5 Steps to Grow & Build a Perfect Lawn -- With Free Time to Spare
Each spring, millions of homeowners spend too much of their cherished weekends trying to maintain a lush, green lawn. A seemingly modest goal, except the elements that are essential for growing grass -- primarily sun and rain -- also breed lawn-choking weeds and voracious bugs. At times it's enough to make you consider AstroTurf, but don't despair: PM's DIY Guy is on the case with his new weekly Top 5.
1. STAY SHARP
Regardless of whether you own a walk-behind lawnmower or a riding lawn tractor, it's important to maintain sharp blades. Dull mower blades rip the grass, leaving jagged ends that easily turn brown. Sharpen your mower's blades every spring, and they should cut cleanly throughout the summer. If you occasionally hit rocks, scalp the ground or mow through a patch of Legos, be sure to sharpen the blades more often.
Sharpening a mower blade is not difficult. Start with a mower that has an empty or nearly empty gas tank and make sure the gas cap is firmly tightened. Then do the following:
* Disconnect the spark plug wire and tip the mower on its side.
* Use a wrench and remove the blade.
* Wearing work gloves, use a mill file (about $9 at any hardware store) to smooth out damage and sharpen the edge. Maintain the bevel at 40 to 45 degrees.
* Test the blade for balance by placing it on a cone-shaped blade balancer (about $5 at hardware stores) or drive a nail into your work bench and hang the blade from the hole in its center. On the balancer or the nail, the blade should hang evenly. If it tips to one side, remove metal from the opposite side.
* Replace the blade. Refuel the mower, and test it on a firm level surface to check for vibration before cutting grass.
2. TAKE A LITTLE OFF THE TOP
Adjust the height of the mower's deck to the top or second-to-top position. Time your mowing so that you remove about one-third of the grass leaves each time you mow. In the early spring that may mean mowing every four or five days. In the summer, once a week should do it. In late summer, you may not need to mow at all if the grass goes dormant and stops growing.
Trimming grass too short lops off much of the energy-producing top growth, resulting in a weak, sickly lawn. Frequent mowing to the correct height also produces tiny grass clippings that can be left on the lawn to decompose and return nutrients back to the soil.
3. TEST THE SOIL AND APPLY FERTILIZER
Check the acidity or alkalinity of your lawn's soil by performing a soil test. (Do-it-yourself soil kits are sold at garden shops and hardware stores for about $15.)
If the soil is slightly acidic, raise the pH level by using a drop spreader to add pulverized lime to the lawn. To lower the pH of moderately alkaline soils, add organic material, such as peat moss. For soil with extremely high pH, amend it with sulphur or iron sulfate.
Next, time your fertilizer schedule to favor the grass, not the weeds that grow in it. Your goal is to contribute to root growth, not merely to feed the lawn so the grass is tall and green. The timing of fertilizing application depends on your region. You can check with a local nursery or an agricultural extension office for details. In much of the country, though, the best times to fertilize are in early spring and mid to late fall.
Finally, consider organic lawn care products. Products such as corn gluten meal suppress weeds as it fertilizes. Because natural products lack the chemical potency of synthetic blends, they are less likely to do damage if they are incorrectly applied. They are more expensive than synthetic products, however.
In reality, both natural and synthetic products are concentrated chemicals in terms of their environmental impact, and both can contribute to water pollution. Don't overapply either and carefully sweep up fertilizer that falls on a paved surface. This prevents the material from being easily washed into bodies of water.
4. WATER REGULARLY
Turf grasses need 1 in. of water a week. If this is not supplied by rain, then you need to supply it. In most cases, it's best applied in two watering sessions. Otherwise, the water has a tendency to simply run off--especially in late summer when the ground can be baked as hard as a rock.
Although you can measure the output of sprinklers with a fancy measured irrigation gauge, you can also use a couple of leftover plastic food containers. Simply estimate the amount of water in the containers or use a ruler.
Regardless of whether you use municipal or well water, be sensible about your irrigation and conserve water. Irrigate only the portions of the lawn that are highly stressed or that most contribute to the house's landscape. Don't sweat it when a lawn turns brown and brittle during a dry spell or even an outright drought. Healthy lawns go dormant from a lack of water. They bounce back when rainfall returns.
5. BE RAKISH
No one with a lawn larger than a parking space enjoys raking, but it's important to remove leaves in the fall and seed pods, pine cones, twigs and spent flowers all year long.
Debris, whether a thick layer of leaves or a thin layer of seed pods, blocks sunlight. This material can also dull the blade of a mower that works through it. And then you're back to where we began.
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