The Complete Idiots Guide to a Beautiful Lawn


You're no idiot, of course. You know that grass needs sun and water and care. So why does your house appear to be sitting in the middle of the Dust Bowl? Don't call the Astroturf salesman yet; help is on the way! The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Beautiful Lawn is your one-stop reference for creating the lawn of your dreams! Here you'll learn about the parts of the grass plant, the best ways to start a new lawn, proper soil care—and even the art of baseball stadium—quality lawn mowing. Author Maureen Gilmer walks ...

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You're no idiot, of course. You know that grass needs sun and water and care. So why does your house appear to be sitting in the middle of the Dust Bowl? Don't call the Astroturf salesman yet; help is on the way! The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Beautiful Lawn is your one-stop reference for creating the lawn of your dreams! Here you'll learn about the parts of the grass plant, the best ways to start a new lawn, proper soil care—and even the art of baseball stadium—quality lawn mowing. Author Maureen Gilmer walks you through every aspect of turf care, from proper watering to integrating a sports court onto your lawn. No stone is left unturned in this comprehensive, fun, and infinitely useful guide. Here's what you get:

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780028630083
  • Publisher: Alpha Books
  • Publication date: 3/10/2003
  • Series: Complete Idiot's Guide Series
  • Pages: 378
  • Product dimensions: 7.42 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Table of Contents

The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Beautiful Lawn

Part 1 - A Thorough Grounding in Grass Family Culture

  • Chapter 1 - Grass Goes Global
    • The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth
    • What Is Grass?
    • Equal Rights for Grasses
    • Lawn as Urban Oasis
    • When Is a Grass Not a Grass . . . When It's a Sedge
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 2 - Beginner's Botany
    • Don't Be Afraid of the Latin
    • Nerd Words You Need to Know
    • Know What You're Looking At
    • Sex and Sensimilia
    • When Grass Sleeps
    • Alternative Lawns
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 3 - Zoning Out on Turf Grass
    • Unchangeable Climate
    • Micro-Management--Turf-Grass Style
    • Turf Grass Zones
    • Conditions You Can Change
    • You Can't Always Get What You Want . . . But You Get What You Need
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 4 - Rating Top Turf Types
    • Would You Like Your Turf Grass Mixed or Blended?
    • Grasses for Cool-Season Regions
    • Grasses for Warm-Season Regions
    • Going Native . . . Naturally
    • The Least You Need to Know

Part 2 - Civilized Grasses for Your Yard

  • Chapter 5 - Turf Grass and the Landscape
    • In the Eye of the Beholder
    • The Home Wrecker
    • The Lawnowner Lifestyle
    • How Big Is Big?
    • The Ups and Downs of Grading and Mounds
    • Irrigation Is Not Just for Farmers
    • Do You Have What It Takes to Go Organic?
    • Lawn Substitutes . . . No Can Do!
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 6 - No-Brainer Lawn Design
    • Step 1: Sketch Your Yard
    • Step 2: Measure the Dimensions for Your Sketch
    • Step 3: Gather Art Supplies
    • Step 4: Transfer from the Sketch to a Plan
    • Step 5: Lay Out the Lawn
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 7 - Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Buy Your Grasses
    • Way to Go . . . and Why
    • How and How Much to Plant
    • Consumer Consciousness
    • Edge Options
    • The Least You Need to Know

Part 3 - The Nuts and Bolts of Grass Roots Gardening

  • Chapter 8 - Dealing with Dirt
    • It's What You Don't See That's Important
    • Subdivision and Homesite Grading
    • Follow the Water
    • How to Improve Soil for Lawns
    • Popular Amendments
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 9 - Lawn Tools and Equipment
    • Divisions of Labor
    • The Almighty Mower
    • The Art of Lawn Mower Maintenance
    • Power Junkies
    • String Trimmer
    • Specialty Lawn Tools
    • Tool Time for Lawnowners
    • Why Buy When You Can Rent
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 10 - The Art of the Mow
    • About Growth and Mowing
    • Clean-Cut Lawns
    • Safe Mowing
    • Pruning the Grass
    • Thinking Green
    • Seasonal Schedule for Mowing
    • Winter Mower Care
    • The Least You Need to Know

