Lawns and Lawn Grasses

Date Published: 
August, 1923
Original Author: 
Dr. E. M. Gress
State Botanist, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 37th Annual Convention

I never was very much interested in cemeteries.  I remember as a small boy I tried to avoid them.  We used to hear a good many stories about cemeteries and some of them were not just the most pleasing to a small boy, so I never had very much interest in a cemetery.  I am not like the colored fellow who got up in an experience meeting and said: “Brudders and sisters, you know and I know I have not been what I ought to be.  I have robbed smoke houses and stile chickens; I have played cards and crushed and swore; but, thank the Lord one thing I have never done I have never lost my religion.”  I have never had much interest in cemeteries to lose and the interest I have is only surface deep.

I am very glad. However, to be here today and talk to you a little while on lawns and lawn grasses.  There is no cemetery superintendent who does not have a great deal of interest in the turf in that cemetery and I know that most of you have some trouble – I am sure that what I have to say will not relieve you of all the trouble that you may have.

I cannot go into the preparation of the seed bed and the lawn soil in detail, much of which depends upon the actual condition and location of the cemetery.  You all know in making a lawn of any kind, whether it is large or small, that the main thing is the preparation of a good seed bed.  Grass seeds are small and unless the seed bed is well prepared and rather fine in texture there will be some difficulty in getting the grass started.  The first consideration, therefore, in trying to get a good turf in any cemetery is to prepare the soil well.  No seed bed should be less than six inches deep and a little deeper would be still better.  It should be made fine, well drained and well fertilized and I believe there is nothing better in the way of fertilizer than a good well rotted manure, manure that has been composted so as to get rid of the weed seed.

The next thing for consideration is the seed, keeping in mind the kind and quality.  We have had some experience in the Department of Agriculture in analyzing and testing for germination the different grasses that are used in lawn mixtures and I am sorry to say that the result of our experience has not been the most satisfactory.  We have found some of the lawn grass mixtures that are on sale to be very bad.  They do not contain the kind of grass seed they should have for a lawn and they frequently have a great many weed seeds.  Very recently we had occasion to analyze a lawn grass mixture that was sold for a first class mixture. We found that it contained almost five percent weed seed. We happened to know where this seed was used.  We visited the lawn and found that the weeds were very abundant, in fact, so abundant that the owner said he was going to dig it up and re-seed it.  Of course, the seeds-man who sold the grass seed said the seeds of these weeds were in the soil.  That might be true; many of the same kind probably were there, but when a grass mixture that has pretty nearly five percent weed seeds is sowed one can be pretty sure of a weed crop.

Many of you are from other states and my experience with lawns outside of Pennsylvania has been quite limited—I cannot talk to any great extent on the kind of grass seed to be used in other places. In the southern part of the United States (if anybody is here from that section) I presume that you use what is called the Bermuda grass to a great extent. The Bermuda grass is adapted pretty well, climatically, to the southern third of the United States-Pennsylvania, however, is out of the limit of the Bermuda grass. We can use it here as an annual--by sowing it in the spring we can get a growth of Bermuda grass but our winters are too severe and it freezes out. In the extreme southeastern corner of the United States carpet grass is used to a great extent, being adapted to the sandy soil condition in that section. In Pennsylvania and in most of the northern parts of the United States I shall recommend more particularly the use of Kentucky blue grass and Redtop. I have in my paper a formula which reads as follows: Kentucky blue grass, four parts; Redtop, two parts; Red fescue, one part; Creeping bent, one part; Perennial rye grass, one part and White clover, one part. Some of you may not advocate the use of a mixture at all, sowing only an unmixed seed. This particularly applies to greens of golf courses in which you, I presume, are not so much interested. On the putting greens a single grass which gives a fine and uniform texture is usually wanted. I do not know whether you will agree with me in the proportions I have given in, the above mixture. In most mixtures there is a greater amount of Kentucky blue grass and a less amount of the Redtop used than I have recommended, I have recommended a greater amount of Redtop because it is quick growing. In Pennsylvania it takes Kentucky blue grass some time to become established but when once established it makes a splendid turf-the Redtop germinates quickly and soon makes a good showing. The Red fescue is very good, particularly in shaded spots and on our poor soils-it, too, grows rather quickly and does not need the lime requirements that the Kentucky blue grass needs in our section.

The Creeping bent grass I believe is a coming lawn glass. In Washington, on the Arlington farms some experiments with Creeping bend grass have been made and with very good results. The Harrisburg Country Club has been following out some of the instructions given by the people who have made those experiments in Washington. I visited the country club yesterday to see what their Creeping bent grass was doing and I find that the superintendent of the grounds is pleased with results. This Creeping bent grass (Agrostis stolonifera) must be propagated by cuttings as it is hardly possible to get the seed. The Superintendent of the Harrisburg Country Club went to Washington and brought back by automobile fourteen sacks-I believe that is the number-of this Creeping bent grass. From this several greens were established and the remainder was planted in what they called a nursery. (They have established a nursery and I believe it would be a good thing for every cemetery to set aside a portion for a grass nursery.) In planting it the pieces of grass were laid in very shallow trenches across the nursery in rows six feet apart and slightly covered and watered. They did that a year ago, I believe in October. Those rows have pretty nearly grown together; that is, it has branched out and crept around until the rows have almost covered the ground and now they have a beautiful start of this Creeping bent grass. When they want to make a green-and by the way, this has been used chiefly on the putting greens-they take some of this grass, chop it with a hatchet or run it through some kind of mangler and sow it or scatter it evenly over the surface, cover it with a shallow layer of soil and then keep it moist. The keeper of the golf course told me yesterday that in six or eight weeks after he had started one of his greens by that method they were playing on it. If any of you have the opportunity I wish you might go up to the Harrisburg Country Club, which is only about ten miles above Harrisburg, and see those greens. They certainly are beautiful and they have been playing on them all summer. The other greens were seeded. These contain many kinds of grasses and weeds. They tell me that these will be dug up as soon as possible and put to Creeping Bent grass. You may say that this cannot be done in a cemetery. I do not see why it cannot. I believe that it can be, and I believe it can be done economically. This year they bought no lawn grass seed at the Harrisburg Country Club-they are depending upon the Creeping bent grass nursery to supply them with grass for their greens.

