Virginia Lawn Care Guide
Virginia is a beautiful state with some of the most impressive lawns around. If you’re a Virginian resident and care deeply about your lawn’s appearance then you’re in the right place! Read below to learn how to properly manage your Virginia lawn care routine.
Proper Lawn Mowing Techniques
For many Virginia homeowners, lawn care is about getting the best turf, applying the right nutrients, protecting against the most difficult bugs and diseases, and setting up an optimum watering schedule. While all of these lawn care strategies are certainly important, one of the most overlooked aspects of a healthy lawn care routine is how and when you mow.
While some people may actually dread getting out there old push mower during the heat and humidity of the summer and thus delay the inevitable mowing until their yards look like a mini-jungle, others love the relaxing routine of mowing their yard and may mow several times each week simply for an excuse to get outside and be in their yard. However, both of these tendencies can be damaging to your lawn, even if you have invested a sizeable amount of time and money in purchasing the best inputs for your grass.
In this first chapter, we offer five ideas for the best lawn mowing techniques that every Virginia homeowner should know and understand.
The 1/3 Principle
One of the first questions that almost every homeowner asks is: “how often should I mow my lawn?” In truth, there is not an exact answer to that question as the best time to mow will depend on the season, the climate, rainfall patterns, and other external factors. For example, during a prolonged drought in the middle of summer, your grass growth patterns will most likely be stunted. Even if you are watering sporadically, grass growth will inevitably be more sluggish in times of drought and regular mowing can cause irreparable damage to the roots of the grass.
The 1/3 principle simply states that you should never cut your grass to more than one-third of its original height. However, different types of grasses thrive at different heights. In Virginia, two of the most common and popular types of turfs for lawns are Kentucky Bluegrass and Tall Fescue grass. While both of these types of grasses are resilient and are great options for lawns, they do thrive at different heights.
Tall fescue grass, as its name implies, does best when cut 1.5 and 3 inches, while Kentucky Bluegrass can be cut shorter and still do well at a height of .75 to 2 inches. Thus, the 1/3 principle will require homeowners to understand the type of grass that they have and mow accordingly. If you want to keep your Kentucky bluegrass to about one inch in height, you should always mow before the grass grows to a height of 3 inches to avoid harming the root system through cutting too much of the blade.
Never Cut Too Short
While those carpet-like grasses on the golf course greens certainly look appealing, homeowners in Virginia should avoid the temptation to cut their lawns too short. While wading through a lawn with 6-inch high grass is not pleasing and defeats the purpose of having a lawn to play in, regularly cutting your grass too short can cause damage to the root system.
Deeper grasses between 3 and 4 inches in height are usually more resilient during periods of drought due to the more developed root system. Furthermore, in the winter, cool season grasses tend to withstand the colder temperatures better if they are longer. Lastly, a deep and thick cover of grass might eliminate problems with weeds such as crabgrass as the thick root system will outcompete other invasive weed species.
Change Your Mowing Paths
We are certainly creatures of habit, and almost all homeowners tend to fall into routines when it comes to their mowing procedures. However, following the exact same path when mowing week after week can negatively affect the growth of your grass. The weight of the mower will push the grass in one direction and can cause the individual blades of grass to develop and set in a given direction.
By altering your mowing directions on a weekly basis, you will achieve a more even cut as grass blades will be encouraged to grow in an upright and vertical direction. Fortunately, you can follow a similar mowing route, but simply start at opposite ends of your first row every time that you mow.
By changing your mowing paths on a regular basis, you can also experiment with that coveted striped look that reminds people of the outfield grass at the baseball stadium. The striped look on lawns is simply the way that light reflects off of the individual blades of grass. Essentially, blades of grass that are bent towards you will look darker while blades of glass bent away will look brighter. By changing your mowing patterns, you can develop unique, aesthetic stripes across your lawn while simultaneously encouraging your grass to grow in a healthy, upright manner.
Don’t Remove the Clippings
Bagging your grass clippings after each mow is an unnecessary and tedious job that actually does more harm than good. While some lawn care professionals will rake and bag up the grass clippings after each mowing, this actually is robbing the lawn of a needed source of nutrition.
Blades of grass are about 75% water, so they will decompose relatively quickly. As they decompose, however, they offer a mulch that will give needed nutrients to the roots of your lawn while also covering any bare patches and thus protecting against the growth of weeds and other invasive species.
If your grass was particularly high or if you mowed when it was wet and you find that your mower left clods of grass clippings scattered throughout your yard, simply take a rake and loosen them. After a day, the clippings will filter down to the root zone of the grass and will no longer be noticeable.
Proper Lawn Mower Maintenance in Virginia
Lastly, it is important to make sure that you have the proper machine for the job. Both push mowers and riding lawn mowers can be used for proper lawn maintenance. However, you need to make sure that your blades are sharpened to cut grass effectively. Dull blades, instead of cutting the grass, will actually pull at the roots and cause damage to the grass.
