Help the existing grass beef up

Published 10:30 am Sunday, August 14, 2022

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Real lawn care is more than just mowing; it’s caring for a living creature with real needs. Hang on, I’m about to break some stuff down.

Total disclosure: I don’t have a lawn, other than occasionally some pet grass in a pot, but I don’t begrudge anyone having more; I actually love a good lawn.

My very first task as a young nursery employee was rooting thousands of individual stem pieces of a new improved strain of St. Augustine for a researcher. Thousands. I later aced the Turf Management class at MSU and studied at the Scotts Lawn Institute in Ohio. Ask me anything technical about turfgrass, and I’ll bore you to tears.

And though I advocate having a “flower lawn” with low-growing clover and other winter wildflowers, I totally get the satisfaction of having a tidy lawn on which to frolic while creating a calm, unifying landscape scene. Mowing and edging, or paying someone to do this, provides a much-needed satisfaction from accomplishment, and sometimes even a foot up in some social orders. Compared with bare dirt or paving, a lawn cools things down in the summer and reduces dust, mud, and erosion. And mowable winter and spring wildflowers absolutely provide crucial succor to cold bees and butterflies.

But those perfectly understandable, mostly human-centric values aren’t good enough for the lawn itself; it takes more than desire and mowing to have a healthy lawn that doesn’t shut down in summer heat and drought or get wiped out by insects or diseases or taken over by sturdier, non-turf plants we derisively call weeds.

To get a better grip on what we are doing out there, ponder the deconstructionist’s perspective, that a lawn is an artificially maintained plains. A fake meadow usually sans wildflowers. From an environmental view, it’s an unnatural concentration of non-native plants that excludes native plants and wildlife.

Okay, that was a bit harsh. But for an insightful way to look at what we are maintaining, consider it from the turfgrass’s POV: A lawn is a constantly reproducing mat of individual plants, each living only a few weeks while trying to send out replacement plants. Your lawn from this spring is long gone, replaced entirely by the summer lawn which is trying to replace itself before winter shuts it down.

And to do this it needs energy from the sun, water, air, and nutrients, much of which happens naturally. Most of the time. This is why a shaded, never-watered or-fertilized lawn is usually thin and weedy, while more durable, deeper-rooted weeds that grow better in similar conditions thrive.

A thick, deep-rooted lawn therefore needs a little more than mere mowing to survive and replace itself. More than simply thinking reactively about keeping the current lawn alive, think proactively and look for ways to help it replace itself before it dies. It’s not hard; just mow high, fertilize at least every 3-4 years (grass clippings recycle a lot of nutrients), and water at least once a month when there is no rain.

It’s not too late to start. “Winterizer” fertilizer is best applied this month, not later, to help the existing grass beef up, replace itself, and settle down before fall. Get it done soon. A good monthly soaking when there isn’t enough rain will perk it up, jumpstarting new growth, helping the next lawn get well established.

No matter what a lawn means to you, it’s a living creature with needs other than being kept neat. Help it out this month, and it will go into the fall and winter refreshed, better able to help you out next spring.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to