Lawn Establishment & Maintenance Facts

To establish and maintain a lawn that not only looks beautiful, but is healthy from the soil up, requires not only a lot of work, but knowledge as well. Over the past 10 years, we have had many questions from property owners on how to properly install and manage their turf. Listed below are some of the most common topics:

How do you water an established lawn?

During normal conditions, lawns require about one inch of rainfall per week. In Wisconsin, we average 1" of rainfall per week during the growing season. This means most lawns, do not need to be irrigated regularly. An exception to this would be during hot, windy, summer days, when grass needs 1.5-2.0" of water per week. 

If you choose to irrigate your lawn, it is essential that they are watered deeply and infrequently! Daily watering is not recommended, and actually inhibits root growth, promotes fungal disease (keeps moisture and humidity in soil), and attracts weeds such as crabgrass. Lawns should be watered 1-2 times per week, however should be watered long enough to reach the first 6" of soil. Make sure to water early in the morning, so the grass foliage has time to dry during the warmest parts of the day. Watering in the evening, will cause the water to sit on the grass blades much longer, possibly causing disease.

Should grass clippings be left on lawns?

 

Absolutely! Grass clippings are an excellent source of nitrogen in lawns, helping to make your lawn much more dense and green. If your lawn is fertilized, the nutrients from the fertilizers are found in the grass clippings for up to three grass cuttings. This means that if you leave the clippings on the lawn, you are continuing to cycle those fertilizer nutrients through the soil, making your fertilization applications much more effective. 

It is also good to know that grass clippings do not contribute at all to thatch buildup in lawns.

Do lawns need to be fertilized?

This question can be a challenge to answer, because there are a few different variables to look at. Without a doubt, fertilizing lawns helps to improve the density of the grass. This means that there is less erosion of the soil, and less room for weeds to appear. Skipping fertilizing for even one year can have a significant effect on turf grass density. 

 

Another variable to consider, is the level of aesthetics an individual prefers. Every person has different thresholds for how green and dense they want they yard to be, just like they have a preference for how many weeds are too many. Establishing thresholds for what you consider to be okay or not okay can be a good way to make a decision if something is necessary. 

How do you manage pests in a lawn?

There are many pests that are associated with turf grass, such as insects, animals, fungus, and even weeds. All pests have different levels of effort and methods needed to keep their populations in check. The push for more sustainable practices in a landscape has lead to the establishment of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs. IPM is the process of determining when to treat for a pest, what needs to be treated, as well as how to treat. Determining whether or not a pest needs to be treated is very important, because excessive pesticide use can lead to both pest resurgence and pesticide treadmill. This means that the predators of a pest can be killed and lead to increased levels of a pest, as well as the build-up of immunity to a pesticide, causing long term dependency of a pesticide. Most pest issues should not be completely eradicated, rather they should be managed. Listed below are some considerations to take when deciding to treat for a pest:

  • Weeds- Determine the level of tolerance that is acceptable for weeds. Some people are okay with several weeds throughout their property, while others prefer to have little to none. Establishing a base line for the number of weeds that need to be present before action is taken is very important. Also, looking at the types of weeds present can help to make a decision whether or not to treat. 

  • Fungus- While most fungus such as necrotic ring spot or rust can be unsightly, it is usually best to leave them untreated. Most of the time fungus does not harm the lawn. Fertilizing a lawn can help to reduce the appearance of most fungus, and at best can sometimes help to rid the pest all together. 

  • Insects- Depending on the insect, pesticide use can sometimes be essential for a healthy turf. It is extremely important to properly identify the insect and understand its' life cycle. Insecticides are only effective if applied at the right stage of the insect's development. Just like all pests, the presence of insects can be a good indication of other issues with the turf. 

  • Animals- One of the most common animal pests in turf are meadow mice or voles. While in certain circumstances they can be killed with pesticides, it is usually best to first consider cultural practices to lessen the risk of damage. This can include proper fall clean-ups and cutting down grass to an appropriate height. Large piles of leaves and debris, and tall grass make an ideal habitat for voles. 

Presence of pests can be an indicator of other turf related problems. Excess weeds or presence of fungi can indicate a lack of nutrients, while insects and animal pests can be a sign of poor cultural practices (leaf clean-up). Before reaching for a pesticide, try and establish the root cause of the problem. If your unsure whether or not to treat for a pest, it is always best to consult a professional. 

Is thatch in a lawn bad?

 

Small amounts of thatch (1/2" or less) are not an issue with most lawns. When thatch becomes excessive, becoming 1/2" or more, then it can start to cause some issues. Thatch is an organic layer of both dead and living grass roots and stems. In small amounts, it helps to insulate the soil and prevent rapid temperature changes in the soil. It also provides some cushion when you walk on grass. When lawns start to produce organic waste faster than it can be broken down, thatch buildup can occur. Excess thatch can become an ideal habitat for insects and disease. It also creates a dense layer, preventing pesticides from reaching down into the soil, making them ineffective. If excess thatch is present on a lawn, de-thatching is typically recommended. It is also ideal to determine the source of the problem, so the issue doesn't continue to develop. 

