Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

More Than Being Green

Grass is so omnipresent that one may consider it a dry topic of discussion or speculation. Much more complex than merely being green, grass invokes a surprising amount of emotion and science as a subject. Diverse sentiments, casual and deep, related to this natural carpet have been articulated around the globe. Mohammad Ali expressed “It’s just a job.

Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.” A Russian proverb states, “The tallest blade of grass is the first to be cut by the scythe.” The Swiss John Calvin wrote a little more poetically, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice,” along with the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay who penned, “God, I can push the grass apart and lay my finger on Thy heart.”

In America, “The grass is greener…” statement, and probably the proverbial white picket fence enclosing the grass, is an ineffaceable part of our culture. Though green lawns are frequent and oftentimes taken for granted, attitudes towards lawns are varied and maybe even deep-seated. Generally, three attitudes, or orientations, toward grass exist among Uncle Sam’s nieces and nephews. First, we have the “anything green” folks. They prefer for grass to grow without any attention and would love for it to mow itself. They may mow as fast as possible every two weeks to avoid harassment by the neighbors. Most likely, a few long, straggling pieces of grass will remain protruding around the hedges and the clippings will be scattered across the yard. Secondly, the “average” group arrives. They have nice enough yards with a few flowers and shrubs. They might sing while atop the lawn mower and feel fairly satisfied as they are bagging the clippings and watering the lawn. Finally, we have the “exhibit” group. Perfect diagonals are mowed in place by their lawn mowers that cost north of $10,000. The whole neighborhood experiences a water shortage in the summer because it is usurped for grass watering. In our modern times, when there is no chance for a man to prove himself through hunting down a buffalo, maintaining the perfect lawn may be a substitute.

Regardless of your lawn care orientation, chances are that your grass did not simply spring into being (if only this were the case for weeds). Perhaps you have an established lawn, are renovating it, or will be starting a new one. Procuring a lawn, even an “anything green” one, can be easier if you are more informed. Some questions to ask yourself are: What level of maintenance do you want to invest in your yard? Are there areas that are heavily trafficked by people, equipment, or the pet goat? Are you trying to cover an area where you can practice with a putter? Will you be covering a particularly wet or dry area? Sunny or shady? Lots of factors will influence your grass decisions. Considering the local climate, the best grass for your purposes, and fertilization options are a great place to start.

Grasses are divided into cool season grasses and warm season grasses. It is quite intuitive that cool season grasses flourish in northern temperatures, and warm season grasses prefer warm climates. Virginia’s climate is somewhere in the middle, actually called a transition zone for grasses. Our climate can support a mix of warm season and
cool season grasses. Following are some options for grass that are successful in the Tidewater region:

Native to Europe and parts of Asia, bentgrass is said to have been imported by the colonists to mimic the beauty of European lawns in the New World. One of the most beautiful of grasses, bentgrass makes a fabulous covering for a home putting green. The texture is fine and has a deep green color. It is a cool season grass and does not tolerate drought or extended high temperatures very well, and therefore may require some work to maintain.

The name belies this grass’s origin; Bermuda grass came to North America from Africa via Spanish colonists. Bermuda grass, a dark green grass that forms a dense turf, likes full sun, is drought resistant, and can be mown closely. Recent species cover some of the most exclusive golf greens in the world. Lawn coverage occurs in a year, and may come about in 60-90 days. Bermuda grass has only an average resistance to insects and pesticides, must have full sun, and enters a dormant state in the winter, turning brown. Bermuda is often overseeded with perennial ryegrass which supplies a green law in winter.

A species appropriately named for southern growing, bluegrass is actually a cool season grass. Another non-native plant, bluegrass has European roots (no pun intended). The color ranges from bluish-green to light green and creates a picturesque lawn friendly to bare feet. Bluegrass develops a good root system to defend itself against drought, but its tender leaves need attentive fertilization and water. Bluegrass is frequently mixed with ryegrass and fescue to spawn a more disease resistant lawn.