After the seed has been sowed a lawn does not need a great deal of attention for a little while, particularly if the sowing has been done with great care. In Pennsylvania we start lawns in the fall or in the spring. There are some advantages in starting in the fall, and there are some disadvantages. In our region one of the great advantages in starting a lawn in the fall is that the grass becomes established and the next year it stands the dry weather well. In Pennsylvania we nearly always have a drought during July and August sometimes sooner and sometimes later, and unless the young, tender grass is pretty well rooted it is burnt out. By starting the grass in the fall of the year it develops a better root system by the next summer. A disadvantage with the lawn started in the fall is that we have more trouble with weeds because the weeds cannot be cultivated out in the spring. By preparing the seed bed in the fall of the year and letting it lie fallow until the next spring the cultivation done in the early spring before sowing the seed will destroy the weeds which have started. The seeds of many bad weeds will start growing very early in the spring-this is a splendid time to, destroy the weeds because they are young and tender and not hard to kill.  I believe this is one of the chief advantages in starting a lawn in the spring of the year in this region; and as I said, the advantage of the fall sowing is that the grass develops a better root system before the dry season of the next summer.

I know of no way that the weeds can be controlled by herbicides.   There are some weeds that will be eradicated by spraying with iron sulfate, copper sulfate or arsenite of soda, but most weeds will not be injured by these sprays.  From the very nature of the weed it is more likely to withstand these herbicides better than the grass which you want to grow.  Some weeds like dandelion and buckhorn may be controlled by injecting into the crown a few drops of gasoline, kerosene, sulfuric acid or carbolic acid.  A sharp instrument like an ice pick dipped into sulfuric acid and then injected into the crown of the growing weed has successfully killed the weed with no damage to the surrounding turf. A few weeds can be controlled in this way, but many of the weeds that are giving us trouble cannot, such for instance as the crab grass. I do not know whether you object to it very much in your cemetery but it certainly is unwelcome in our section of the country. About this time Crab grass is coming on. At first it does not look bad on the lawn but with the first frost and a little cold weather it turns brown or red and by winter it dies and the places are left bare for next spring. A great many spraying experiments have been performed but nothing has been found that will control Crab grass, Yarrow and many other weedy plants. The only way known to get rid of Crab grass, Yarrow and most weeds is some method of hand labor which will assist nature in her struggle for existence against the pests.

Our winters in Pennsylvania, especially in the northern part of the state, are very severe on grasses. The grass itself may not be killed by the cold weather but the alternate freezing and thawing cause it to be uprooted, and unless it is pressed back into the soil by some method it will not start to grow the next spring. Therefore, in the spring of the year, very early, when the lawn is still moist it should be rolled so as to replace the grass that has been raised out by the roots. All places where the grass has been killed out during the winter should be reseeded by a quick-growing grass such as Redtop, Creeping bent, Fescue, and White clover.

Terraces are an abomination. They are, of course, often unavoidable and must have attention, particularly during the dry weather. A terrace will dry out more quickly than any other part of the lawn because of the quick drainage, and because there is more surface exposed to evaporation. In dry weather the terrace should receive first attention.

Sometimes the watering of lawns begins too soon. Roots grow toward the moisture. There is a movement of the root system of the plant towards moisture and the moisture that the plant uses, whether grass or some other plant, is the moisture that comes up from below by capillary attraction. When the dry weather comes and the top inch or so of our turf becomes parched we think that it needs watering. It may be that there is still sufficient water coming up from below by capillarity and while the grass may become a little parched, the roots may still be doing well. If we begin to sprinkle and only sprinkle a little so that the top part is kept moist the roots may become very shallow. When sprinkling is done at all it should be a thorough soaking three or four inches deep, once or twice a week rather than a light application every day. In this way the lower part of the soil is kept moist and the roots will go down in the deeper soil and can withstand the continued dry weather much better.

The mowing of the lawn is another thing that must be considered. All the food that is present in the roots of any plant is manufactured in the leaves. The roots absorb the raw materials from the soil-it is carried up through the stem out into the leaves where it is combined with some materials taken in from the air. These materials are combined in the green portion of the leaf, are manufactured into food and are transported back into the root system. If we keep the grass cut too short we do not have any food-manufacturing system--that is, the leaves are kept cut short and we have no leaf surface for the manufacture of food, and so the grass roots suffer from lack of food. I should recommend the setting of the knives of the lawn mower about two inches above the surface. Of course, we know that the grass should not be allowed to go to seed which causes the stems to become tough and wiry, which also draws a great deal of the food out of the root system that is required there.

I don't want to detain you people too long. I want to give you an opportunity to ask questions. I have on my paper a reference to a hook with which some of you are probably acquainted. It is "Turfs for Golf Courses", by Piper and Oailey, published in 1917, by Macmillan Company, New York. Anyone who is going to establish a lawn or who has the maintenance of one should have this book in his library. There is also a bulletin published by the United States Department of Agriculture which is very good-Farmers' Bulletin No. 494, entitled "Lawn Soils and Lawns". This was also written in 1917.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 37th Annual Convention
Harrisburg, PA
August 20, 21, 22 and 23, 1923