Summer is coming - is your lawn ready?

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- When folks find out I have a degree in Landscape Architecture, usually the next comment from their lips is "what do you know about lawns?" Over the past three weeks, approximately thirty people have stopped me and asked the same question. This makes me believe there are more people out there who might be looking for some guidance on their lawns.

When it comes to any type of landscaping everyone must realize that we are in San Angelo, a semi-arid part of West Texas. Most of us come from other parts of the country, such as Ohio, that aren't so arid. Whenever we move we bring along with us our landscape values that we grew up with and, right or wrong, we try to impose them on our new home.

In Ohio, I grew up on a 50-acre farm that had rolling hills of soybeans and alfalfa. I would love to re-create the green grass and tall elm trees in my new home here, however, I recognize that the climate here will not support those landscape values and it would be irresponsible of me to waste the enormous amount of water it would take to sustain it.

So what does this mean to you and why is this important here in West Texas? Water is a valuable commodity here in West Texas. When we use it, we must use it wisely. A yard is one of the greatest wasters of water in a landscape. Am I saying you can't have your beautiful suburban yard of grass? No, I'm just going to give you some tips on how to get your yard in the most water friendly possible way. So here we go!

1. Determine how much yard you really need: Where do you "need" your grass area? Do you just need it in a certain area for the kids to play? Or for the dog to exercise in and do its business? Once you figure out what you need, look at what you want. Are there areas you just "want" grass? Just remember you don't need to have a full grass yard in the front and back, it's usually a "want-to-have." To conserve water, you should minimize your lawn area to the need-to-have areas with only one or two want-to-have areas. Groundcovers can mimic lawn areas where you don't need a lawn or you can install gravel or other xeriscaping methods to reduce your lawn footprint.

2. Get your soil tested: According to the Tom Green County Extension Service, you should test your soil every two to three years. It is very important to know the acidity and nutrient levels of your soil before installing or treating your yard. You can pick up soil testing forms and collection bags at the Tom Green CES (online at http://tomgreen-co.tamu.edu). You can then mail the soil sample to Texas A&M for $10 - $15, or you can take a soil sample to SK Labs in town.

3. Your local county extension service is your best friend: Your local CES should always be your first stop when you have a gardening or lawn issue. Your second stop should be a local nursery. The CES can give you a list of lawns that do well in the area. If your lawn is diseased, the CES or the local nurseryman can help you diagnose the problem.

4. Use grass that is native to or grows well in the area and is not water intensive: The five most common grasses used in this area are: St Augustine, Bermuda, Buffalo, Fescue and Zoysia. Well, which one is the best for you? Some basic information on each of the types is in the table below, but you'll need to work with a local nurseryman to determine which exact grass is right for your situation. Each type of grass has different varieties whose characteristics might vary from the basic information listed here.

5. Compost: Add one half inch of good compost to your yard every spring and fall with a spreader. Once you spread it across the lawn, water it in. This will add good nutrients to your soil as well as add to your soil profile. Good finished compost is difficult to find in this area.

6. Spring Fertilization: Usually you don't apply fertilizer until your grass has started regrowing after the dormant winter season. You should usually mow your lawn two or three times before applying fertilizer. Do you remember the soil test mentioned earlier? That will help you out when you determine the fertilizer as well as any other amendments to add to your soil. Different types of lawn require different frequency and amounts of fertilizer. Read the package of your fertilizer and make sure you use the right amount for your lawn. In order to utilize the right amount you must know the square footage of your lawn. Don't overfertilize!

Phosphorous tends to run high in Texas soils, get your soil tested and take the test to the location you purchase your fertilizer. They will help you choose the right fertilizer for your soil. Grass in the shade needs less fertilizer than grass in the sun, cut the rate in half for shaded areas. 50% of the nitrogen content in any fertilizer you use should be 'slow release.' Make sure you irrigate one inch to one and one half inches right after applying fertilizer. If you don't get your soil tested, according to the extension service 21-0-0 or 33-0-0 is typically a good basic fertilizer for this area.

7. Soil: A good, healthy lawn typically has a six-to-12-inch layer of soil underneath it. Typical new homes in the area only come with four inches of top soil. If you're putting down a new lawn check your soil profile in several areas. Not at least six inches? Then increase your soil profile with a mixture of top soil and compost (see above) before you put down your lawn.

8. Thatch: Running (rhizome) grasses such as St. Augustine will typically develop a thatch problem every two or three above average rainfall years. The grass will start thinning and leave large brown patch areas around the yard. If your thatch measures more than one half inch, it should be de-thatched. Thatch layers of one quarter inch to one half inch are healthy and will help keep your grass healthy. Thatch usually isn't a problem here because of the low humidity.

9. Mowing:

- Always use a sharp blade (blades should be sharpened or replaced at the beginning of the growing season)

- Always mow you grass to the correct height. Every type of grass has a different minimum height. Cutting your grass too low only damages your grass and increases the likelihood for disease or drought stress. As the drought season sets in, increase the mowing height gradually. According to the extension service, the taller the grass, the longer the roots, the more drought tolerant the grass becomes.

- Use the proper mower for your grass type and your situation. Some grasses are better cut with a reel mower.

- At least every other mow, don't bag the grass. Let it compost on your yard. This allows nutrients to return to the soil as well as add to your soil profile.

- Never remove more than one third of the grass blade. If you have to cut more, set your mower to the highest level. Return in four or five days and remove the remaining amount. Cutting off more will stress the plant and could turn brown. This is a big step in controlling weeds.

And most importantly...

10. Watering:

- Newly laid lawns should receive frequent, short bouts (20 minutes) of watering until established.

- Established lawns should receive 1" of water each time it's irrigated. (This usually amounts to 45 minutes of watering) This can be measured by putting out coffee cans in various areas of your yard.

- Once water starts running off your lawn onto the street or sidewalk, turn off your water for at least 10-15 minutes and then turn the water back on. Heavy clay soils (Southland, base housing) could be preventing the water from penetrating the soil.

- It is not good to over water your lawn, too much water leaves it vulnerable to drought stress later.

- Watering in the morning between 4 and 6 a.m. is usually the best time to water. The water has time to sink into the soil before the sun hits full strength. Watering at night between 6 and 7 p.m. is the second best time to water. Never water during the day between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Most of the water will evaporate and you increase the possibility of the grass being scorched.

Hopefully, this top ten list will help arm you with information as you begin the yearly fight of obtaining the perfect yard! As always, use local nurserymen, the County Extension Service, and other local experts to help you make the best decision for your yard.