Part 4 - Creating a Green Carpet

  • Chapter 11 - Seeding a Turf Grass Lawn
    • A Black Thumb's Seed Primer
    • Unwanted Weeds
    • Going to Seed
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 12 - Sodbusting a Turf Grass Lawn
    • Getting Ready to Sod
    • Sod Pallets
    • Getting Laid
    • Aftercare for Sod Lawns
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 13 - Planting a Lawn from Sprigs, Plugs, and Stolons
    • Which Grasses Grow from Which
    • Vulnerable P urchases
    • Making Their Bed
    • Planting Like a Square
    • Cover-ups
    • Wicked Weeds
    • The Virgin Mow
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 14 - Planting an Alternative Lawn
    • Turf Grass Counter Culture
    • The Green, Green Grass of Home
    • Meadow in a Can
    • How Much to Buy and When the Time Is Right
    • Conditions to Consider
    • Planting a Natural Lawn or Pasture from Seed
    • What to Expect
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 15 - Groundcovers Where Lawns Just Won't Do
    • Groundcovers Now and Then
    • Dividing Up the Spoils
    • Top 20 American Groundcovers and Their Characteristics
    • Weed Barrier Fabrics and Mulches
    • Groundcover Sheet Cakes
    • Five Easy Steps to Groundcover Glory
    • The Least You Need to Know

Part 5 - Please Feed the Grass

  • Chapter 16 - The Basic Food Groups
    • The Macro and Micro of Nutrients
    • You Are What You Eat
    • Calories Out, Calories In
    • Spreading the Fertilizer
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 17 - Water Right, Water Deep
    • A Tale of Plants and Water
    • Watering Gizmos and Systems
    • How and When to Water Lawns
    • Fine-Tuning an In-Ground Sys tem
    • Care and Repair
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 18 - What's Eating Your Lawn
    • Assault and Battery--The Major Offenders
    • The Basics of Lawn Patching
    • Burn, Baby, Burn
    • Traffic Wear Solutions
    • The Dead Zone
    • Old Man Winter's Fingerprints
    • Repair a Scalp
    • Play Equipment Carnage
    • Worst-Case Scenario: Water Rationing During Drought
    • Shade, Shade Go Away
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 19 - Pets and Wildlife and Your Lawn
    • Man's Best Friend
    • Female Dog Spot Disease
    • Land Mines
    • Canine Neuroses
    • Digging
    • Chewing
    • 12-Volt Discouragement
    • Lawn and Landscapes for Dogs
    • Front Yard Confrontations
    • Wildlife and Lawns
    • Belling the Cat
    • Rodenta Non Grata
    • Gopher Broke
    • Pollution Solution
    • Moles' Holes
    • Pepe Le Pew
    • The Least You Need to Know

Part 6 - Old Lawn Makeovers

  • Chapter 20 - New Life for Old Lawns
    • Topdressing: Why We Lay It on Thick
    • Turf Grass Health Spa Activities
    • How to Topdress Your Lawn
    • Overseeding a Dormant Lawn
    • Quick-Fix Instant Rye Lawn
    • Trees in Lawns
    • The Least You Need to Know
  • Chapter 21 - Soil Compaction--Public Enemy #1
    • Let's Talk Dirt
    • Heavy and Not-So-Heavy Equipment
    • Step-by-Step Aeration and Renovation
    • Water
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 22 - Thatch: Not the Kind for Huts
    • A Batch of Thatch
    • Friday the 13th for Thatch
    • Resurrecting Your Lawn Step by Step
    • The Least You Need to Know

Part 7 - In Search of Small Game and Green Invaders

  • Chapter 23 - Weeds--Botanical UFOs
    • Name Calling
    • A Grand Strategy
    • Weed Botany
    • Mug Shots of Lawn Criminals--Eight Notorious Grassy Weeds
    • Bothersome Broadleafs
    • Some Shady Characters
    • The Prevention and Eradication Program
    • Herbicides--Getting Out the Big Guns
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 24 - A Fungus Among Us
    • Understanding Fungi
    • Is Your Lawn a Breeding Ground?
    • Disease Happens
    • A Pathological Diagnosis
    • The Least You Need to Know

  • Chapter 25 - Insects--Know Thine Enemy
    • It's All in the Numbers
    • Least Toxic
    • Top Lawn Pests
    • Pest Control Products
    • Forms and Applications
    • The 10 Commandments of Pesticides
    • The Least You Need to Know

Appendix: Trees, Products, Seed, and Organic Product Guide


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First Chapter

[Figures are not included in this sample chapter]

The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Beautiful Lawn

- 3 -

Zoning Out on Turf Grass

In This Chapter

  • The nuances of climate characteristics
  • The relationship of turf grass to climate
  • Turf grass zones of the United States
  • What you can change and what you can't
  • The qualities of a good turf grass

Grasses are living things that require special conditions to grow. Even more importantis that grass has to grow well if it's to look decent in your yard. This all boilsdown to the fact that climate and environment are the most important things in alawn's world, and if you don't get it right . . . you're finished before you getstarted.

