Grass gone wild? Grass gone? Here's what you need to do

Date Published: 
March, 2005
Original Author: 
Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer
Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, March 2005

As everyone who has a lawn knows, keeping it looking good is a constant battle. Fertilize it, but not too much. Mow it, but carefully. Kill the weeds—sometimes. Know when to plant more and when to just start all over.

WHAT: Grass needs proper care to thrive, but sometimes that's not enough. You need to establish a proper care routine as well as a plan for renovating turf when the weeds are starting to take over.

WHY: If you take good care of your grass, your customers probably will notice. If you don't, they definitely will notice.

HOW: Give your grass the proper care to help it stay healthy, and renovate it when the weeds start taking over.

The care and feeding of turf
If your grass is only 15-20 percent weeds, that's good, but you can improve and enhance it. Think about it: Turf is the only thing you grow at your cemetery that you cut down by a third or half more than two dozen times every year. You're basically saying, ''Take that—and still look good!" Imagine doing that to your annuals. So anything you can do to help your grass put up with the incredible amount of physical abuse it takes will help cut down on your renovation and replacement costs.

Fertilize once a year. You reduce the amount of fertilizer you have to put down by leaving the clippings when you mow. When it’s dry, mulching mowers leave cuttings that are 38 percent protein. It's high-value stuff, so use it.

In areas that the public is going to see frequently, we recommend a pound of nitrogen fertilizer per 1,000 square feet per year. That's basic.

Avoid putting down fertilizer when the grass is growing, since that will just exacerbate your mowing problems. Wait until mid-fall—late October, even mid-November, in the Midwest. Put it down before the ground is frozen, though, because you want the fertilizer to percolate into the soil.

If you're a golfer you may know that some golf courses put down a lot more fertilizer than this, but you don't need to do that in a cemetery, especially if you're letting the grass clippings do their job.

Periodically monitor your soil. At least check the acidity/alkalinity. You should be aware of your soil's PH, and all you have to do is collect 2-3 ounces of soil for your Extension agent. For probably less than $15, Extension will provide you with a good, in-depth soil analysis to tell you what the nutrients and PH of the soil are and what type of fertilization might be needed.

Control the weeds. At least monitor the competition the weeds are giving the grass. We don't believe in trying to get rid of every "weed." In fact, in our English lawn garden areas (see below), we let the "weeds" provide color and the people who own property there love it.

But in lawn-level areas where we have flush memorials we use herbicides to get rid of the dandelions and other weeds. You definitely want to keep the crabgrass out, since it tends to overtake everything and cover the markers, which means you'll be constantly string trimming.

We do a pretty thorough pre-emergent, as well as post-emergent application of Dimension or Barricade.

In the flush memorial areas and along fence lines, we're using a growth retardant called Primo. We apply it a couple of times a year. In the spring, when the grass is just starting its seasonal growth spurt, we put it just around the memorials and fences. It reduces the number of blades the plant produces and slows down the growth of the grass so we can maintain those lawn areas efficiently, especially during the heavy spring growing period.

Mow to minimize damage. We cut about 450 acres of grass in a seven-day period during the season. We have a dozen fulltime mower operators and 12-15 students who handle the string trimming.

Even though we want our grass to be thick and green, we don't want to be constantly cutting it. Our philosophy on mowing the cemetery is probably different from the philosophy of a lawn care company taking care of your lawn at home.

At the cemetery, you might mow your main entrances twice a week, but not the whole cemetery.

Here are some tips for good mowing:

• Make sure the blades are sharp. There's nothing worse you can do than cut with a dull blade; it will tear the grass instead of cutting it, putting it under stress. During heavy mowing times, we change blades twice a week, or every 24-25 hours when we're mowing on overtime. During the summer, we only have to change the blades once a week .

• Do not cut off more than one-third of the leaf at anyone mowing. If you let the grass grow to six inches and then cut it down to a half inch, that's destructive. We realize there are times in the spring when the mowing just gets away from you, but really try to follow this rule. The more frequently you mow, the better.

• How high should the grass be? For fescues and bluegrass, two and a half inches is great, and three inches might not be unacceptable. Taller grass is more self-sufficient, it's sounder. On the other hand, in this business if the grass is perceived as too high, people can read it as ''Look at the grass around Mom's grave—you guys don't care."

But do try to raise your cutting height during the summer. On the new mowers, it usually just takes the flick of a switch. A longer blade of grass will shade itself, reducing the need for irrigation and keeping the grass greener. It's just eco-sensitive. We usually keep our grass two and a half to two and three quarters inches high.

• Try to use a square rather than rounded string trimmer line. The rounded ones kind of tear the grass. At high speed, the square ones cut like a blade.

String trimming used to be considered a necessary evil, but as long as you cut it at the same level as the rest of the grass and don't scalp areas, it looks fine.

Turf renovation
If the weeds have infiltrated an area so that it's only about half grass, the other half being unacceptable competitive growth, it's easier to renovate it than try to get rid of the weeds. Renovation has gotten much easier to do, and it's cheaper than trying to battle the weeds.

During the spring and summer, we note the weak areas in our turf and make a list. The first week of August, we'll start renovating. Years ago, you had to use a nasty product that killed everything and made you wait six weeks before you could get back into the area with a big rototiller to start the renovation. Today, everybody's got their own method of doing things, but this is what works for us:

• Use Round Up or a similar product to kill the greenery, both weeds and turf.

• Within a couple of days, you can return to the area. You might want to mow closely and get rid of the existing thatch.

The key in turf renovation is making sure the seed will be in perfect contact with the soil. Ninety-five percent of the failures take place because people don't get rid of the organic matter such as old grass. If the seed ends up landing on organic matter instead of soil, it can't germinate—it's simply impossible. So use a dethatching instrument to lift out the old organic matter.

• We don't just use a spreader or broadcast the seed; we use a slit seeder and a small Mantis tiller, about 13-14 inches wide.

The slit seeder has little rows or furrows several inches apart that distribute the seed. It scratches the surface and allows the seed to drop into the soil, giving that perfect contact you need. Where we can't use the slit seeder, around markers and corner posts, we use the tiller to rough up the ground and then hand seed those areas.

• You can use Round Up again after seeding to control the growth of any weeds you've stirred up while digging around in the dirt. It won't affect the seed.

• Another benefit of using a slit seeder is that you don't have to cover the area with straw. All you have to do is mist the area twice a day, religiously, and you'll be incredibly successful.

Don't apply too much water. Remember, all you're trying to do is dampen the upper quarter-inch of soil where that seed is imbedded, so you certainly don't need to run a sprinkler all day. In a small area, just go out with a hose and a spray wand. If you can mist it in the morning and the evening, that's ideal.

Germination is going to take place quickly, and once it does, you should decrease the amount of misting.

If you follow this procedure to renovate the turf in an area, you won't even have a brown patch for very long. We have a dye in the Round Up we use in that first step so that we know exactly where we're going to be seeding, and we start to work even before the turf is dead.
Establishing new turf in a large area
If you have a large area you need to cover quickly, hydroseeding is the way to go. In hydroseeding, they combine seed and a mulching agent and spray it onto an area as a kind of slurry.

If we're going to develop a new section or regrade an area, say around a new mausoleum or lawn crypt section, we plan ahead to have an outside vendor do some hydroseeding. The cost is figured on a square-footage basis, so it's easy for these companies to give you a quote.

Even when hydroseeding, you have to till the soil first; you can't just blow the seed and mulch mixture on top of a bunch of weedy ground. If you don't have a tractor and discs, ask the hydroseeding firms for a bid doing that for you, as well.