Category Archives: Grass

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 4)

Pest and disease control

lawn-fence
The healthier your lawn is, the more likely it is to resist pests and diseases. Some pests, however, can be hard to avoid—particularly white grubs. Grubs are the larvae of beetles (primarily Japanese beetles and masked chafers) that develop in the ground. When the population of grubs is significant, you will start seeing brown patches in your lawn, particularly toward late summer. To make matters worse, grubs are a delicacy for some animals, such as skunks and raccoons. Sometimes the problem goes unnoticed until you see holes dug in your turf one morning. Grubs like sunny areas with moisture, and are not often found in shade or in dry lawns.

If you see brown patches in your turf, you can lift up a piece of turf where the brown patch meets green lawn and look at the roots to check. The grubs are white and C-shaped. It only takes about 10 grubs per square foot of lawn to cause visible damage.

If you catch the problem early, or if you see a large adult population of beetles,  Almstead lawn technicians usually perform a summer lawn treatment.  Although mid-summer and fall treatments are sometimes effective, June is the best time to prevent grubs from damaging your lawn.

There is also an effective organic treatment for grubs which we use, which utilizes milky spore, a grub-killing bacterial powder. However, this only works on Japanese Beetle grubs and must build up in your soil over time to work. We can test your lawn to identify what type of grub is living there.

Other insects, such as chinchbugs, can be damaging to lawns. When you see yellowing patches, or grass blades that have been notched and nibbled, we try to identify the insect responsible and narrowly target it with the appropriate control.

Lawn diseases are usually fungal. Fortunately, they are not common. Unfortunately, they can be difficult to diagnose and can spread quickly. If you suspect your lawn is suffering from disease rather than insect damage, it’s wise to have a sample taken and analyzed in order to determine the right treatment.

The best prevention for lawn disease and pests is maintaining the health of the lawn. A well-nourished, watered, well-mown lawn becomes a self-sustaining system that is hostile to predators.

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 3)

Weed Control

weeds

There is no universal definition of a weed. You may be content to see clover among the grass stalks in your lawn, while someone else reaches for the Roundup. Some people carefully scrutinize their lawns and remove any undesirables with tweezers while others are content as long as the weeds are green. Is it enough to eliminate the crabgrass and broadleaf weeds and leave some clover mixed in your lawn? Or do you want a lawn as luxuriant as a golf course green?

Frankly, having a completely weed-free lawn is setting the bar rather high, and will require frequent application of weed control products. Since most herbicides are synthetic, a totally weed-free lawn is not compatible with an organic-only care philosophy.

There are two major categories of weed control: pre-emergent and post-emergent. The pre-emergent treatments prevent seeds from germinating. This helps control weeds like crabgrass, which begin from seed each year. There are several kinds of synthetic pre-emergent products available. Pre-emergent herbicides won’t do much to get rid of plants like dandelions that overwinter in your lawn and spread through roots.

Post-emergent herbicides target broadleaf weeds, such as dandelions, plantain and ground-ivy.  Some can be applied to the entire lawn; others are made to squirt directly onto the offending weed.  The herbicide will be absorbed into the weed and kill it off, roots and all. Be careful – it will kill anything it touches with leaves, including your annuals and perennials.

There are no comparable herbicides in organic care. Ideally, as you create a healthier environment for grass, it will become harder for weeds to compete. Weeds tend to thrive and out-compete grass in compacted soil—which is why annual core aeration is a good technique. There are organic vinegar-based  spot-herbicides that can be sprayed on weeds—but they can kill grass as well, if you’re not careful. Perhaps the best organic practice is to pull weeds by hand. There are several hand tools designed to remove weeds; just make sure you extract the entire root or the weed will grow back.

How often you apply weed controls depends upon your philosophy and your budget. Although pre-emergent controls are usually applied in early spring, the post-emergent controls can be applied as you notice the weeds appearing. You can just use them in the areas where weeds are apparent. They are usually applied when the lawn is dry; they need a few hours free of rain or watering. When Almstead provides lawn care to our clients, we typically offer two applications of pre-emergent herbicide in spring, and then follow up with monthly inspections, applying post-emergent controls as necessary.