Unchangeable Climate

You can change many things in the landscape such as soil, drainage, or shade,but you can't do a thing about the weather. The key to being a successful gardener,no matter what you grow, is to deeply understand the weather and climate patterns,and how they relate to plants.

There are really two types of climate to consider. One is regional climate, whichis very general and defines average rainfall, frost dates, and temperatures averag edover many decades of recorded data. But as you probably know, the average doesn'talways reflect anomalies--years when the rains fall heavier, the temperatures dipor soar, or snow falls at twice or three times the normal depth.

USDA Climate Zone Map

Remember this vagueness of climate because lines on a zone map do not always represent a true picture of the weather. There is always a danger of going strictly by a map because of the high degree of variability in climate--especially these days.

Turf Tip

Farmers and experienced gardeners are always watching the nuances of weather. In farm towns, the old timers always begin their conversations with a few words about weather, because this is such an essential aspect of plant life. Good gardeners also become keen observers of weather because, when you notice how certain conditions influence plants, you know to expect the same thing to occur when the same weather conditions occur in the future.

When we look at the macro view of climate and how it influences turf grass lawns,there are four major factors to consider. These will individually or collectivelyimpact the survival, performance, and variety of grass you choose to grow. Peoplewho have lived in the city or apartments all their lives rarely pay attention tothese factors except for how they influence travel or outdoor activities. For homegardeners, climate becomes the major governing factor that tells you what you cando, when to do it, and how to do it.


Precipitation is the weatherman's term for water that falls from the heavensin all its forms. In warmer climates, it's rain; in colder climates, it's snow; andunder worse conditions, it's hail.

When we consider precipitation, the key words are when and how much.Each region of the country experiences a different pattern of rainfall. When it rainsfrequently in summer, the need to irrigate a lawn is reduced considerably. Wherethere is a long summer drought, irrigation is absolutely essential to growing a lawn.

Snow is an equally important aspect of precipitation because grasses often arecovered months at a time. This allows moisture to accumulate and restricts air movement,creating an environment for diseases such as snow mold. Small rodents can also beactive beneath the snow, damaging grass by creating nests and tunnels.


In humid climates, particularly those of the southern states, there exist a numberof issues critical to turf grasses. These areas support much larger insect populationsfor much of the year, and in coastal areas such as Florida, there are new pests beingintroduced via shipping every year.

Humidity is related to rainfall. Where rainfall is heavy year round, perpetuallymoist climates create ideal conditions for a number of ugly turf grass diseases,which have a significant influence on what grass you grow. Soils are also impactedby rainfall-induced humidity, because the water filters down through the earth, carryingoff specific nutrients that leave soils relatively infertile. Humidity also resultsin a change in soil pH, which must be treated in extreme cases. Only naturally aggressiveturf grasses are grown in these humid areas because more well-behaved types can'twithstand the weathe r.


We live in a country of enormous geographic size, which includes states wherewinters rarely, if ever, freeze, and other states that experience extremes of 25degrees below zero for weeks at a time. It's no wonder that so many types of turfgrasses are sold in America.

Where winters are exceptionally cold, one of the most vexing problems is frozensoil. The moisture inside the soil mass actually freezes as hard as a rock, and thisfrost line may extend a foot or more beneath the surface. Where grasses are hardyenough to survive in frozen soil, another factor is the source of damage.

You probably know from grammar school that water expands when it freezes. Whensoils freeze, the moisture expands and causes the surface to rise up. Sometimes youcan see this in low spots where soils crack as they expand. In spring, the expandedsoils contract during the day as sun melts the frozen soil. Then with night-fall,the temperature drops, and the soil freezes and expands again.

When this happens repeatedly, plant roots in these soils are literally torn apartby the heaving soils. When lawn soils heave, you can do certain things to reducethe damage potential. Gardeners often apply winter mulches, such as straw or leaves,to plants after they freeze in fall, not to protect the roots from freezing, butto reduce the amount of heaving that goes on in the spring.

Extremely high temperatures, like those experienced in the southwestern states,can exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Bluegrass and other species that evolved in moremoist climates have a hard time with dry heat. Also, grasses that lack the abilityto root deeply will not be able to draw up moisture fast enough to meet the need.

