So, at first glance, this past spring falls somewhere between “something of a dud” and “unmitigated disaster,” what with the colder-than-normal temps and unrelenting rain. Saturated soil was a real problem for farmers across the Midwest trying to get their crops into the ground, not to mention anyone with clay soil trying to walk through their backyard without losing a shoe.
But spring is past, and we’ve transitioned into the hotter, dryer days of summer. That means fresh tomatoes, berries, peppers, roses...and brown grass.
Yep. It’s nature, people. For those of us living in West Michigan (actually, everyone north of Kentucky), we have what’s called “cool weather turf.” That means once the temps regularly hit the mid-80s, the grass goes to sleep-- just like it does in winter. It’s not dead-- let me reiterate that point: Brown grass isn't necessarily dead grass. It’s just resting and building up energy for the next growing season, which happens to be autumn.
Cool weather turf greens up and grows when temps range between 60 and 80ish. That’s the sweet spot you have in the spring and fall, and that’s why you’re constantly mowing in May, June, late September and early October.
So what’s an ecologically-friendly homeowner to do during these crispy summer months?
The most-environmentally-friendly answer is: Nothing. Let it sleep. Grass can go 2-4 weeks (depending on how high the temps go) without water before it actually dies. Once you hit the three-week point, give it a good, deep watering early in the morning. A good way to tell the difference between dead and dormant grass? Give it a good tug. If it comes out easily, it's dead and it ain't coming back. If it stays put, it's just dormant and doing exactly what God intended in the summer.
If you don’t want it to go too dormant (and get too brown) you can give it a good deep watering whenever it gets too brown for your own comfort level. For some people, that means they’re watering every third day. For others, that means they don’t water for two weeks. But the key is to water deeply-- 30-60 minutes whenever you turn the sprinklers on, depending on how much water your soil can tolerate (you don’t want puddling). Deeper waterings mean the turf's roots grow deeper into the ground. And that means your grass will be able to find water deeper in the soil.
But here’s a little secret: When you treat your lawn organically, your turf won’t get as crispy as a lawn treated with synthetic chemicals during dormancy. Why? The soil is healthier and can tolerate heat and drought better. It can hold on to water better. Plus, those longer waterings mean your turf’s roots have grown deep into the ground and are better able to find water, even when it doesn’t rain.
Bottom line. Your grass is supposed to go dormant, and turn brown, twice a year: winter and summer. During those times, it’s building up carbohydrates for the next growing season. The more you’re able to let your turf go dormant in the summer, the stronger it’ll potentially be in the fall. However, to keep it from going too dormant, give it a deep watering on occasion, or whenever you want to see a little more green color on your lawn. Just avoid short, daily waterings.
This is the first in a Q&A blog series on healthy organic turf. If you have a question for Good Sweet Earth's lawn guy, Steve, shoot him an email at steve@GoodSweetEarth.com, and include "Ask the Lawn Guy" in the subject line.
So the question of "How much should I water?" is a frequent one, which is why I've decided it tackle this one first in our "Ask the Organic Lawn Guy" series.
And here's a simple answer: Water as often as you'd like, to keep your turf as green as you'd like, but make sure you water for at least 30 minutes at a time (ideally 45-60). Read on for a more-nuanced answer.
First, we need to talk about turf in Michigan. We're in what's called a "cool-weather turf zone." That means our turf grows when it's cool, and it goes dormant when it's hot and when it freezes.
And contrary to popular belief, grass shouldn't be bright green in the middle of summer, and you probably aren't going to be mowing it twice a week either. Michigan turf grows and greens in the spring and the fall. Then during the summer and winter, it gets brown and stops growing while it stores up carbohydrates for the next growing season.
So, all that brown grass you see in the summer? It ain't dead. It's sleeping. If you don't mind having brown, crispy grass during the months of July and August, letting it sleep is probably the best thing you can do for your lawn. It'll have much more vigor and density in the fall. That being said, turf shouldn't go for more than three weeks (two in especially hot conditions) without water. So even if you go the dormancy route with your turf, you should still put the sprinklers on every two to three weeks (if there's been no rain). And when you do put the sprinkler on, let it go for about 45-60 minutes per zone. This will allow the water to go deeper into the ground, which will force the roots to grow deeper as well. This will give you stronger and more drought-resistant turf.