Does core aeration really work?

 

Most lawns in our area have compacted clay soils. This is especially common in subdivisions, where the thick nutrient rich layer of topsoil is scraped off the surface during construction and only a fraction is reapplied back to the site. This means that beneath the thin layer of topsoil is an extremely compacted layer of subsoil. This subsoil can be nearly impossible for grass roots to penetrate through, and can lead to stress. One way to alleviate compaction is to perform core aeration, where a substantial number of 2-4" plugs are pulled from the soil. This creates pockets for the grass roots to expand, and can help to improve water and nutrient uptake. When core aeration is performed regularly, it can help to promote thicker, healthier turf.

Is overseeding beneficial to a lawn?

 

Overseeding is the process of spreading grass seed over an existing lawn. The two main reasons this is done, is to improve turf grass density, as well as increase the number of grass species/ varieties present in the turf. Overseeding is particularly important  for lawns that were sodded at installation, because they lack species diversity, which can contribute to an array of pest issues. Over time this process helps to fill in bare spots and incorporate different and beneficial grass species into an already established lawn. For almost all properties, regular overseeding can help to maintain the health and aesthetics of a lawn. 

Should soil be tested?

 

Before any type of fertilizing, or adding of nutrients into the lawn is done, a soil test is recommended. A comprehensive soil test includes information of both the amount of specific macronutrients and micronutrients found in the soil sample. This information is a good baseline to determine if your lawn is deficient of any nutrients. Typically, a soil test would only have to be performed once, however if significant changes need to be made to the soil, a test may need to be performed again in 2-3 years to see if the problem is resolved.  

What is the most important component to a healthy lawn?

 

The most important component to a healthy lawn is the soil below it. Without good soil structure, any plant (including grass) may struggle. When there is good quality soil available to a plant, it gets adequate nutrients, water, and oxygen that allows the plant to thrive. Good soil can be a challenge to obtain.

Many of the lawns in Southeastern Wisconsin have substantially compacted soil that can inhibit the growth of plants. This is a result of poor techniques used in the development of new properties. The ideal soil composition for turf grass in our area, would consist of 3 main layers. From the top down these layers include: 1" compost mixed with 2" topsoil, additional 2" topsoil mixed with 2" subsoil, and then the subsoil below. Most new homes or businesses are lucky to have even one inch of topsoil! So how do we expect to grow quality turf on such poor soil conditions? Correcting soil issues can be a long process, and sometimes may require substantial efforts to improve soil quality. For less severe cases, one good way to improve soil structure, is by adding organic matter. An easy way to do this is topdress a lawn with a nutrient rich compost.  Topdressing is the process of spreading about 1/4" of compost over the entire lawn in both spring and fall. This process should be completed every 2-3 years, and is best accompanied with core aeration. Core aeration can help to incorporate the compost into the top few inches of soil. 

Is seed or sod better in Wisconsin?

 

To answer this question simply, seed is the better option for Wisconsin lawns. Here are the some of the most important things to consider:

  • Sod is composed 100% of Kentucky Blue Grass (KBG) seed varieties. KBG is an excellent cool season grass, that has dark-green color, as well as smooth and soft grass blades. One of the reasons sod does not work well in WI, is because of the lack of grass variety. Most lawns that are seeded, are seeded with a blend of different grass varieties that include KBG, as well as perennial ryegrass, and creeping red fescue. Just in all of landscaping, plant diversity is essential. Species diversity in the lawn environment, decreases the amount of problems with insects and disease, the number of weeds in the lawn, as well as reduces the amount of water and nutrients needed to maintain a healthy turf. 

  • Sod does not perform well in shade, while there are seed varieties that are more tolerant of shade.

  • Sod that does not root properly, can become an ideal habitat for grubs, as well as fungus. Typically, many issues with sod develop as soon as 3-5 years after installation. If you choose to sod a lawn, select sod that has only 1/3" of dirt. Having less dirt, requires the grass roots to search and grow down to find more nutrients and water. If sod that has 1" or more of dirt is selected, the grass roots will find enough nutrients and choose not to extend their roots past the dirt on the sod rolls.

  • Sod is not only more expensive to install, but requires a much more complex maintenance plan. 

 

The additional time required to establish a seeded lawn, much outweighs the considerable number of issues presented with sod.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

If you have any questions at any time about turf establishment or maintenance, feel free to click the "contact us" button and your information will be sent to one of our lawn care professionals.