Turf Tip

If you want to learn more about your local climate and growing season, consult the Farmer's Almanac, which is published each year. It details the date of the average last spring frost, first fall frost, and number of days in the growing season for most major cities in the United States. There's a lot of other useful information in there about weather, such as rainfalls and forecasts. It's definitely a worthy purchase for any homeowner.

Growing Season

The growing season is defined as the number of days between the average last frostof spring and the first frost of autumn. In Albany, New York, the growing seasonis 169 days long. In Phoenix, Arizona, it is a whopping 318 days. San Diego, California,has no frost at all, and the growing season is virtually year round.

Where growing seasons are very short, grasses with a dormant season aren't a problem.In San Diego, on the other hand, you need a grass that doesn't go dormant at allso that the lawn looks beautiful all year.

Turf Talk

The term frost hardy relates to a plant's ability to withstand freezing temperatures and still stay alive. There are degrees of frost hardiness. Mild hardiness means a frost can kill the top growth and roots. Greater hardiness results in just the leaves and stems killed while roots remain alive underground. The term frost tender means the plant is highly vulnerable to any frost at all.

Micro-Management-- Turf-Grass Style

M ake a concerted effort to study and become familiar with your home's immediatemicro- climate. It's easy if you know what to look for, and these factors help youknow what plants want and how to provide it. More important, you will know what youcan't give them. Sometimes you have to surrender to win.

The first and most important issue in a micro- climate is exposure. Every plantfrom turf grass to roses has a preferred exposure, and if you try to force it intoless-than-ideal conditions, you'll struggle with the plant's health over its entirelife span.

Your house has four general exposures:

  • North side: This side of the house rarely receives any direct sunshine except around the summer solstice at midday. Often only ferns and other shade-loving plants will thrive there. It's hostile territory for lawns.
  • South side: This side of the house gets sun for most of the day and is the most ideal exposure for lawns to receive even light. It also provides the most ideal solar exposure during the winter months.
  • East side: The morning sun rises on this side, bathing plants in the gentle direct sunshine. This exposure dries up the dew very early in the day, which reduces fungus and other similar moisture-loving plant diseases.
  • West side: This exposure bakes in the late afternoon sun of the summer months, but may be the warmest part of your garden in winter. Dew dries up last on this side of the house, which can be a problem in more humid, warm winter climates.

Trees can be as important as the house in terms of the ability to change exposures.A tree on the south side of the house can provide welcome shade for the building,but may cheat the lawn out of valuable sunshine. In your analysis of exposure asit relates to microclimate, don't forget to consider the shade of trees. Evergreensare the greatest offenders because they shade even in cold, clear weather and rarelycan needled evergreens be thinned for dappled shade. Deciduous and broadleaf evergreentrees can be creatively thinned and pruned to reduce the density of the canopy, inturn allowing more light to the lawn areas within its influence.

Temperature and Topography

The Ups and Downs

Another factor that influences microclimate conditions is the lay of the land,also known as topography. You know that hot air rises, and cold air dropsdown to the lowest point. During the day, valleys and lowlands are sheltered fromwind, and the air there heats up over the course of the day. As evening falls, coldair drops down to these low spots, and the warm air rises up to higher points. Ifyou ride a bike or motorcycle through hills in the evening, you will notice thatas you reach hilltops it gets warmer; then, when the road dips, you will hit a noticeablecold pocket.

This movement of air is important for determining how and where cold spots occuraround your house. Even if you live on relatively flat ground, your homesite, relativeto the surrounding topography, could put you in a colder or warmer spot dependingon the air movement. You may have already noticed that one part of the yard willshow white frost on a cold morning while other spots have no sign of frost at all.

Turf Talk

The term microclimate is used to describe more subtle variations in en vironmental conditions from homesite to homesite. Each home and landscape has cold spots and warm ones based on many different factors. The best way to study your own microclimate is to sit outside and observe the climate in your yard. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

Blowing in the Wind

Some parts of the country have difficulties with wind. This isn't so much theoccasional breeze or March day, but persistent wind, often blowing in the same prevailingdirection. On the prairies, pioneer women complained to their diaries that the ever-presentwind would drive them crazy. Today homes in these areas are protected by shelterbelts, which are beefed up windbreaks to deal with monster-sized winds. Coastalcommunities also suffer from persistent onshore winds. These are so constant thatthey contorted the cypress trees that made Carmel, California, famous and sculptedvegetation on the picturesque Maine coast.