Hand-pulling weeds is usually easiest when the ground is moist. If you intend to compost the weeds, make sure you turn your compost pile often and that it gets warm enough to kill the seeds (over 131 degrees). Otherwise, you’ll wind up cultivating them rather than killing them.

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 2)

Fertilization

How you nourish your lawn depends a lot upon your “turf philosophy.” A wide range of choices are available, from totally organic to traditional synthetic products—and combinations in between.

turf

Whatever your philosophy on type of care, it’s useful to begin by having your soil tested. The cost is nominal and it’s easy to do: There are both mail-in and drop-off labs you can use. Once you have a soil analysis, you can fertilize with the products that are right for your property.

In fertilizing lawns, less is often more. Too many people (including landscapers sometimes, unfortunately) dump large amounts of products on lawns, without understanding what the turf actually needs and can absorb. The goal is to create a healthy lawn ecosystem, which will ultimately lead to less use of soil amendments. (See the earlier post about the value of core aeration and composting.) When you add too much of some synthetic fertilizers, it will either wash through the soil unused or actually damage the turf by “burning” the grass.

One of the advantages of organic products is that they are far less likely to damage turf. Organic fertilizers break down slowly and gradually release their nutrients to improve the structure of the soil. This means that it will take longer to see results from organic products; the soil improvements from organic fertilizers will ultimately lead to improved turf, but it could take a couple of seasons. In order to expedite this process, some organic lawn care specialists (including Almstead), “brew” Compost Teas that contains live beneficial microorganisms. This liquid compost can be used to add these organisms directly to the soil, offering a boost to the organic soil improvement process.

One of the questions I’m often asked is, “How much and how often should I fertilize?” This depends on your lawn goals, available time (assuming you’re doing it yourself) and budget. In general, 2 pounds of nitrogen is the right amount for per 1,000 square feet of lawn in our area, but soil testing may modify that proportion for your property. The rule of thumb for timing is to fertilize around Memorial Day and Labor Day—and that’s not a bad plan. We have many clients who are happy with the results of a twice-per-year fertilization program. On the other hand, more frequent fertilization visits allow us to narrowly target the growing cycle of the lawn and tailor nutrition to weather and conditions. So we also offer a six times/year schedule (organic, traditional or mixed). That level of attention usually leads to a lawn that looks lush, plush and close to perfect.

Patience and consistency are important in developing beautiful turf: your lawn won’t go from scrub to velvet in a single season. Consistent care, including proper mowing and watering, will help your lawn look great.

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 1)

Prepping and Mowing 

Having a beautiful lawn requires attention. Over the next few weeks, our blog will cover a few of the most important dynamics of creating lush, green turf.  We’ll begin with lawn prepping and mowing and then cover fertilization, weed control and pest/disease control.

Lawn2

Creating a healthy lawn is a process that starts with choosing the right grass seed for your location. The first thing to understand is: grass doesn’t grow in the shade. While some grass is more tolerant of shade than others, it will still need several hours of dappled sunlight in order to look good.  Often it’s possible to thin out trees to permit enough light to reach the lawn. If the area is permanently in shade, you might want to forget about planting grass there, in favor of ground cover, hardscape or mulch.

Several varieties of grass are commonly planted in our area; each has its own strengths and drawbacks. There is no “right” grass for all lawns. The right grass for you depends on your soil, sunlight and priorities: do you want a lawn that stays green into fall? Or grass that can take a beating from active play? Or a lawn that can survive with less water?

Kentucky Bluegrass is popular and durable but doesn’t like shade. Fescue and perennial ryegrass are also common in our area, and are more shade tolerant. Most lawns are planted with a mix of these grasses, and different grasses will dominate different areas of your lawn.

It’s often useful to begin your lawn program by checking for soil compaction. Try inserting a long screwdriver into the turf. If it doesn’t easily go in 6” deep, the soil is too compacted to encourage your grass to grow. You’ll want to use a core aerator to pull plugs from the soil and stimulate the roots to grow. This will also help to avoid thatch buildup. If you don’t use a professional for this task, rent or borrow an aerator: the spike shoes and hand tools you see advertised really don’t do the job.This is typically a fall activity, because the plugs may contain weed seed that you don’t want to encourage to grow.

