Garden Plot: It’s lawn care time

Milorganite vs. corn gluten meal

Joe from Derwood writes: “What is your opinion of using Milorganite instead of corn gluten? I have been using corn gluten and would like to try something different.”

Well Joe, Milorganite is about as different as you can get. It’s dried human waste from the sewers of Milwaukee. Because it is simply dried and not properly composted, and because of concerns about such sewage sludge containing high levels of prescription medication residues and the nasty stuff that criminals and idiots put into the sewer system, it is not allowed for use in organic agriculture. And it isn’t recommended for “regular” agriculture either.

I certainly don’t recommend it for any use. And I would be greatly concerned about its use on a lawn where children or pets play. If people want to use this or other sewage sludge, please wear gloves and a respirator and keep children and pets away from the treated areas.

Milorganite doesn’t prevent weed seeds from sprouting the way corn gluten meal does. So it’s not a true alternative of any kind.

But at least your timing is correct! This is the ideal week to apply 10 pounds of corn gluten meal for every 1,000 square feet of turf to prevent dandelion, clover and other winter annual seeds from sprouting in your lawn.

Otherwise, your best defense against weed invasion is always going to be proper lawn care. That means a 3-inch cut with a sharp blade, returning the clippings to the turf, watering deeply and infrequently and feeding at the correct time of year for your type of lawn.

Avoid annual grasses

T.J. in Warrenton writes: “I’m trying to get a more uniform looking lawn and was thinking about aerating and then seeding with a mixture of annual rye and regular fescue. My thinking is that the rye will help break up the tough red clay soil and then die back, leaving behind added nutrients for the fescue. Is this a decent solution?”

No, it is not, T.J.

Perennial rye is a nice grass seed. Annual rye is a cereal crop that dies over winter, which would leave lots of bare spots in your lawn — bare spots that your fescue, a clumping grass, would not be able to fill in.

But using a core aerator, a machine that pulls plugs out of the turf, to loosen up the soil now is a good idea, as late summer/early fall is the ideal time to aerate cool-season lawns like your fescue.

Aerate every couple of falls, feed the lawn naturally in spring and fall, and return your clippings to the turf and you’ll eventually break up that clay. If you want to moderate the negative effects of that clay even faster, spread an inch of compost on the lawn after the aeration as your fall feeding. Adding organic matter in the fall is a great way to improve the soil structure under your lawn.

Always attack crabgrass indirectly

Tom in Cheverly writes: “I’m new to lawn care, recently moved into a new place and have come to discover that my front lawn is absolutely overrun with crabgrass so thick that it’s tough on the lawnmower! What can I do, short of using napalm, to get rid of the crabgrass and seed it with ‘normal’ grass so I get a better lawn next summer?”

Well first, it sounds like you have a dull blade on your mower. Have the blade sharpened or get a new one. And if the mower is an old clunker, trade it in for a dedicated mulching mower — they’re a weed’s worst enemy.

Second, if your lawn is all crabgrass, consider tearing it up and installing a new lawn. This is the perfect time of year to do so.

Otherwise, crabgrass is an annual weed. So the plants themselves will die over this coming winter. It’s the seeds they drop in late summer/early fall that cause the following year’s crabgrass problems. To defeat those seeds, get a hand-held flame weeder (like BernzOmatic’s Outdoor Torch) and use it to toast the crabgrass seedheads later this month. Then be ready to apply corn gluten meal at the correct time in the spring to prevent the germination of any seeds you missed. Then you’ll be able to see how much actual grass you have and make plans for this time next year.

Hurricanes, holes and henbit

Joy in Silver Spring writes: “A relative recently passed away after a long illness, and the front and back yards are all weeds. There are also deep ruts from cars and big holes in the ground from cutting down trees damaged by Hurricane Sandy. What can I do now to bring it back to a beautiful appearance? Would spreading corn gluten make a difference?”

Only if you use it to bake corn muffins, Joy.

Sounds like you need an all new lawn and the timing couldn’t be better. Have everything tilled up and any stumps and roots removed. Then have the soil leveled. Have an inch of compost or high-quality topsoil spread over top, level it again and have new seed sown.

No hydro-seeding, slit-seeding or other gimmicks. And don’t let anybody change this basic plan. You want all the roots and stumps pulled, the old debris taken away, the surface leveled, a nice seedbed material delivered and then the surface leveled again.

One of the biggest problems with lawns in our area is that they began life on an un-level surface and/or unimproved soil. Get the work done before the end of September and you’ll have a brand-new bulletproof lawn that will almost care for itself in years to come.

Stick with the girl you came in with

Matt in Laurel writes: “It’s time to over-seed the lawn, and I was planning to use the same tall fescue mix that has worked well for me in the past. But some people recommend against the use of major national brands because the cultivars they contain are not necessarily tailored to your specific climate. They say you should instead consult your local extension office or a professional turf/grass expert to learn which cultivars are recommended for your particular area. What are your thoughts?”

I think that’s excellent advice if you’re installing a brand new lawn, Matt.

But it becomes terrible advice if you’re over-seeding or filling in bare spots, when the most important task is to match the blade shape and color of your existing grass. Some tall fescues have dull blades, some are sharp and pointy. Some tall fescues are a light green in color, some are dark and some have a bluish tint.

So keep using exactly the same mix you have in the past — otherwise your newly sown spots could look like bad pieces in a patchwork quilt!

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