Wind is damaging to plants because it draws moisture out of the leaves very quickly.Communities around deserts have difficulty growing soft, succulent-leaved plantsbecause the hot winds desiccate them almost immediately. The plant simply can't drawup moisture fast enough to replace the rate of depletion. If you live in a notoriouslywindy climate, you'll have to compensate for moisture loss and mitigate the windsource. Simple solutions are to water more frequently, erect a wind fence, or planta windbreak of trees or shrubs.

Turf Grass Climate Zone Map

Turf Grass Zones

There's a difference between the climate zones on the USDA Climate Map and theturf grass zones. Turf grass zones were devised by the experts to roughly outlinethe parts of the country where weather impacts what kind of grass you can grow. Zonesused to be far more critical a few decades ago when there were fewer grasses to choosefrom. Today's advanced turf grass breeding efforts have stretched the range of climatictolerances of turf strains. Although there are many new advances, it's importantto understand how experts view your region so that you will be better able to keepyour lawn in tip-top shape.

The zones on the map have different climates, and for each climate there are certaindesignated grass groups you can grow. The industry lumps all the major types of grassinto two groups: warm-season grasses and cool-season grasses. Some zones supportonly cool-season grasses, other zones support only warm-season grasses, and the moreambiguous zones may support both.

In general, the turf grass groups for cooler regions include bentgrass, bluegrass,fescue, and perennial rye. Warm-season grasses include the Bermuda grass clan, carpetgrass,centipede grass, St. Augustine grass, and a few other species.

Cool, Humid Region

This huge area extends east from Minnesota to Maine, covering the top half ofthe country. Winters can be bitterly cold and long, whereas summers are mild andhumid. Grasses must be able to tolerate deep soil freezing, extreme low temperatures,and a deep covering of snow. Spring heaving is a problem. Periodic summer rains,the source of all the humidity, reduce the need for permanent sprinkler systems,but during dry spells, hand watering is essential. Cool-season grasses grow wellhere.

Warm, Humid Region

The warm, humid region is the southern counterpart to the cool, humid region tothe north. It extends east from Louisiana to the Atlantic Coast and south to theGulf Coast. This is the region most vulnerable to insect damage in lawns and moisture-relateddiseases common to turf. High water tables and perennially saturated soils allowonly certain warm-season grasses to thrive, primarily those running grasses consideredsuch invasive pests in more ideal climates. Most of the warm-season grasses havea pronounced period of dormancy so that, no matter how warm it is, the lawns in muchof this area look bad even in the mild winter temperatures.

Transition Zone

Here is an example of an incredibly ambiguous turf grass zone. It's a narrow bandthat falls between the cool, humid region and the warm, humid region to the south.It runs from Virginia west to Kansas. The transition zone can bear qualities of both,which makes it a bit more dicey in terms of what you should or shouldn't grow. Therefore,you get to choose from both cool-season and warm-season grasses. But before you makean arbitrary choice, it's best to seek advice from the best local nursery you canfind. These experts will tell you exactly what works and what doesn't for local lawns.

Plains Region

In general, the central "bread basket" of the nation is the region wherethe tall and short grass prairies once lived so successfully in the wild. Today thesebroad, flat plains still have the same climate and soils, except that now we replantthem with more modified descendants of the wild ancestors.

It's a good idea to split this region in half, with the line running at aboutthe middle of Missouri. The northern portion is much colder and the southern halfwa rmer and more humid. Exactly where the split occurs is much like the transitionzone described previously. In general, though, southern plains will better supportwarm-season grasses the closer they are to the Gulf Coast. Obviously, the farthernorth you go, the more likely the chance of successfully cultivating better-behavedcool-season grasses. Again, if you live near the regional dividing line, check withlocal experts.

Rainfall is fairly consistent during the summer in the plains region, but thefarther west you go, the more arid it gets. When it comes to irrigation, it's a goodidea to have an irrigation system to be prepared for inevitable dry spells becausemidwestern weather is notoriously fickle. You can go from dry, dead, and dusty tomud and flood with a single slow-moving thunderhead. Plus, if you have a busy lifestyle,an automatic system really comes in handy. When in doubt, check out what the neighborswith the best lawns are doing.