Top dressing with a thin layer of compost in the spring will also get your lawn off to a good start. (This can also be done in fall.) Overseeding can help fill in bare patches.

One of the most important parts of lawn care is mowing. Proper mowing actually encourages your lawn to grow thicker and stronger, by channeling the growth energy into the roots. We recommend setting your lawnmower at 3” – 4”. Maintaining a lawn at less than that makes the lawn very vulnerable to drying out and scorching.

Many people are using mulching mowers now, too, which distribute the grass cuttings back into the lawn, where they decompose, releasing their nutrients back to the soil. Most experts recommend mowing about 1/3 of the length of the blade every time you mow. For mulching mowers, this will keep the cuttings short enough to sink back into the lawn.

Beating Heat Stress

We are at the peak of summer, and the weather can have a toll on your trees, shrubs and lawn. Extended periods of heat and humidity, along with bright sunshine, warm nights and inadequate rain can lead to summer stress on your landscape.

soaker-hose
Arranging a soaker hose to cover the critical root zone of a tree is a great method for the slow, saturated watering that’s best for trees.

Horticulturally speaking, the first place many people notice the effects of heat stress is on lawns, which have the good sense to go dormant and wait it out. We definitely recommend a combination of over-seeding and core aeration this fall to help rejuvenate your grass as the summer comes to an end. However, lawns are actually faring better than many trees, although the symptoms may not be as obvious.

Plants are constantly losing water through tiny holes in their leaves through a process called transpiration, and when it’s hot, the rate of that water loss increases. Add to that a lack of adequate rainfall, and the result is often stressed plant material. The problem facing trees is that they’re really big, and they do not have the luxury of going dormant in hot summer months, like lawns. Instead, trees have a lot of active leaves, so they lose a lot of water, and their roots are searching to replace that water in some pretty dry ground.

Trees suffering from heat stress face problems with producing new growth, healing wounds, and fighting against diseases and insects. If they’re stressed enough, they eventually run out of energy to support their existing growth and begin to decline (sometimes irreversibly). Newly planted (within the last 2 years) and mature trees are the most at risk for serious decline, and we’ve seen both this summer. Some trees that are most prone to heat stress and drought include Birches, American Dogwoods, and Japanese Maples.

dried-leaf

Signs of heat stress in trees tend to develop toward the top of the canopy first, so property owners don’t often notice it right away. They include smaller leaf size, leaf scorch (browning and/or yellowing), wilting, and sometimes loss of foliage (a particularly bad sign). 

 

So, What’s the Solution?

The best way to fight heat stress in trees is through a combination of proper irrigation, mulching, and organic soil amendments.

Irrigation:

Proper irrigation means focusing water on saturating the root zone of a tree. Sprinklers may be good for lawns, but they aren’t going to get the job done for trees. A properly placed soaker hose is a better solution. Treegators are ideal especially for young trees, which run a high risk of suffering heat stress. With a traditional garden hose, it’s also possible to set the flow to a trickle and move the mouth of the hose around to four or five different areas of the root zone over the course of the day.

treegators
Treegators are bags with tiny holes that slowly release water into the root zone of a tree.
Mulch:

A good line of defense against hot weather conditions is to apply a layer of mulch around trees and plants. Light colored mulches are better at reflecting sunlight and keeping the soil cooler in summer. Mulch also reduces evaporation of water from the soil and reduces the need to water constantly. However, to be effective, mulch needs to be applied correctly.

mulch

We recommend a depth of 2-3 inches of mulch for trees and shrubs. It should also cover a diameter of 3-4 feet around trees (to the tree’s drip line ideally) and not pile up against the stem or trunk flare. If you have any questions about mulching, please speak to your Almstead arborist.

Soil Care:

In terms of soil care, organic amendments increase a tree’s drought tolerance without spurring new growth that it can’t afford to support (which is the result of synthetic fertilization of heat stressed plants). Also, by using a soil needle injection method for applying soil amendments (as opposed to a soil drench), we can break up compacted ground and introduce better flow of nutrients, air, and water into the root zone. In addition to Almstead’s organic soil care services our arborists are always glad to advise you on irrigation practices, and we also provide watering services for plants out of reach of irrigation.

