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It Isn't Easy Keeping the Lawn Green

Landscaping The first step is choosing the right grass variety for the yard's climate, shade and anticipated uses.

November 21, 1998|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Though it's been called a water hog and some horticulturists consider it predictable and boring, few things feel better on bare feet than soft, springy turf grass.

There's no better place to have a picnic or sit and watch the clouds go by than on a nice patch of grass.

"Lawns are the only plant in the landscape that you can go out and be a part of," says Martin Gramckow, vice president of Southland Sod Farms in Oxnard. "No other surface renews itself just so you can walk and play on it."

Of course, a healthy, happy grass makes the cushiest play area. Having a good lawn requires some care, including choosing the right type of grass and maintaining the lawn with proper watering and feeding.

Your first step will be to choose between a warm-season or cool-season grass, says Bruce Johann, assistant manager of Armstrong Garden Center in Irvine.

In general, warm-season grasses, such as the hybrid Bermudas, St. Augustine and zoysia, do the bulk of their growing in the spring, summer and early fall. When the days grow shorter, these grasses tend to stop growing.

Depending on your location and how cold the winter is, they will often turn brown until the following spring, when they start growing again. If you live along the coast where winter tends to be milder, they may hold some color throughout the cold months.

Cool-season grasses, such as tall fescue, which is the most popular grass in Southern California, do the bulk of their growing in the cooler months of late fall, early winter and early spring. While these grasses technically go dormant in the summer months, they tend to stay green throughout the year.

The big difference between cool and warm season grasses besides when dormancy occurs is that cool-season grasses are individual plants that don't spread, whereas warm-season grasses tend to creep and spread, says Johann.

"If there is damage to your tall fescue, because the plants are individual, you will end up with a bare spot that will have to be filled in and replaced with new sod," he says. "Warm-season grasses like zoysia and Bermuda will eventually creep over and fill the hole in again."

Choosing the right grass also means taking into consideration your lifestyle, says Harold Mitchell of the J. Harold Mitchell Co., a San Gabriel company that consults on a wide variety of turf problems.

Do you have children? Do you have pets, especially dogs? Or will the grass be mostly for aesthetics?

Some grasses are more durable than others. Zoysia, for example, holds up to more wear and tear than tall fescue.

Also consider how much you can afford for maintenance. The hybrid Bermudas may be beautiful lawns, but they must be cut by a reel mower, which is substantially more expensive than a standard mower.

Planting

All turf grass can be planted from sod; some can also be planted by stolons, which are small plant plugs that take time to establish. Seed is also sometimes a possibility.

Only warm-season grasses, such as zoysia, can be planted by stolons. Tall fescue can be planted by seed or sod.

In general, fall and spring are the best times to plant grass, says Gramckow. Winter is also a good time, as long as you plant in between rains when the soil isn't too wet.

Whether you plant sod, stolons or seeds, the preparation is the same.

Start by preparing the soil. "You can't expect any lawn or plant to do better than the soil preparation," says Mitchell. "Unfortunately, many people will just dig out the old grass and lay down sod. Although it looks beautiful for a while, it eventually starts to decline."

Part of preparing the soil includes clearing the ground of weeds, says Gramckow, who suggests watering the area where the new lawn will be so that the weeds grow vigorously and then spraying the area with Round-Up, which will kill the weeds down to the roots.

Next, amend the area with two inches of bagged compost or other amendment that is high in wood products. The compost should be rototilled in six to eight inches deep.

At planting, you can also add an all-purpose lawn food such as a 16-16-16, according to package directions.

Other amendments to ensure even more success include mycorrhizal fungi and soil polymers.

The fungi are microscopic creatures that live on the roots of grass, foraging and collecting water and nutrients, which makes the grass more drought-resistant and stronger, says Mitchell, whose company sells a mycorrhizae for turf.

Drought resistance can also be created by adding a soil polymer, which is a gel-like substance that can absorb at least 150 to 200 times its weight in water, says Robert Burdick, president of Broadleaf P4 in Costa Mesa, which produces P4, a polymer product carried at a variety of nurseries and garden centers.

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