Arid and Semi-arid Regions

The wild west towns you saw on the movies with cattle drives and outlaws showyou what it was like in this area before irrigation. This band of high desert andextremely arid plains extends from Canada to Mexico and west to the border of California.The range and desert areas can go a long time without rainfall, and in some areas,the only precipitation is in the form of snow. More and more people are living inthese areas due to improvement in water supply.

The winters can be bitterly cold and dry, which is brutal on grasses. Soils freezeat the higher elevations of the Rockies and the deserts of Utah and the Great Basin.Conversely, these arid regions will bake to dry dust during the summer months withevening temperatures dropping radically. In general, these areas support cool-seasongrasses, particularly the deep-rooted fescues that will stand up to the dry weather.Frequent irrigation is recommended for lawns in most of these areas.

California Coast and Interior Valleys

California is indeed the land of sunshine, although there is a considerable differencein rainfall between the northern and southern halves of the state. However, in allcases, irrigation should be provided to lawns year round. Due to limited soil freezing,the standard in-ground sprinkler system is widely used.

Cool-season grasses are generally the norm in California; despite the heat, humiditylevels are low, so they do far better than warm-season grasses. The emphasis is onthe drought-resistant fescues. Growing population and dwindling water supplies makedrought-resistant grasses and careful watering practices a must. On the south coastwhere salt air and humidity are unique in this state, the warm-season grass St. Augustineis common. The rest of the warm-season grasses are considered weeds in this region.

North Pacific Coastal Areas

This northern coastal region extends from the Canadian border south to California.The strong marine influence with cool fogs and salt air keeps conditions mild evenduring the dog days of August. Persistent breezes also keep temperatures too lowfor warm-season grasses, even in beach communities where it rarely freezes. Mostcool-season grasses grow best here. Although summer rain is not uncommon, irrigationis necessary everywhere but on the immediate coast.

Conditions You Can Change

There are some climate-related things you can do to improve conditions in andaround your existing lawn or where you propose to grow a new lawn. One common problemis that large old trees can make your yard so shady that your lawn starts to dieout. You may either dispense with the lawn and replace it with paving or a shade-tolerantgroundcover, or alter the tree to make the area more conducive to lawns.

Trees become problems when they become very large and bear a dense canopy thatblocks out all sunlight. If the tree is a conifer, which is a needled evergreen,you're probably aware that it casts shade even in the winter when you'd much preferat least some sun. These conifers also cause the soils beneath them to become hostileto most other plants due to an accumulation of acidic litter. Thinning a coniferis not common because it disrupts the natural beauty and symmetry so important tothese species. Your options are limited to cutting off the lower branches, judiciousthinning of dead or damaged branches throughout the tree, or removing it entirely.

Broadleaf canopy trees are different. Whether they are evergreen or deciduousdoesn't really matter, because their open-headed form makes it easier and more attractiveto thin out the branches in the canopy. When done well, this can greatly increasethe overall grace and beauty of the tree. It also allows sunlight to reach the tree'sinterior and lower branches, rendering it more healthy in the long run. Plus, thelawn below will get a new lease on life and grow far better.

Thinning a Canopy: Before and After

A Dead-headed Tree

Turf Caveat

Thinning the canopies on old overgrown shade trees is a great way to increase sun without doing away with the beloved tree. A good certified arborist will be sure to do the job right. Be cautious about unscrupulous tree companies that prefer to "dead head" trees, which is a radical cutting back of the main branches into ugly, unnatural stumps. This not only looks awful; it also affects the health of the tree.

You Can't Always Get What You Want . . . But You Get What You Need

Each kind of turf grass out there today is on the market for a purpose. Problem-solvingability is of great importance, because certain climates pose so many challengesto grasses. But because lawns are important for beautifying home landscapes, aestheticquality is equally as important.

Professional turf grass breeders are often faced with far more challenging problemsthan those afflicting home lawns. When the Million Man March descended on Washington,D.C., a few years ago, two million feet trampled the grass of the parks surroundingthe monuments. How about the brutality of football stadium turf during damp weather,when the field turns into a sea of mud? What breeders developed to solve these enormousproblems becomes a windfall for owners of home lawns.

It is important to know the qualities that professionals look for in a good turfgrass. You and your lifestyle may also require many of these qualities, particularlyif you have kids, dogs, bikes, and summer play pools set up on your lawn.

Traffic Tolerance

If you have kids and dogs, or just hang out a lot in the yard, then you know thatgrass takes a beating. How many days of slip-'n-slide will a turf grass take beforeit goes bell y-up? Traffic tolerance relates to just how often you can walk on yourlawn without killing it and also covers how quickly it comes back after damage.

