Lawn Care for the Second Half of Summer

(Reprinted as part of an article Look to the Lawn, published in Buffalo Spree Magazine.)

In August it’s tempting to water and fertilize. The grass looks brown and desperate, doesn’t it? Actually the proper care is quite the opposite. Lawn experts such as Dr. Frank Rossi of Cornell University have taught turfgrass professionals that a lawn can go dormant in summer for six entire weeks and survive if it only gets 1/4 inch of water during that period. Late season rains will make it green again.

This is what to do for a healthy lawn for the long term:

  • Set mower heights high (all season). Taller grass blocks weeds best, maintains soil moisture, and stresses grass least.
  • Let grass clippings lie. They return nitrogen and moisture to the soil within days after cutting.
  • Do not compact the soil: Never park on the grass, pile construction materials on it, or walk on recently seeded lawn.
  • Sharpen lawn mower blades. Dull blades produce ragged tears on grass plants, encourage diseases to penetrate.
  • Add compost: Spread about ½ inches of compost on the lawn (any time) and rake it in gently. Compost adds microbial life to the soil, improves soil texture so roots can penetrate better, and helps to retain soil moisture.
  • Thicken lawns by over-seeding: To strengthen an existing, weak lawn, Mike Braddell recommends adding 5 pounds of a quality grass seed over every 1000 square feet of lawn. Use a rake to break the soil surface and help the compost settle in.
  • Consider core-aeration: To reduce soil compaction, cut through thatch, admit water, and help seeds establish, hire a core aerator prior to seeding or compost application.
  • Time fertilizer application: Never fertilize in the heat of summer. Early September is a good time to fertilize lawns, according to Cornell University/IPM turfgrass research programs.
  • Weed: The organic method is to pull, dig, or smother weeds; some organic herbicides are available. Some plants considered weeds—dandelions, clovers—benefit pollinators and other beneficial insects. If you choose to use chemical, non-organic herbicides, they are most effective in early fall when the roots begin to grow and absorb the products. Read the labels first.
  • Grub control: Many grub control products are applied unnecessarily and at the wrong time. Grub control should be triggered by counting grubs on sample patches of turf—see Cornell/IPM guidelines. Healthy turfgrass can tolerate a few grubs. Just because you see Japanese beetles does not mean your lawn needs grub control. (Those beetles flew in because you have some attractive plants; they aren’t necessarily from your lawn.) But if you need grub control, late August/September is the time.
  • Protect your lawn. Turfgrass is damaged by dog urine/feces, salt, herbicides, soil compaction, extended droughts or floods, and chemical spills.

Consciously choose where you want turfgrass, rather than assume it’s the default planting. Then learn proper lawn care. Turfgrasses are little plants, not linoleum or plastic. Find out what they need and keep them healthy where you grow them.

Read the full Buffalo Spree article