To formulate a heat stress survival plan for your trees (and shrubs, and lawn), please schedule a complimentary consultation with your Almstead arborist.

Why Are There So Many Grass Seeds?

What we call “lawn grass” covers a variety of plants from several genera. We typically divide lawn grasses into two broad categories: cool-season and warm-season. In our area, cool-season grasses are grown almost exclusively, since our winters are at the limit of tolerance for warm-season grasses. Four species account for almost all of the seed planted in our area: Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue and fine fescue. The roots of these grasses start growing when temperatures reach about 50 degrees; the shoots start growing quickly when the temperature is in the 60s. As the thermometer reaches 80 degrees, growth slows and the grass becomes dormant in high summer heat.

grass-chart-cornell

As you can see from the accompanying table, each variety of grass has different characteristics. The first important distinction is between sun and shade. Unfortunately, there are few plants that will grow in both full sun and deep shade—including grasses. So if you have a typical lawn (a grassy patch surrounded by trees), you probably have full sun at the center and shade at the edges. This is why sun/shade mixes were developed.

Grass requires sun. When we refer to “shade,” we really mean at least four hours of dappled sun daily. If you get less sun than that, you can sometimes prune your trees to allow more light to reach the grass. If you have deep shade, a ground cover such as pachysandra or mulch is a better choice.

While a sun/shade mix is generally the best choice for the varied conditions of a lawn, you may want to choose a single grass to meet the conditions of a specific area. When you’re filling in patches in the shade, you could use fine fescue alone or a shade mix. Similarly, a sunny spot will do well with Kentucky bluegrass or almost any mix.

Sometimes sun vs. shade is not the only consideration. If you have kids frequently playing on the lawn, rugged quick-growing tall fescue may be a better choice. This is also a good choice for a slope, and has the benefit of better drought tolerance. However, because tall fescue is a coarser grass, it doesn’t have the silky appearance that a fine grass has. If you want a strong, low-maintenance lawn, a blend of 65 percent tall fescue (combined with 15 percent perennial ryegrass and 20 percent Kentucky bluegrasses or something similar) is a good choice.

The grass that we grow for our lawns was originally brought from Europe along with the animals that like to eat it; these grasses quickly replaced our native grasses. As many of us have become more interested in native plants, there has been renewed interest in buffalo grass, which originally covered the Great Plains. Buffalo grass is a warm-season grass, but can be grown in our area. Except for seedheads, it stops growing at 4 to 6 inches, so it requires little mowing. There are some problems in planting buffalo grass, however: it requires full sun. It is also killed by traditional lawn weed controls; hand weeding is usually necessary.

Salt Damage to Turf and Trees

One of the effects of Hurricane Sandy was coastal flooding. The result is that many areas of turf and trees have been either submerged in salt water or deluged with salt spray. While coastal plantings are usually salt-tolerant, many areas further inland have received a dose of salt that can be toxic to grass, plants and trees. The effect of salt is so damaging that it was used as a weapon in ancient times to destroy an enemy’s crops.

When the soil’s salt content increases, roots find it harder to take in water. At elevated salt levels, water within the root can actually be drawn out of the plant, causing wilting.  Neither sodium nor chlorine is generally good for plants (trees take the small amount of chlorine they need from the atmosphere).  The sodium will displace essential nutrients like potassium, calcium, and magnesium, making them unavailable to the plants. At the same time, the roots take in the chloride ions and transport them to the leaves, where they accumulate and interfere with chlorophyll production and photosynthesis.

Grass damaged by sea salt
Grass damaged by sea salt

“The solution to pollution is dilution” is an adage that is appropriate here.  Since salt is water soluble, it can be further diluted and washed through the soil by adding more water. Water your turf and plantings until the soil can’t absorb any more, wait for it to drain completely, and then water again. Keep it up until the ground freezes.