Here's where we benefit from sports field turf science. Half the damage to grasson the football field is due to crushing the leaves and stems. The other half isthe compaction of the soil to a concretelike mass. This affects root vigor and development.High traffic grasses such as bluegrass or tall fescue must be able both to repairthemselves quickly and to root vigorously under less than ideal conditions.


Did you know there are more shades of green than any other color in the spectrum?Greens can range from deep emerald to almost blue, and from lime green to chartreuse.Some of the more drought-tolerant grasses such as fescues tend to be lighter in colorthan bluegrasses. You may not have an opinion on this, but if you do, be sure tocheck the color of your future turf grass before you invest in an entire lawn.

Leaf Texture

If you study the bentgrass used for golf greens, you'll find that it is a verynarrow, short leaf. Golf greens present such a crisp appearance that you'd have adifficult time telling a freshly mowed green surface from fine industrial carpetingof a similar color. This is because the grass they use exhibits a very fine texture.

Two kinds of fescues are used in lawns, and their differences are a good exampleof how textures differ. The tall fescues are the most coarse textured grass today.Their leaves can be up to 1/4 inch wide, and, when mowed, thecut end is very stiff and visibly square. The fine fescues, on the other hand, havevery thin, needlelike leaves th at may average 1/16 inch wide.When these are mowed, the result is similar to that of the golf green bentgrass.Both groups are fescues, but one is coarse, and one is fine textured.

Growth Habit

In Chapter 2, "Beginner's Botany," we looked at how grasses grow. Someproduce dense bunches that are more upright in their posture. The more upright thegrowth habit, the more often a lawn requires mowing. Breeders have developed someinteresting new varieties to reduce the frequency of mowing. These dwarfed grassesare just as beautiful and green as their predecessors, but growth rates are slowedconsiderably.

Runner grasses, on the other hand, grow quickly and spread horizontally beforethey develop more upright stems. Grasses such as Bermuda, buffalo, and carpetgrasshave such an aggressive growth habit that once established they can ruin a landscapeif they are allowed to grow into non-lawn areas. Their tenacious roots and fibrousstems make them difficult to pull by hand, and herbicides are often used to controlthem. Unless you are in need of a particularly rugged grass for poor soils or climate,avoid grasses with a running growth habit.


Density is strictly defined as the number of plants per square foot of lawn. Italso indicates how well the grass is able to cover the ground when planted in a lawn.Density relates to how many seeds, sprigs, or plugs you need to start a lawn so thatit fills in within a reasonable amount of time. Over the long term, more dense grassestend to recover from damage faster.

Disease and Insect Resistance

The vulnerability of plants to disease and pests has been problemati c since theadvent of agriculture many thousands of years ago. Plants are the natural host ofmany different organisms from snails to viruses. For the farmer, these problems maymean starvation. For lawnowners, pests and disease spell a patchy, ugly, and potentiallydead lawn. Worse yet is the time and attention needed to fight the problems.

There are two ways to deal with this problem. First is the control approach, whichfocuses on techniques and materials that help us to reduce or eliminate a diseaseor pest afflicting the lawn. This means that the problem arises and damages the lawnbefore we can identify it and begin the eradication process.

The second and better path is to remove the damage potential ahead of time. Ifa grass were no longer tasteful to sod web worms for example, then we wouldn't needto find a control substance with which to eradicate them. Breeders seeking biologicalsolutions are working on strains of grass that really are less tasteful to pests.They are also working on genetics to produce grasses that are naturally disease resistant.

For example, tomatoes have long been vulnerable to a disease called fusarium wilt.You couldn't grow tomatoes at all in many regions where the wilt is present in thesoil. But in recent years, new strains of tomatoes have been developed that are naturallyresistant to fusarium. Farmers can now grow tomatoes as a cash crop without havingto resort to toxic chemicals for treating wilt.

Apply this scenario to turf grasses, and you can easily see why disease resistanceis so important. If you live in the warm, humid regions, this is a vital issue whenchoosing a grass. Each year, there are new introductions, so consult a local expertto be s ure that you explore the latest in disease-resistant turf before you makeyour final choice.

Any military strategist knows that a well-vaccinated healthy soldier will be ableto withstand far worse battle conditions than one who is weakened by disease. Turfgrass breeders have developed a sort of "vaccination" for lawn seed thatintroduces a fungal endophyte that will later live inside the grass plant. Many insectsfind certain endophytes distasteful and will not eat any plant that contains thefungus. Endophyte-treated seed is a new nontoxic means of reducing turf grass pestswithout an ounce of elbow grease or chemicals.