Fescue rides the transition climate fence well. Fescue is a cool season grass that survives in heat too hot for some cool season grasses, while tolerating cold that is too harsh for warm season grasses. Common species of fescue include tall, creeping red, hard, chewings and sheep fescue. Three characteristics are shared by all the species: shade tolerance, staying green all year, and first-rate drought resistance. Tall fescue is a common choice for our region, and recent varieties of Tall fescue, such as Pennington seed, are resilient throughout our more extreme temperatures.

Also imported from Europe, both annual and perennial ryegrass present low-maintenance choices. Annual ryegrass is used for temporary planting purposes such as new lawns, winter lawns and erosion control. Perennial ryegrass is an excellent choice for low maintenance lawns; this shiny-leafed plant is disease resistant, germinates quickly and readily tolerates traffic. Ryegrass is a “throw and grow” seed that is easily planted.

When fully established, Zoysia grass creates one of the most beautiful, carpeted lawns available. Zoysia arrived from Southeast Asia, China and Japan. Though Zoysia may take a little longer to establish itself, the grass is heat resistant and aggressive enough to compete with weeds. Zoysia does need full sun, however, to keep its looks. Being a warm grass, Zoysia enters dormancy in late fall and remains brown until emerging again in late spring. Zoysia is quite independent and overseeding to counteract its winter brownness is not recommended.

Though grass species options are numerous, actually planting is more limited. Lawns are begun by seeding or sodding; both options have their strengths. Seeding is generally 1/3 of the cost of sodding a yard. Over the long term, seeding may be healthier because the grass’s root systems will be quite well established. Be patient, however, as a few years are required for a lawn to become fully established through seeding. If you wave the magic wand of sodding, a lawn almost instantaneously appears. Before getting that wand out, be sure that the soil on which the sod is laid has had appropriate soil preparation to supply nutrients to the grass. Lack of healthy soil can kill the new grass. If a sodded lawn dies, the only solution for recovery is invasive surgery: removing the sod and starting over.

To avoid getting to the surgery or possibly the death level with your lawn, a healthy diet through fertilization is an essential path to follow. Fertilizers commonly rely on a Nitrogen, Phosphate and Potash (N-P-K) mix to encourage foliage growth. Products containing micronutrients such as iron, manganese, zinc and boron are recommended to feed your lawn appropriately. If you want to be precise, test your soil to see what it may be lacking. The grass seed in your yard will guide the timing and frequency of fertilization. Cool grasses and warm grasses are fertilized at different times, the fall being the best time for cool grasses and early spring for warm grasses.

The organic sector of agriculture is the fastest growing one, and lawn fertilization is on the bandwagon. Lawns can be fertilized with what is called organic matter fertilizers. These organic concoctions are slow-release, non-petroleum, non-nitrogen and non-salt fertilizers which grow lawns from the bottom up. Inserting organic matter into the soil produces “sweeter” soil and healthier root systems, making greener grass. With strong roots, grass can survive droughts and severe cold. Organic fertilizers are derived from naturally occurring wasteful resources such as compost, bio solids, chicken manure, seaweed extracts, bone meal and blood meals. Organic wastes are brilliantly placed back in the earth in a useful way.

A conscientious reason to choose organic fertilizers over synthetic ones is not merely the organic treatment of the root system. Ironically, in an effort to create greener lawns, we have birthed “non-green” environmental complications. High-nitrogen fertilizer spurns abundant foliage, yet causes nitrogen leaching from the soil. The excess nitrogen is carried by ground water into our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, causing more algae growth and decreasing oxygen levels in the water, which harms plant and animal life. Petroleum based fertilizers run into our water supply as well. While these fertilizers may bring temporarily healthier-looking grass, the root systems suffer from lack of nutrients and over the long term will not fare well. For example, shallow roots systems in Tall fescue grass allow the growth of Brown Patch fungus—which, you guessed it, turns the grass brown. Hopefully, we can all move towards an “exhibit” orientation toward the environment.

As you work towards greener grass and perhaps a greener environment, grass may take on some new meanings for you. Maybe not in epic proportions, as Walt Whitman felt when he wrote, “I believe a blade of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” But at least you will see grass as much more than a color.

By Rebekah Spraitzar