Tag Archive | lawn care

Do You Feed Your Trees?

tree-970850_960_720Here’s a question that tends to divide folks right down the middle. When it comes to the wisdom of feeding trees, expert opinion is sharply — in some cases acrimoniously — divided, but the weight of modern practice is increasingly in favor of the dictum that less is more.

A small amount of fertilizer is fine. It will help compensate for the absence of natural fertility that tends to distinguish lawns (where all the leaf litter gets raked up and there is no understory to speak of) from woodlands (where the trees are nourished by lots of decayed plant material).

Fence_and_tree_lined_lawn_Little_Laver_Road,_Essex_EnglandBut before you go out and buy tree food, remember that the small amount needed is likely to be already present as a by-product of fertilizing the lawn. Once you get into adding more than that, it’s likely you will do more harm than good — if you do anything at all. The harm comes because fertilizer pushes the tree into making lots of tender, soft growth. It’s lush, it’s green, it’s very impressive, and it’s also highly vulnerable t insect attacks, climate stress, and the myriad fungus diseases that would be thwarted by tougher tissue.

The doesn’t-do-anything-at-all situation results from putting the food where the tree can’t get at it. Most of a tree’s feeder roots are in the top 10 to 18 inches of soil, and most of them start near the out edge of the canopy (the drip line) and spread outward from there. That means using an injector to put the eats down deep is not going to do much except pollute the groundwater. And spreading the tree’s meal close to its trunk will be just as fruitless.

The bottom line: keep feeding to a minimum unless the tree is in a container where it cannot possibly find nourishment on its own. And if you do use fertilizer on a landscape tree, spread it in a wide band that works out from the drip line.

Naturally Weed-Resistant Lawn

by OCMGA Master Gardener Vicki Schilleman

Back Yard Vinyl Fence Outside Grass Lawn NatureEveryone wants the perfect sea of smooth green lawn with nary a hint of weed, bare spot, or discolored grass. Alas, easier said than done! However, here are 5 steps that will help create a beautiful and naturally weed-resistant lawn.

  1. Prepare the soil. Though they are seldom thought of that way, expanses of mown grass are actually very intensive gardens. Loose, fertile soil of the right pH is even more important for good lawns than it is for tasty tomatoes or lavishly blooming shrubs.
  2. Invest in the best seed, use enough of it, and plant it at the right time. The first defense against weeks is a turf that is thick enough to prevent them from getting the light they need to sprout and grow. The grass won’t be thick if you’re stingy with either quality of quantity, and it won’t fill in properly unless you give it a proper start.
  3. Think long term. Be sure the seed mixture comprises grasses that will be long lived, such as red fescues and bluegrasses. There should be only a very small amount of rye grass, if there is any at all. Rye grasses grow quickly, helping the lawn to look good fast and preventing the growth of some weeds. But because they are up so quickly, they steal nutrients, water, and light from slower-growing but more durable types. As a result, newly established turf has a lot of rye in it. This is fine for a short while. But even perennial rye dies out within a few years, and when it does it leaves a whole lot of room for weeds to move in. A sprinkling of rye can be used if you are the impatient type. But you’ll have better long-term weed control if you go for the slow stuff and hand-weed for the first year or so while the good grasses are settling in.
  4. Adjust the mower to the season. No matter what height you like your lawn, letting it get a bit shaggy in summer — a good 3 inches tall — will cut down on weeds. The taller gras provides more shade, keeping the grass roots cool and healthy while making it harder for weed seeds to sprout and find the light.
  5. Don’t water if there’s a drought. This may seem counterintuitive, and it isn’t entirely true: if you have an endless supply and can water the lawn thoroughly, by all means go ahead. But if water is limited, you’re much better off letter the lawn go dormant than trying to give it “just enough to stay alive.” Grasses naturally lie low and turn brown during droughts. They aren’t dead — they’re just sleeping. A small amount of water won’t be enough to keep grasses green, but it will keep the lawn green, because the watered weeds will thrive

Organic Weed & Feed

For those of us who become frustrated at the growth of weeds in our lawns when we’re using organic fertilizers, there is one help: corn gluten meal, a by-product of corn milling. It is quite high in nitrogen, which makes it a good fertilizer for grass. And it will prevent weed seeds from growing.

But — there’s always a but — that’s it. Corn gluten kills by drying up the baby sprouts as soon as the seed cracks open. It has no effect on perennial weeds (other than to encourage them) or on annual weeds that are already growing.