Ideally, you should have your lawnmower blades sharpened at the beginning of the season and at least once in mid-summer when you are mowing regularly.
These five simple tips will make sure that your mowing techniques are actively improving the health and vitality of your grass.
What Grass is Right for You? A look at the Best Grasses for Virginia Homeowners
Grass is grass, right? To the uninformed homeowner, this might be true, but any experienced lawn professional will let you know that the best type of grass for a particular lawn will depend on several different factors ranging from the type of soil to climate conditions to the availability of the homeowner to dedicate time to his or her grass.
The state of Virginia is part of what is known as a “transition zone”, meaning that the cold winters and hot summers make it somewhat difficult to try and find the best type of grass that adapts to our particular climate. The transition zone covers much of the middle part of the United States where it usually too cold in the winter for warm season grasses to survive and too hot in the summer for cool-season grasses to thrive. While folks in the northern states might be able to easily grow any number of cool-season turfgrasses and people in the warmer climates of the south can easily opt for the grass varieties that thrive in hot climates, our wide-ranging climate makes it a bit trickier to find the best grass.
While cool season turf grasses like fescue and bluegrass might stay green all winter long, they may also suffer during those extended summer droughts. Similarly, the types of grass that thrive in warm weather such as Bermuda grass will most likely turn brown during those long, cold months of winter.
In this third chapter of our lawn care handbook, we offer detailed descriptions of the pros and cons of different types of grasses that are commonly grown by Virginia homeowners. Furthermore, we also offer a few recommendations on what to consider when choosing the best grass variety to achieve that perfect lawn year round.
The Cool Season Turf Grass Varieties
Cool season turfgrass varieties are those that grow best between a temperature range of 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, they won´t necessarily die as soon as the thermometer goes outside these parameters. However, they generally tolerate the winter much better and will stay green even when snow is on the ground.
The most common type of grass grown in the United States is Kentucky Bluegrass. This grass variety is differentiated by its dark green color and generally do not do well during long, hot dry spells. Furthermore, this grass spreads aggressively through rhizomes which might be an attractive feature if you´re trying to cover a barren patch of lawn.
If you live in an area where summer temperatures will stay in the high 90s for weeks on end, Kentucky bluegrass might not be for you. However, if you live at higher elevations where the temperature tends to stay lower or where the hottest parts of the day don´t last but an hour or two, then Kentucky bluegrass might work. Furthermore, new hybrid varieties that combine Kentucky bluegrass with Texas bluegrass have shown promise for areas that want the thick green foliage that this species offers while also offering superior resistance to higher temperatures during the summer.
Another common type of grass grown in Virginia is Tall Fescue. This grass thrives at a minimum height of 3-4 inches, which makes it a great choice for homeowners who want a low-maintenance lawn that doesn’t need to be mowed on a weekly basis. This grass is unique in that it tolerates several different soil conditions. Even if you moved into a new home that has a compacted clay lawn, with a little bit of dedication and care you should be able to establish a thriving tall fescue lawn.
While tall fescue is classified as a cool season grass, its preference for taller heights allows it to develop a more resilient root system that can better withstand the high temperatures of summer while also thriving during much of the winter. It also does well in partial shade.
This type of grass is seldom used anymore by Virginia homeowners due to fungal problems in the past. However, if you live in areas of Virginia with elevations over 2,000 feet, this may be the best grass option for your new lawn as it germinates extremely quickly and will rapidly cover even an empty and barren lot with a thick layer of vegetation.
Perennial ryegrass does suffer at lower elevations where higher summer temperatures are common and will be more susceptible to disease in warmer areas.
Warm Season Grasses
The warm season grasses that are adaptable to Virginia´s climate will most likely easily endure the long dry spells of summer. They thrive in temperatures up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit and usually do well during droughts as well. However, the coldness of winter will cause many warm-season grass types to lose their color and temporarily turn brown until the arrival of spring.
This grass is renowned for its vigorous growth habits. It expands by both above ground stolons and below ground rhizomes. A barren lot can become completely covered by Bermuda grass in as little as a couple of weeks. Furthermore, Bermuda grass thrives in dry and even drought conditions. If you have garden areas near your yard where you want to avoid the penetration of grass, you might be reconsider planting Bermuda grass as it can be readily invasive and close to impossible to get rid of once it makes its way into your garden or flower beds.
Zoysia Grass is a great option for Virginia homeowners who live in areas with relatively mild winters. While classified as a warm season grass, Zoysia grass is the coldest hardy variety and can stay green well into the deep months of winter. It does, however, take a long time to get established, and needs an extremely sharp lawn mower blade to get the job done correctly. However, once established, Zoysia grass is extremely thick and will naturally keep away almost all sorts of weeds and other disease problems.
