When one thinks of “turf wars,” urban slang often comes to mind where rival gangs commit acts of violence to establish control of an area and profit from illicit activity.
But there’s another type of turf war happening around Tooele Valley because of the high heat. Take a drive and look at the struggling lawns. If you have a lawn as a significant part of your yardscape, you can probably skip the drive; the heat’s effect is visible right in front of you.
So what gives? How can we put so much into creating a green lawn to have it turn yellow this time of year? It can be frustrating. Honestly, at our home the grass is in the worst condition we can remember.
A combination of factors can conspire to confound your best efforts for a beautiful green expanse. The first is genetics and growing characteristics of the grass. Most of what is planted in turf areas is cool weather grasses. Go to your local grass seed supplier and the majority of mixes will contain fescues, bluegrass and rye grasses. This combination produces a lawn that will grow in sun and shade, have fine blades, and feel good underfoot.
But did you catch the part about cool weather grasses? That means in high heat, they don’t do well without a lot of propping up. The primary mechanism used by these grasses to cope with high heat is a type of hibernation.
While you and I usually think of something hibernating through the winter, it’s the opposite here. The grass shuts down its normal metabolic processes, quits actively producing chlorophyll and blade growth, and conserves energy and plant reserves in the crown of the plant. The crown is the critical junction between the roots and the blades below. If the crown dies or is damaged, the plant dies.
So, the plant goes to sleep, waiting for cooler and moister weather. It’s this factor that makes you look like a lawn rock star in the early spring and autumn, and a landscape laggard when the heat hits.
Of course, it’s during the summer that our lawns are most on display and when we want to enjoy recreational activities on them. To assure that your lawn looks the best it can during the heat, there are some things you need to do.
First, make sure you set your mower to cut off only the tips of the grass. You should have at least 3 inches of grass height, but 4 inches or more are even better. You’ll have to cut more often, but you’ll end up with a healthier, more drought-resistant lawn. Why? Every time you cut the grass shorter, you are removing primary water storage. The vast majority of grass blade content is water. The proof of this is watching how much a batch of lawn clippings shrink down when left out to dry. Leaving your grass long will reduce the tendency of it to go dormant and turn yellow.
Second, lots of light watering isn’t helpful. Water that doesn’t soak down deeply encourages shallow, drought-prone root structures. Water deeply and less often. To encourage better water penetration and retention, your lawn should be aerated annually, using a plug removal type aerator. Simply driving spike type points into the ground actually compacts the soil. Removing plugs from the soil allows more oxygen, water and nutrients into the root zone.
Remember to often check your sprinklers. You are hearing the voice of regret here. I didn’t check them over the last year or so. I was shocked at all of the out of adjustment or leaking heads I had once I ran the circuits in broad daylight.
I’m ashamed to say that some of those brown spots weren’t because the grass went dormant; they weren’t getting any water. Also, pay attention to the run times in each zone. Generally, areas with good coverage will need less time, and those that have less overlap or greater areas to cover will need to run longer. There is no average time to run a zone. Be as precise as you can.
Third, using a mulching mower is wise. Not only is there a lot of moisture in the blades of grass, there’s nitrogen as well. Mulching returns that nutrition back to the root zone, and will eventually create a softer lawn to walk barefoot on (one of summer’s great pleasures)! No, I’ve not had mulch contribute to thatch. The chopped up clippings rapidly biodegrade and build organic material around the grass crowns.
Fourth, take it easy on the fertilizer. The most important fertilizer application is in the fall. As the weather is cool, and the days are shortening, the roots of the grass are very active. If you take care of them during this time, they will develop a great system that will do well the following year.
A common mistake is the high applications of grass fertilizer (such as ammonium sulfate or urea) during the middle of summer. The result is a flush of green and excessive blade growth. Then, the problem is compounded by having to mow more often because of all that growth. It makes no sense to put too much fertilizer on (have you noticed that fertilizer is not cheap?), and then mow off that same nitrogen and rake it away!
As far as fertilizing goes, focus mainly on the fall application, then the spring (along with a weed and feed if needed), and then “snacks” during the hottest time.
Lastly, consider not having as much lawn. Per square foot, turf does consume a significant amount of water and fertilizer, and results in fuel and equipment costs to maintain.
Many generations ago, the mindset pertaining to property and land was that it should produce something that is edible. But as more life conveniences have been developed and made available to many, outdoor spaces have become more decorative. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, it’s just something to consider when you create your yardscape. What’s your mindset pertaining to your grounds?
As for me, I plant to reduce the amount of lawn and increase the number of planting beds and trees. In my mind, they create a more diverse and sustainable habitat, and reduce the amount of maintenance. This lets me enjoy the yard more without expending nearly as much labor or cash. We have a lot to do to get there, but I think it’s a good direction. We’ve already begun to bend the rules that ornamental and edibles belong in their own separate places. If you take a look around our yardscape, you’ll see more edibles, such as garlic, onions, basil, cabbage, rhubarb, peppers, squash and chives tucked in among the shrubs, trees and flowers. That’s a trend we plan to continue.
Before we end our time together this week, I want to acknowledge Janet and Gary Fawson of Grantsville. Tuesday’s edition featured them in the Hometown section.
As reported in Tuesday’s story, the Fawson’s grounds have been a highlight in the Annual Garden Tour for many years, and they are scheduled for the 20th tour next June as well. As beautiful as the grounds looked in the article, it’s a place that must be experienced firsthand.
It’s a privilege and delight to call Gary and Janet our friends. I can’t think of a more deserving couple to be honored as Grand Marshals for Grantsville’s 4th of July activities. Maggie and I appreciate both the gardening inspiration for around our place, as well as the ice cream treats and conversations we’ve had many times on your back porch.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.