Furthermore, it must make good contact with the weed seeds in order to kill them, not a problem on bare soil but a tricky proposition if the grass is reasonably thick. It works best when the soil is warm, by which time many annual weeds have long since been up and about. And it lasts for only about six weeks, so you have to apply it frequently.

All that said, corn gluten is a relatively benign fertilizer, and it can help control annual weeds if you use it faithfully, from spring to fall, for a couple of years. It is nontoxic and, in home-garden quantities, safe for the environment.

Salt Alternatives

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Winter salt damage to lawn

When winter comes, it’s important to keep walkways safe, but the chemical compounds sold for de-icing all contain some form of salt, which you don’t want leaching into your soil. Although calcium nitrate or high-nitrogen fertilizer is often recommended as a more benign alternative, an overdose of nitrates isn’t really any better than a buildup of salt itself. In either case, soil organisms are damaged, plant roots can be burned, and leached-out excess winds up in the groundwater.

So what do you do? Start with prevention. There will be very little ice to worry about if you are careful to keep the walkway well shoveled in the first place. Remove snow right down to the path surface as soon as it falls (walking on snow compacts it and makes it stick). Pile the snow on the downhill side, so it doesn’t flow over the walkway when it melts.

Next, cover any ice you do get with something that will provide traction. Clay cat litter and coarse sand both work well and won’t be much of an indoor problem if you keep a mat or bootbrush by your door.

Alternatively, you can add traction to the walkway by covering it with temporary “paving” that has a nonslip surface. There are specially designed flexible metal grids sold for this purpose at hardware stores and through specialty catalogs. Or you can use panels of asphalt roofing shingles. They cost less and work just as well, although they are less than lovely (sprinkle sand under the shingles so they don’t slip around).

Organic “weed and feed” for Lawns

Many gardeners are worried that the products being used to keep that beautiful lawn are, in fact, endangering the environment. With that in mind, then, there is a constant desire to use less damaging chemicals but, at the same time, retain a beautiful lawn. One solution may be corn gluten meal, a by-product of corn milling. It is quite high in nitrogen, which makes it a good fertilizer for grass, and it will prevent weed seeds from growing.

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Corn gluten meal being applied by a broadcast spreader

Corn gluten kills by drying up the baby sprouts as soon as the seed cracks open. However, it has no effect on perennial weeds or on annual weeds that are already growing. Furthermore, it must make good contact with the weed seeds in order to kill them — not a problem on bare soil but a tricky proposition if the grass is thick. It works best when the soil is warm, by which time many annual weeds have long since been up and about. And it lasts for only about six weeks, so you have to apply it regularly.

Corn gluten is a relatively benign fertilizer, and it can help control annual weeds if you use it faithfully, from spring to fall, for a couple of years. It is nontoxic and, in home-garden quantities, safe for the environment.

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One of my favorite hand tools for “popping” those weeds out of the lawn

There is no panacea, however — you cannot go totally organic and control 100% of weeds in your lawn unless you have some handy tools for digging out the weeds. There are a lot of really good hand tools to help you tackle those weeds, though, and maybe a cleaner environment for our kids and grandkids is worth the extra effort.

 

Crabgrass Prevention

by Lisa Johnson, Horticulture Educator for Dane County

Forsythia is one of the harbingers of spring. The bright yellow blooms indicate that spring has finally sprung! Forsythia’s bloom coincides roughly with soil temperatures at 55F at 1/2 inch depth — the conditions crabgrass seeds need to germinate. So, when forsythia blooms, it is time to apply pre-emergent crabgrass products.

The key to a pre-emergent is to apply and water in before crabgrass seeds germinate, but not too far before, because many products available to homeowners have a limited window of efficacy, usually about 90 days.

Products available to professional lawn care companies have a longer period of efficacy, so you often see companies applying these products earlier than when the forsythia blooms.

Pre-emergents don’t actually kill the seed; they create a chemical barrier that doesn’t allow seeds to germinate. If the soil is disturbed and the barrier disrupted, germination may still occur.

One problem with pre-emergents is that they will also prevent desirable lawn grass seed from germinating, if it is sown while the herbicide is still active. So, be careful when and where you apply the pre-emergent and where you seed later.

If you have dead patches of lawn in spring and want to reseed there, avoid using a pre-emergent in that area. The best time to sow lawn grass seed is actually late August or early September, but if you need to seed in spring, just make sure to keep the seed watered, if it is a dry spring (the same, if it is a dry fall). Wait until the seed has germinated and is about 2 inches tall before fertilizing. The lawn, in general, should not be fertilized until Memorial Day.

by Lisa Johnson, Horticulture Educator for Dane County