Turf Talk

The botanical term symbiotic is used to describe a relationship where two separate organisms live together without ill effects to either one. The term endophyte refers to the organism that lives inside another in a symbiotic relationship.

Drought Resistance

Even though a well-maintained lawn is not much of a water guzzler, the water supplyand delivery systems in many parts of the country simply can't keep up with projectedpopulation growth. This is particularly true in the southwest, where very long, dryseasons are brutal on all landscaping. Supply-and-demand conditions always driveup prices, and although you may never have to ration water, when the bill comes eachmonth, you'll wish you had.

Price and availability have fueled a big demand for more thrifty lawn grassesthat still look great even under minimal watering. The fescues are among the mostconservative, whereas bluegrass is the worst offender. New strains are increasin groot depth, which adds to drought resistance and decreases leaf width to reduce theevaporative potential. If you irrigate your lawn or live in water-challenged regions,it's best to choose a drought-resistant turf grass.

Turf Caveat

Many chain store garden centers are staffed with people who know little about gardening. This is not the place to inquire about what variety of turf grass is best for you. Go instead to an established reputable nursery in your community and ask questions of the owner or their top expert. You don't want to gamble your entire lawn on a minimum wage cashier's opinion.

Rate of Establishment

Let's face it, nobody wants to stare at bare ground any longer than is necessaryfor a newly planted lawn to fill in. The more time it takes for grasses to becomeestablished, the greater potential for weeds to take hold. In general, a mature,healthy lawn will crowd out weeds on its own, but in the meantime, it can be a nightmare.In general, perennial ryegrass and Bermuda grass vie for the position of fastest-growinggrass. Bluegrass and tall fescue are average. Slowest of all are the fine fescues.

A new sod lawn eliminates the waiting period although it does take a few weeksfor the roots to penetrate the soil. In this planting method, rate of establishmentisn't an issue--it's instant. But if you're starting from seed, sprigs, or plugs,it's critical to both your sanity and the survivability of the lawn to plant at atime when it's more likely to get a fast, vigorous start.

Thatch Production

Some types of grass are more prone to devel op thatch layers than others. It'smost prevalent in the warm-season runner grasses such as Bermuda grass, St. Augustine,buffalo, centipede, carpetgrass, and zoysia. Thatch can also afflict bluegrass butfar less often. One factor that contributes to thatch problems in cool-season lawnsis failing to bag the clippings. Some mulching mowers can contribute to the problem,too, but this will be further discussed later.

Removing thatch from your lawn is a big maintenance chore, and if you have thechoice, always lean toward a grass that does not have a thatch problem. To de-thatchthe lawn, you'll probably have to rent a thatching machine, run it over the lawn,and then rake up all the shredded thatch and haul it away. Some people who have warm-seasonlawns do this at the onset of the dormant season and then, as part of the process,overseed with annual rye to green the lawn for the winter.

Turf Talk

The term thatch describes an accumulation of dead roots and stems that builds up at the soil line. Thatch itself is not dangerous to grasses, but it becomes a barrier to water and fertilizer, sealing it off from the soil and roots. Diseases and pests also find thick thatch layers an ideal home and may be difficult to control until the thatch is removed.

Shade Tolerance

Too much shade is the biggest problem facing many owners of older lawns. The treesgrow bigger each year and cast more and more shade. All of a sudden, you realizethat a lawn that was once in full sun is shaded for the afternoon, and the grassshows it with poor color, lanky growth, and thinning; and sometimes mosses see m tobe more dominant there than turf.

If you have a shady homesite, you must choose a grass that will thrive under thoseconditions. Shade is devastating to some sun-loving grasses, and only a few are somewhatadapted to filtered shade. No grass will grow in complete shade, and although youmay give these shade-tolerant grasses a try, there are no guarantees. For cool-seasonareas, look to Poa trivialis (rough-stalked bluegrass), or red fescue. Themost shade-tolerant warm-season grasses are St. Augustine, centipede, and zoysia.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Lawns are living things and must match the local climate.
  • You can't change climate, but it does vary from year to year.
  • Know how your home's immediate microclimate influences grass.
  • The United States is broken down into special turf regions that define whether you grow cool-season or warm-season grasses.
  • There are 10 ways turf grasses are evaluated.
  • Beauty is not the only thing to look for in a turf grass.
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