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Maintaining your turf

Proper soil preparation is a key ingredient in growing lovely lawn

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September is here. With it come shorter days, cooler weather and, possibly, rain. This makes it an ideal time to start a new lawn or renovate an old one.

So here are the "who, what, when, where, why and how" of starting your lawn from seed. I'll cover sodding and hydroseeding in a future column.

The "who" is you. The cost of putting in a lawn depends on your own sweat equity. Decide how much work you want to do yourself and what you want to hire others to do. The spectrum ranges from growing your own in place (seeding), to having professionals install the sod on the entire project.

The "what" is largely a matter of personal choice. Most homeowners select a blend of Kentucky bluegrass. Buy premium quality seed that contains at least three named varieties of grass. Seed mixtures usually contain some perennial ryegrass because it germinates quickly and covers the soil. Improved, turf-type tall fescues can also create an acceptable lawn. (I'll cover alternative types of grass in a future article.) Selection of the right varieties of seed is extremely important. Cheap grass seed is not a bargain. It may contain annual grasses that will not grow back year after year. Annual ryegrass, common perennial rye grass and common tall fescue are all weeds and should not be planted as a home lawn in Utah.

September is the best time of year to plant a lawn. The next question is "when" in September? As soon as the temperatures cool down a few degrees from the hot summer conditions we've been having. Cooler temperatures make it easier to work outside and require less water to get the turf established.

The "where" is usually self-explanatory. Empty lot? Fill with grass. That traditional role can change depending on your landscape needs. As families change and landscapes mature, much of the turfgrass can be converted to other plants and save you time and water.

Consider the amount of shade where you plan to install or plant the grass. Trees grow; houses, sheds and fences get built, and areas that were once in bright sun are now in shade. Change the type of grass you are growing accordingly.

"How" means selecting from three choices. In Utah, lawns are established by seed, by hydroseeding or with sod. Which is the best? Each has advantages and disadvantages depending on your situation.

Good lawns are established by following the basic rules of soil preparation. Prepare the soil the same way, whether you plan to seed, hydroseed or use sod. Poor soil conditions are the primary cause of lawn failures. The only time significant changes in soil can be made is before the lawn is established. Once the lawn is in, soil improvement can only be made very gradually with great cost and difficulty.

Poor quality, exposed subsoils are often used for planting lawns. Unless these soils are improved by adding organic matter, they will not grow satisfactory turf. Five to six inches of quality soil are needed for good turfgrass establishment. In most cases you are better off improving the soil you have on site rather than bringing in additional soil.

Seeding the lawn yourself is the least expensive, but takes the longest time. It is also the least forgiving, meaning that you need to water the seed carefully.

Hydroseeding lets someone else spread the seed and, more importantly, spread the mulch. Hydroseeding distributes the seed evenly and adds an organic mulch of ground straw or cellulose over the soil. This

sticks the grass seed in place so that it does not wash or blow away. The mulch also holds the water to prevent the seed from drying out.

Sod your lawn any time. Sod is instant lawn. Put it down in the morning and walk on it in the afternoon. Sodding is a low-risk way to establish a lawn. It eliminates the wait and uncertainty of seed germination and immediately takes care of the dust and brown soil.

Follow these rules to prepare the soil for a successful lawn. If you skip any of the steps, the problems will come back to prevent good growth on your turf.

1. Control perennial weeds such as quackgrass, tall fescue and bentgrass before tilling soil. Spray when weeds are actively growing using glyphosate (Roundup or Killzall). Wait 5-10 days after spraying before tilling. Do not use broadleaf weed killers before or during seeding as they damage young seedlings.

2. Remove debris including large rocks, wood and trash.

3. Add organic matter or topsoil to improve existing soil and roughgrade the area.

4. Apply a complete fertilizer high in phosphorus and rototill or disc to mix soil and amendments together. Do not layer topsoil on top of existing soil.

5. Install sprinkler system and fill and settle trenches.

6. Remove remaining rocks, water freely to settle the soil, and regrade. Roll only if footprints sink deeper than 1/2 inch.

7. Choose a suitable grass blend or mixture for your site. Mixtures with ryegrass should not exceed 20% rye.

8. Apply seed with a drop spreader; applying one half of the seed in an east-west direction and the other one half in a north-south direction.

9. Rake in seed, covering it with no more than 1/4-inch of soil. Firm the seedbed before planting.

10. Never let seed dry out after it is planted, but don't overwater and wash it away. Ryegrass germinates in three to four days, bluegrass germinates in 10-28 days.

11. Gradually reduce the water as the grass develops a good root system. Adjust watering so moisture penetrates to eight to 10 inches into the soil to encourage deep rooting. Water when grass shows signs of stress.

If you missed the "why," it is probably the most important. If you do not spend the time to do it right, the grass will not grow well. If the problems are severe, they must be fixed and it is always more expensive to do it over than it is to do it right the first time.