Kid-friendly turf is possible

Louis Sirois

Take one new lawn, add plenty of water and sunshine, mix in two kids, a dog and a variety of toys, then alternately bake and freeze for 12 months. What do you get? Let's say it's not pretty.

What started out as a pristine piece of turf has turned into a patchy, greenish carpet of vegetation formerly known as lawn. A late spring application of organic fertilizer containing a mixture of corn gluten and kelp seemed to help a little. The front lawn looks like a million bucks, but the back lawn is still struggling. As well, the threat of grubs looms large on the horizon.

Now, what are a boy, his two lawn-addicted children and a frolicking canine, to do?

Step one involved calling in the pros. No, not the nosy neighbours with the perfect lawn, but two area lawn care companies. Step two was to tell them the lawn was used constantly and that their treatments had to be child and pet safe and environmentally friendly. That precluded the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides. Step three was to digest all the information and step four was to adopt an action plan. Finally, step five had a philosophical edge, specifically why grass would grow in the asphalt driveway, but not the yard.

Calls to The Lawn Clinic and Nutri-Lawn, were quickly answered and not surprisingly gave two similar opinions. The experts say my lawn was not seriously ill, it was suffering from heavy usage and normal lawn care mismanagement.

It seems I have a thatch problem - and I always thought only English cottage roofs were thatched. What I learned is that just as roofing thatch is made of a thick layer of reed or straw, the thatch in lawn is also a thick layer of dead grass. When this layer of thatch exceeds half an inch in depth, it tends to choke the lawn, and keeps it from staying healthy and green. The consensus was that once this layer of thatch was mechanically removed and the remnants aerating, there would be a green rejuvenation.

"Think of your lawn as a giant garden," advised Nicholas Bott of The Lawn Clinic. "It's simply a big bed of grass that needs to be tended to, like any other garden. It needs to be watered, fertilized, mowed and cultivated, in the proper way and at the correct time." Mr. Bott's advice to me was simple and reasonable. His tips included: Water, water, water. Watering 10 to 15 minutes a day is better than soaking the lawn for an hour once a week. Watering in the middle of the night is best. It won't evaporate in the heat or be blown away by a warm wind. If you don't have an automated sprinkler system, water in the early morning. It's an old wife's tale that watering during the midday sun will burn your grass. It actually cools your lawn down, but up to 50 per cent of the water will evaporate before hitting the ground.

Apply an organic fertilizer three times a year. It is usually a slow release compound that won't easily be washed away with heavy rains and will actively supply nitrogen to your lawn for two to three months. Golf courses often use organic material because of the slow release factor.

Regular sod rarely grows well in the shade. Fescu does enjoy the shade, though. Use a mixture of seeds when seeding. Think of it as a mutual fund for your lawn. Spread the risk and seed around the shrubs to hedge your bets.

Pulling weeds won't kill you, if you see one, just pick it. A healthy lawn will do a great job of keeping weed growth at bay. A healthy lawn will also need to be cut about every five days.

Corn gluten and kelp fertilizer is an excellent source of nitrogen, inhibits the germination of weed seeds and is environmentally friendly. If a lawn is not overrun with weeds, chemical herbicides are rarely needed. One exception would be if you had lots of weeds and didn't have the will (or a teenager) to pull them out manually.

I also learned that the risk of grubs can be greatly reduced by a healthy lawn and daily watering. Grub larvae need a warm dry place to develop. Nematodes do a great job of killing grub infestations, but require a timely and moist application to get the job done. If the nematodes, which are a microscopic parasitic worm, are properly applied, they will kill the grubs within 48 hours. Depending on grub damage re-seeding or even re-sodding will likely be required. The Lawn Clinic has found that a lawn with an irrigation system is rarely affected by grubs. Dollar for dollar, they feel a sprinkler is the best investment you can make in your lawn over time, saving water, intervention, time and money.

Advice regarding my dog's donations to the lawn drew a mixed bag of suggestions. I learned that the dog's urine is very high in nitrogen, which burns and kills the grass in the centre of the spot, but then supplies a healthy dose of nutrient to the grass immediately surrounding the area. Consequently, a beautiful and fast growing ring of health appears around the dead zone. Advice ranged from penning the dog in an area of pea stones, no pun intended, following him around to hose down his business as soon as it occurs, to getting rid of him. I think I'll have to live with dead spots.

Costs involved in the work I need are not crippling. Nutri-Lawn quoted me $225 for de-thatching, core aeration costs $75 and should be done every year. Organic fertilization costs about $65 per application, four times per year. Traditional chemical fertilizer costs $50 and should be applied five times. I plan to pay for the heavy work, buy a couple more bags of organic fertilizer and borrow the neighbour's spreader.

Finally, how does grass manage to grow in the middle of the driveway? All it takes is a tiny crack in the asphalt, one little seed, a bit of organic matter, the right amount of moisture and plenty of heat and bingo, grass in the pavement. Maybe I should train the pooch to do his business on the driveway.

Reprinted from The Ottawa Citizen 24 August 2002, with permission.