If your Almstead turf specialist suspects that there is too much salt to be eliminated by dilution alone, he will probably test the soil to determine the level. If the salt level is too high, we usually add gypsum to the soil through core aeration. We also have organic amendments containing humates that can speed up the process. With early action, the effects of Sandy’s salt water bath should be mitigated by spring.

Post Storm Cleanup

Anyone who has trees – and a few who don’t – is now faced with post-Sandy cleanup. While you’re surveying the trees and branches that have fallen on your property, don’t forget to look up. As you clean up your yard and get back to pre-storm life, it is important to carefully scrutinize the surrounding trees.

These crossing branches can indicate a  shift in one of trees.
These crossing branches can indicate a shift in one of trees.

Many branches that snap off in the wind don’t make it to the ground right away. They can be hung up on the lower branches of a tree or powerlines. These branches could drop to the ground because of a gentle breeze, a frisky squirrel, or just the passage of time. If branches are hanging on an electric line, stay clear and call your electric utility. If they are in a tree, stay clear and call Almstead.

Look at your trees carefully. Has there been any shifting? If you are familiar with your trees, you may notice a change in their outline against the sky. Take a good look at the roots for any sign of upheaval. If a tree’s balance has shifted, it could fall without the aid of a hurricane. Sometimes stress cracks will appear that make the tree vulnerable to failure. Also, any tree that has been cabled or braced should be checked to see that everything is still intact. An annual inspection by an arborist is always a good idea, but it is even more important after a major storm.

This cracked soil indicates a shift in the roots.
This cracked soil indicates a shift in the roots.

It is often necessary to follow up storm damage with additional pruning. Branches that have been snapped or ripped off – or incorrectly pruned by an emergency service – are much more likely to decay. Following up with proper pruning cuts is better for the health of the tree.

When cleaning up after the storm, we don’t recommend that you use a chainsaw unless you are trained and are wearing protective clothing: our tree crews wear glasses, gloves and chaps. Chainsaws are dangerous even in experienced hands; there is always a danger of the log or the saw springing back. Our advice is to call us to cut up any large branches or fallen trees.

The Secrets of Compost Tea

Last month, Almstead had the opportunity to conduct a workshop on Compost Tea and Air Spading for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). Arborist Dan Dalton and I, along with compost tea brewing specialist Russell Wagner and lawn technician Marc San Phillipo and several other Almstead professionals, really enjoyed being able to share our knowledge and experience with others interested in organic tree and plant care.

The workshop was intensive. We covered both the science behind Compost Tea brewing and the practical issues and hurdles to creating a brewing business. I’ve been involved in Almstead’s evolution into organic care from the beginning and believe that products like compost tea are win-win: healthier for the lawns and trees as well as the environment, friendlier to consumers, and safer for everyone.

Michael Almstead, August 9, 2012.  The Compost Tea Workshop was held on the beautiful  campus of Rye Country Day School.
Michael Almstead, August 9, 2012.
The Compost Tea Workshop was held on the beautiful campus of Rye Country Day School.

Brewing high-quality compost tea is an involved, scientific and careful process. Compost tea is NOT a slurry of compost and water. It must be carefully balanced to meet the nutritional requirements of the plants it’s meant for.  It contains living organisms that have to be kept alive through constant aeration – both while the tea is brewing and in the truck delivering it.

Continual aeration is a necessity for compost tea.
Continual aeration is a necessity for compost tea.

We have a mini science lab in our Compost Tea brewing facility, where we examine everything going into the tea. We want it loaded with beneficial organisms, both bacteria and fungi; we add them, and make sure they are live and happy (and in the proper proportions) in the tea before we apply it. We also make sure that no damaging organisms are sneaking into our mixture.  This quality control is vital to brewing compost tea – without it, you’d  just be delivering a truckload of dirty water.

We have a rather substantial Compost Tea brewing operation here at Almstead. Compost tea is an organic way of adding nutrients and microorganisms to the soil – sort of a jump-start for soil to rejuvenate itself, making it more attractive for worms and other beneficial organisms, and keeping the process of soil development going. And it dramatically cuts down the use of chemicals, a plus for both for the environment and for people who are exposed to their lawns.