But what if you don't want brown crispy grass all summer? What if you like to have some soft green turf to play on and admire? Then my advice to you is to let it get as brown as you're comfortable with, and then put the sprinklers on for 45-60 minutes. For some people, this might mean watering twice or three times a week. For others, it might mean once every 10 days. I don't have a hard and fast rule for how often you should water. Just do it when you think your lawn's getting too brown for your own comfort. If you're able to go 15 days between waterings (and let the grass go into a nice deep dormancy), great! If the thought of crispy turf makes you feel a little uneasy, go as many days as you can without watering, and then let the sprinklers fly.
The only hard and fast rule I have is to water for at minimum 30 minutes, but ideally 45-60, depending on how your soil can handle that amount of water (you don't want puddling). The one thing you don't want to do is a 10-minute watering. This will mean the water never goes very deep into your soil, and neither does your turf's root zone. And that's bad news.
I've talked to too many customers who water their lawn every morning, seven days a week, all summer long, for 5-15 minutes a day. This is not effective for healthy turf. Watering at mid-day or in the evening is also bad. Why? When you water at mid-day, you lose a lot of moisture to evaporation. And watering at night can create a breeding ground for fungus on your grass. Mornings are the best time of day to sprinkle.
Now, I have to mention that there's a real technical answer that turf professionals like to give when asked how much to water a lawn, and it includes the number of inches of water you should be applying, and then putting out coffee cans in your yard while you sprinkle in order to measure the amount of water, etc. But most of us aren't managing a golf course. If you go with what feels comfortable for your lawn, watch out for over-watering (puddles), avoid short watering periods, and avoid mid-day/evening waterings, you'll be fine.
So to sum up: In the spring and fall, you can probably rely on rain to do all the watering your lawn needs, but if you do turn the sprinklers on, water deeply (at least 30 minutes). In the summer, go as long as you're comfortable going. If you don't mind grass that's a little brown, letting your turf go dormant is ideal for it's long-term health. Otherwise, turn the sprinklers on for about 45 minutes in the morning whenever you see your turf getting too brown for your own comfort.
Good news, Muskegon County residents! Good Sweet Earth isn't just serving the counties of Kent, Allegan and Ottawa anymore. Starting in 2019, we're expanding our service area north along the lakeshore to cities and townships in Muskegon County.
If you live in Muskegon, Norton Shores, Whitehall, Roosevelt Park, Casnovia, Fruitport, Montague, Ravenna, or any neighboring community, and you'd like to feed your turf and soil organically, we'd love to come out and give you a free consultation for lawn care.
But why go organic on your lawn?
First, healthy grass comes from healthy soil. Synthetic chemical fertilizers kill your soil, which in turn kills your turf and makes it overly reliant on chemicals. Dead soil is also a breeding ground for weeds and disease.
Organic fertilization focuses on feeding your soil and developing a healthy ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, worms and other life below the surface of your yard. We use vermicompost (nutrient-rich compost made by earthworms), microbial tea (a liquid rich in microbes to help break down organic matter in your soil), and all-natural slow-release fertilizers.
Second, many people in the United States have made the switch to buying organic produce, yet continue to dump chemicals on their lawn and garden. There's a real disconnect there. If you're concerned with how your food is grown on a farm, you should be even more concerned with how your grass (and garden) are grown in your own yard.
Third, synthetic chemicals are destroying our ecosystem. These chemicals leach into our watersheds, they kill the life found in our lakes, rivers and streams, they cause algae blooms, and ultimately introduce poisons into our environment.
Organic soil management practices can reduce the effects of climate change by helping soil hold on to carbon more effectively. This type of healthy soil management doesn't have to be limited to farms, it needs to start right in each of our yards. In fact, lawns cover more acreage in the United States than any other crop. That means the management practices adopted by homeowners could have a larger impact on our nation's soil and climate than the actions of our farmers.
If you live in Kent, Ottawa, Allegan or Muskegon Counties in West Michigan, and you'd like to learn more about organic lawn care for your own home, give us a call at 616-594-0693 or email us at office@GoodSweetEarth.com.
Since autumn is just around the corner, that means your lawn’s growing season is just around the corner as well. You may have noticed your grass slows down during the summer months—it doesn’t grow as fast, which means less mowing, and it often takes on a brownish hue, some might even call it “crispy.” This, of course, is completely normal for Michigan lawns. The hot summer months are the dormant period for cool-weather grasses.
But as the daytime temps dip into the 70s more regularly, and precipitation picks up, you can expect your lawn to start “growing and greening” again. With that, there are some things you can do to make your lawn healthier and thicker.
