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Garden Plot: Perfect time to plant a good lawn

Friday - 8/17/2012, 10:01am  ET

The ‘parsley worm' morphs into one of our most beautiful butterflies, the Parsley Swallowtail. (Courtesy Mike McGrath)

Time to get your lawn ready for fall

Mike McGrath, Garden Plot


Mike McGrath,

WASHINGTON - This is the time to take a bad yard and turn it into the yard you want.

Jessica in Ashburn writes, "We just moved into a new house with a big, bad yard. The lawn is patchy and covered in weeds. I know this is prime time for lawn care, but I have no idea where to start! I am so confused about weeding, seeding and feeding and I need to know how to do it all without poisons. Please help!"

My pleasure, Jess! This is the perfect time to start over and poisons are never necessary. In fact, the more of that junk people use, the worse their lawns tend to look.

Till up what is out there, rake away as much of the old green material as possible, level it out, have a big load of compost or high quality topsoil delivered and spread it an inch deep overtop of the cleared area. Then level it again. It's an important step that many people neglect. Leveling is crucial to long-term lawn success. Then, sow a high quality, name brand seed (turf-type tall fescue is the easiest type of cool-season grass to care for), rake it into that nice rich seedbed and water gently twice a day until the new grass comes up. Do not cover it with straw or other ill-advised nonsense.

Grass seed sown between Aug. 15 and the end of September will thrive and your new lawn with soon look great. For long-term care, never cut the grass below 3 inches, cut it with a mulching mower that returns the pulverized clippings to the turf, feed it every spring and fall with corn gluten or compost, and if you need to water do so deeply for several hours and infrequently, never more than twice a week. Short, frequent watering equals weed-filled lawns.

Aerating a lawn in spring means 75 percent weeds

Shirley in Gainesville writes, "Our lawn was once hardy and pretty much weed free. Over the past decade, we had it aerated three times, with the most recent aeration being done in spring 2011. We also over-seeded then as it was looking weak. Unfortunately, we now have a yard that is 75 percent weeds! Where do we find the weed-killing corn gluten that you talked about on the radio recently?"

Sorry, Shirley, all that corn gluten can do is feed the grass and prevent new weed seeds from germinating. It can't magically dissolve existing weeds. When a lawn is more than half weeds, it should be torn up and a new lawn planted. Luckily, anytime over the next month is the perfect time to do so.

And unfortunately, your timing up to now has caused much of your current problem. You should never aerate or seed cool season lawns like bluegrass and fescue in the spring. Aerating in the spring is especially bad. The correct time to core aerate a lawn to relieve compacted soil is during the month of September, when the cool season grass can quickly recover from the shock of all those plugs being removed. Aerating in the spring (or even worse, in the summer) severely damages cool season lawns.

Bad bloom on hydrangeas

Michelle in Silver Spring writes, "I have three different types of hydrangeas in my backyard, but only one blooms (the white one). I get sun through the trees ... it's not complete shade. Can you advice what I should do and why?"

There are two main reasons for lack of bloom on hydrangeas, Michelle. The most common is improper pruning. Hydrangeas should only be pruned to remove non- flowering branches, and only after the current year's flowerheads have all bloomed in late spring. Pruning them at any other time of year can cut off flower buds.

The other big cause is lack of sun, and I suspect that's at least part of your problem. Most hydrangeas require full sun or at least half a day of full sun to bloom well. Your white bloomer may be an oak leaf hydrangea, which tolerates shade better than the other types. Bottom line, if you've been pruning without a plan, stop. Otherwise, think about moving the plants to a sunnier spot. September through November would be the ideal time to do so.

The tomato hornworm: A hungry, hungry caterpillar!

Bill in Manassas writes, "My tomato garden is being invaded by some sort of worm or caterpillar critter eating the tomatoes. How do I get rid of them?"

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