time to start over in August or September. No amount of weed-and-feed fertilizer can reclaim a neglected lawn.

To Test Your Soil
    Send soil samples for testing to Waypoint Analytical (formerly A&L) in Richmond. Full instructions for testing are online: www.soilandplantlaboratory.com/services/soilsampling.aspx.
    If your soil is a sandy loam or loamy sand, have it tested for all trace elements, especially boron (B). However, if your soil is a loam, silt or clay loam, the general soil test will suffice.
    If you have been growing multiple crops each year, you most likely will need to apply limestone. If you want me to make recommendations, don’t specify a crop (a savings of $3 to $5) and include my email so I’ll get your results: dr.frgouin@gmail.com.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.