1. Fall is a great time to fertilize. Good Sweet Earth applies organic fertilizer (an alfalfa blend fertilizer) twice a year: in spring and fall. If you were going to only apply fertilizer one time a year, I recommend fall over spring. Why? A few reasons: First, fall fertilization gives your lawn some nutrients before the long, harsh winter. This will make it less distressed when spring rolls around. It also adds organic matter to your soil to help insulate the roots a bit. Second, if you’re applying slow-release organic fertilizer, it won’t break down entirely before winter sets in, which means there will likely be some semi-composted product still on your lawn in the spring; it’s sort of an early spring meal for your lawn which will help green it up early and get it growing strong. Finally, there are less weeds germinating in the fall, which means the nutrients you put in your soil will be more available for your grass, instead of those nasty invasive plants you’d rather not be fertilizing. If you're interested in having us apply some alfalfa blend fertilizer to your lawn, get in touch.
2. Fall is the ideal time to overseed. Like fertilizing, you can overseed in either spring or fall. I prefer late summer/early fall because your grass seeds won’t be competing for space with weed seeds as much. Those gaps in your lawn where grass isn’t growing are prime real estate for weeds. But as your soil gets healthier from organic lawn treatments, those gaps will fill in with grass—unless weeds get there first! In the fall, there are less weed seeds looking for a home, so putting grass seed down in late-August or earl-September (you could do it as late as the first part of October, especially if we have a warm fall) will ensure the grass has a head start over the weeds come spring. To overseed, first, mow your grass lower than you normally would; if the clippings are especially long or clumpy, rake them up so the seed can fall easily to the soil below. Second, buy a sun/shade mix and apply it with a spreader or scatter it evenly by hand. The rate you should be applying is typically 4-6 pounds per 1000 square feet (a 10,000 square foot turf space should be overseeded with about 50 pounds). For bare spots in your lawn: Mix the seed with a little potting soil (soil + compost) and apply it directly as a patch. If rain’s not in the forecast, water it regularly. Every year you do this will mean thicker and less weedy turf.
3. If you’re going to aerate your lawn, do it in fall. Summer is a bad time for aeration simply because you don’t want to distress your lawn any more than you have to during its dormancy. In fall, the grass is growing strong and can recover better from the aeration process. If you’re going to aerate, either hire a company to do core aeration (pulling plugs of soil out of the ground), or rent a core aeration machine and do it yourself. Do NOT succumb to the idea of putting spikes on your shoes and walking around your yard. That simply compacts the soil further. To properly aerate, you need to pull plugs out of the ground so that water and air can get in. Poking holes with spikes won’t do that. That being said, aeration is typically only necessary once every few years, and usually only with over-chemicaled yards. When soil is healthy, full of microbes, worms, bugs and organic matter, it doesn’t need core aeration—the worms and bugs and microbes aerate it for you.
Michigan gives us a glorious six months to garden. Unfortunately, that simply is not enough time for some of our favorite vegetables to be direct sown into the garden. This gives you two options: either start your own or purchase starts from a farm or nursery. If you have a few seasons under your belt and feel confident starting your own here are a few tips and tricks to get you started.
First, start off with a quality seed starting mix. Potting soil, topsoil, or soil out of your garden bed simply will not do for starting seeds. You can purchase premixed organic seed starting mix or you can mix your own. We mix equal parts coconut coir, sand, and vermicompost for successful plant starts.
Next you want to ensure you have fresh seeds from a reputable source. The older your seeds, the less likely they will germinate. To test the viability of your seeds place 10 seeds evenly spaced between two wet paper towels, roll up the paper towels and seal in a plastic bag. Check seeds in two days to two weeks depending on the seed variety.
Finally, timing is everything when it comes to starting seeds. If you start too early your plants can become root bound. On the other hand if you start too late, your seeds will not have the head start they need to reach their full potential. Here is a snapshot of what plants we will start and when here at Good Sweet Earth.
Peppers (sweet, hot, and every kind in between): 2/22
Tomatoes (cherry, paste, slicing): 3/7
Annual Flowers: 4/4
Remember, some vegetables and flowers are best grown by direct sowing including cucumbers, peas, green beans, zucchini, sunflowers and lettuce. Our cool weather crops will go in the ground mid-April depending on the weather. The remaining plants will go in the ground after the last frost on May 16.
Steve & Corey Veldheer are organic yard & garden specialists in west Michigan.