How dry I am

Despite early-summer rains,  grass is suffering again

Here we are again, looking out at lawns where the only green may be weeds, like the purslane pictured above, which seem to love desert conditions.

After two fall seasons of drought, a former co-worker’s determination to raise cactus in his yard doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

‘It’s ugly again’

George Dege at Dege Garden Center is hearing from owners of parched lawns again -- what to do? Water? Fertilize? Weed? Call it quits and close the curtains until the snow covers it?

“It’s ugly again, but most of it is dormant, not dead,” he says. “There are things you need to do instead of just giving up.”

Watering

“If people haven’t been watering -- maybe because of the cost, and I certainly understand that -- they’d better start.”

Even one or two rains like those last spring won’t prepare grass for the winter, he warns.

“On my own lawn, I’ve been watering at least three days a week, and those aren’t just the 30-minute sessions some people try,” he notes. “Short sessions only a couple times a week really only water the top 1/8th inch. All you have to do is dig a shovel in to see how much of the soil is actually wet when you finish, and it should be 2 1/2 to 3 inches.”

And if they don’t weed? “Fescues, which make up most of our lawns in Minnesota, won’t reproduce. They may be able to replace themselves, but they won’t fill spots where plants have died, meaning that area’s open to all the weed seeds that come by.”

Weeding

Once the grass has had a couple deep waterings and is stronger, people may need to weed to ensure they don’t lose even more lawn to the invaders.

“Some folks come to me and say ‘It’s already half weeds out there -- why should I bother?’ I tell them, ‘Well, you’d better get after it before it’s 75 percent,’’” Dege says. “Those creeping weeds -- clover, creeping charlie and ground ivy -- will keep reproducing until fall, and big patches can double or triple in size.”

Dege recommends Weed-Free Zone, a broadleaf herbicide by Fertilome -- and not applied lot line to lot line.

“That’s the problem with a lot of weed-and-feed products; they’ll take out dandelions, but they’re not strong enough to do more than damage the creeping weeds,” he says. “Plus, why treat a whole lawn with chemicals when you just have to weed in certain spots?”

Similarly, he discourages spreading crabgrass preventer in fall. “I have enough trouble trying to get people to wait in spring. Crabgrass doesn’t germinate up here until July, and the product lasts a maximum of 60 days. So even if you put it on the first week of May, it may be ineffective when you actually need it.”

Fertilizing -- the right way

“The biggest problem we have right now is people wanting to throw fertilizer on it,” Dege adds, explaining the last thing an already-stressed lawn needs is a fast-growth-formula fertilizer pushing it to try to grow.

It’s like presenting a steak dinner to a patient in a hospital bed -- they’re just not up for it.

Instead, he offers a product -- “kind of like a multivitamin” for September application to get the nutrients to the grass it’ll need when it’s dormant, and a “winterizer” application in October.

Mowing

How to mow -- or whether to mow -- what looks like a straw-field is another question.

“Mow your grass now at a height of 2 3/4 to 3 inches, putting the mower on a level driveway or garage floor and measuring from the pavement to the bottom of the mower deck with a ruler,” Dege says, noting that standard blade height is worked into his formula. “Then, as we get later into October, you can get down around 2 inches.”

Don’t be tempted to put the mower away at Halloween if we haven’t had a hard freeze, he warns.

“The grasses can keep growing, slowly, and before you know it can get to 4 inches. That’s where you end up with mats in the spring.”

Try to keep on top of leaf raking, he adds, to avoid matting down and shading grass as it recovers in spring.

Seeding -- only if you feel lucky

“Anything you try to reseed would have had to be done in late August or early September,” Dege says. “Even the sod producers don’t seed past Sept. 20. Anything after Sept. 21-22 is ‘gamble time.’”

And the practice of “dormant seeding” -- broadcasting seed on top of the lawn just before the snow hits?

“Those seeds need soil contact -- they need to be able to set their little feet in the ground,” he says. “If there’s an early freeze, you’ll lose them. You might as well wait until spring.”

What else can you do once the lawn’s put to bed, reasonably healthy and happy -- and not overfed -- for the winter?

“You can take pH samples -- we have instructions for how and where to do it -- to get a good gauge of your lawn’s health and what it needs for the next growing season.”

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