Russell Wagner microscopically checks our Compost Tea  for the proper microorganisms and fungi.
Russell Wagner microscopically checks our Compost Tea for the proper microorganisms and fungi.

Dan Dalton taught the segment on soil properties. He emphasized the necessity of understanding the chemical, physical and biological elements of soil in order to create a compost tea – sometimes augmented by other organic amendments – that facilitates the right soil profile. This goes way beyond simple pH – it includes factors such as adjusting the particle size of soil components and encouraging symbiotic fungi that help keep damaging organisms away from tree roots.

We create different teas for lawns and for trees because of their varying requirements. Lawns need a higher ratio of bacteria, while trees require more fungi. For large locations (like a college campus or business park) we can create a Compost Tea based on soil testing. Sometimes we add specialized ingredients like nematodes or mycorrhizal fungi to meet their specific needs.  We talked in general about recipes for compost teas – but the formulae that Almstead has carefully developed for our clients remains a closely-guarded company secret.

Dan Dalton describes the nutrient cycle.
Dan Dalton describes the nutrient cycle.

Our NOFA presentation also included a demonstration of air spading. Air spading (using compressed air to loosen soil around tree roots) is a wonderful tool of organic tree care. There are several methods we can choose from, depending upon the results desired. Essentially, by using the air spade, we can loosen and/or remove compacted soil. We fill in with looser soil and amendments, allowing the tree roots to “breathe,” encouraging them to grow and giving them easier access to the nutrients and water in the soil.

Russell performed air spading on one of the Rye Country Day School campus trees. Since fibrous roots are concentrated in the top 8” of soil, compaction can deprive a tree of both oxygen and nutrients. First , he excavated the critical root zone around the trunk, easing soil compaction and allowing examination of the roots for signs of girdling or disease; then he air spaded out radially from the trunk (like slicing a pie).  These slices were filled with compost and other soil amendments to provide the roots with easy access to oxygen, water and nutrients.

The participants examine fibrous roots exposed by air spading.
The participants examine fibrous roots exposed by air spading.
Marc San Phillipo demonstrates soil injection  of compost tea into the root zone.
Marc San Phillipo demonstrates soil injection of compost tea into the root zone.

Mark San Phillipo also demonstrated the soil injection of compost tea into the root zone. Compost tea can also be used as a soil drench.

By the end of the day, the workshop participants seemed to leave with a new appreciation for these important tools in organic plant care.

– Michael Almstead, VP  & Arborist

Almstead Arborist, Gary Norman, Preserving Trees in Greenwich

One of our arborists, Gary Norman, was recently featured in the Greenwich Daily Voice for his work in preserving trees in Greenwich. Three 150-year-old trees planted in front of Greenwich Academy are among the ones he has worked to protect and preserve.

 “It’s rewarding to have the opportunity to keep historic trees in good health by protecting them from pressures such as disease, microclimate change and construction,” says Gary.

In fact, it’s not just large construction projects that can damage trees – home construction can be deadly as well. Fortunately, the majority of construction damage can be mitigated with the guidance of a qualified arborist along with the full involvement and cooperation of all parties involved in the project: from architects to subcontractors to landscapers. The process begins with identifying the trees to be preserved. Next, we try to protect the tree from the construction process. This includes making sure the tree is well fertilized, watered and mulched and protected by fencing. We try to minimize the compaction of soil over the tree roots – ideally the fence includes the entire root zone. If it is necessary to cut the roots, an arborist can usually sever them with far less impact to the tree than a contractor.

New grading and drainage can leave this tree thirsty.
New grading and drainage can leave this tree thirsty.

Gary, like all our Almstead arborists, has had a lot of experience with this process. “Most people are aware of the most obvious effects of construction, like damaging the tree trunk or compacting the soil,” he notes. “But there are other effects that are more subtle. For example, cutting down surrounding trees can leave a tree suddenly exposed to sunlight and wind – conditions that some trees can’t thrive in. Another problem is changing the grading or drainage: these improvements can literally leave a tree high and dry, without enough water to nourish it.”

We all need to adapt to change at times, including trees. Conscientious care from an Almstead arborist can help these trees have the best chance for survival.