At the Root

Story Felder Rushing

Like it or not, you are about to make a decision about this coming summer’s lawn: Do what you want to do, or do what is right for your lawn. Your call.

This isn’t your typical “how to care for your lawn” opinion piece; it is based on decades of training, observations, diagnostic visits and what is taught in turf management classes from Texas to the Carolinas (including at Mississippi State).

Whether you or someone in your family takes care of your lawn for personal satisfaction or duty, or whether you outsource it to a professional lawn care company, how it is done will make a lot of difference about how it looks — or even survives.

See, a lawn is actually countless hundreds of thousands of individual plants entwined with one another. Each is a living, breathing creature with special needs. When these needs are met, the entire lawn will thrive; ignore one or more of the needs, and the lawn will suffer and perform accordingly with poor roots, overall weakness and susceptibility to diseases, and thinned-out areas providing more opportunities for weeds.

And get this: a typical grass plant only lives a few weeks before dying. But if you manage it well, it will reproduce through runners into several new plants. That’s the goal of having a nice lawn — helping it constantly reproduce itself with healthy offspring.

Different way of looking at your lawn, ain’t it? It’s sorta like taking care of a pet, with similar consequences if you ignore its needs or abuse it.

Here’s the short version of what your lawn expects of you or your gardener, from its own point of view, in order of general importance:

• It wants to be cut at the right height for its species all summer and fall: high for St. Augustine, medium for centipede or zoysia, and moderately low for Bermuda grass. Ignore this, and your lawn will suffer.
• It wants to be watered every now and then — at least once a month if there is no rain, but not more than once a week. Every couple or three weeks would be fine. (Note: If you have an irrigation system, set its timer to come on no more than once a week. Or maybe two or three times, an hour or so apart, but still no more than once a week.)
• It wants to be fertilized lightly with a good quality lawn food no earlier than April and no later than the end of August (even with so-called “winterizers”). If at all possible, choose one with a moderately high first number, low second number, and medium third number.

Do these three things and your lawn will all but take care of itself. It will have a better root system, tolerate more heat stress in the summer and cold in the winter, resist diseases, recover more quickly from occasional insect attack and grow more uniformly without having to be mowed as often.

And it will compete better with weeds, or even choke them out. And should you ever need to use a weed killer, your lawn will fare better and recover more quickly from the chemical assault.

It is up to you to decide how the lawn is treated. Do it right, and the many individual grass plants will reward you with solid performance and fewer problems, and reproduce regularly to keep the overall lawn looking and performing well. Ignore one or more of these needs, and the lawn, your garden, and your pocketbook will suffer accordingly.

So treat your lawn like a living pet, and it will be a faithful, lower-maintenance garden companion.