If you don´t mind the extra labor and maintenance, one way that you can get the best out of both the cool season grasses and the warm season grasses is through growing a fast growing warm season grass like Bermuda grass during the summer and then overseed the Bermuda Grass with cool season varieties in late autumn.
This will allow you to have a lawn that stays green and vibrant in the summer while also maintaining its verdure throughout the winter when you transition to a cool season grass like Tall Fescue.
Knowing your soil is a critical step to Virginia lawn care
One of the most amazing aspects of many species of grass is that it can seemingly grow in even the absolutely worse soil. In fact, on many house construction sites, the 2×4 and plywood structure is surrounded by sterile clay soil that is compacted for months on end by heavy machines and construction workers. Once the house is finished, however, construction companies usually apply a generous amount of grass seed, cover that seed with straw, and in a couple of weeks the muddy, infertile, hard-packed clay soil has transformed into a seemingly healthy lawn.
Nature does not like bare soil, and many types of grasses around the world have evolved to quickly and efficiently cover bare soil after a disruption. In fact, some types of grass are allelopathic, meaning that the grass produces and emits certain biochemicals that negatively influence the germination, growth, survival, and reproduction of other types of plant species. Compared to your vegetable garden where weeds of all types tend to appear overnight, weeds in lawns tend to be much more controllable due to this property.
Despite the fact that many types of grass have evolved to thrive on poor soils and to outcompete other types of plant organisms, Virginia homeowners that want to establish a certain type of grass on their property would do well to understand the importance of healthy, nutrient-rich for soil for creating a healthy and thriving lawn.
The Qualities of Virginia Soil
Soils can differ substantially even within a small yard. However, there are overarching characteristics that define certain types of soils of a region. In the state of Virginia, our complex river system that runs from the mountains in the western part of the state towards the coast carry nutrients and sediments from the hills towards the lowlands. For that reason, the richest soils tend to be in the lowlands near the coast and near rivers. If you live in one of these areas, chances are that the geography of the state will have benefitted your property with perfect loam soil that is well-suited for growing grass and other crops.
However, other areas of Virginia suffer from bulk density, which is technical jargon meaning that certain soils are too dense to allow for good root growth. In most cases, clay soils tend to have a bulk density that is too high to allow for optimum root growth of many types of plants, including certain types of grasses. On average, it is considered that about 30% of all soil in the state of Virginia has soil with a bulk density rating too high for optimum root formation.
How to Prepare Soil for Optimum Grass Growth
Many lawn care websites recommend planting grass seed or laying turf on top of loam soil. Loam soil is essentially a healthy mixture of sand, silt, and clay wherein the soil can hold moisture and nutrients but is also loose enough to drain when rain falls. Fortunately, if your property is not blessed with loam soil, or if you even if you live in an area with dense soil that is extremely high in clay content, there are certain ways to improve the conditions of your soil.
Organic matter is essentially dead plant material that decomposes into the soil over time. In a deep forest, decades and even centuries of leaf fall lead to the thick, nutrient-rich topsoil that forms underneath the forest canopy. Homeowners who have inherited a property of compacted clay soil can speed up the natural process of soil formation through adding abundant amounts of organic matter to their soils before planting a lawn. In permaculture, this is called “accelerated succession,” and essentially is a way in which human being can mimic the natural processes of nature to accelerate the process of ecological restoration.
Organic matter comes in many shapes and sizes. From the leaves that fall from trees every autumn, to the hay and straw bales sold cheaply by local farmers, a diverse assortment of organic matter can be thickly laid onto poor soils and will quickly decompose into a healthy layer of nutrient-rich topsoil that is teeming with the micro-organisms needed to keep soil healthy.
If you already have a lawn but are having a hard time keeping it green and healthy because of a lack of nutrients in your soil, one simple but effective strategy to increase organic matter and increase the depth of your topsoil is through spreading a thin layer of compost over your established lawn. Compost is simply decayed organic matter that is teeming with microorganisms needed for topsoil creation.
While you don´t want to completely cover your lawn in compost, a thin layer that settles beneath the individual blades of grass will nourish the soil and permeate the soil with millions of needed microorganisms to begin the process of building a healthy layer of topsoil. With these microorganisms in place, the lawn clippings that are left on your lawn after mowing will be decomposed and slowly begin to contribute to a healthy and thriving layer of nutrient-rich soil that encourages deep root growth for your grasses.
Testing Your Soil
Healthy topsoil will most likely have all the nutrients your grass needs to grow vibrantly. However, if you notice that certain areas of your lawn are not growing as you intend, a simple soil test might help you determine what nutrients are lacking from your soil. Furthermore, soil tests can also let you know the overall quality of your soil. For example, standard soil tests for lawns will let you know the organic matter content of your soil. If your lawn is low in organic matter, it most likely is not retaining moisture very well, thus increasing the frequency with which you need to irrigate.
Many companies offer soil testing that is easy and uncomplicated. In many cases, you will simply need to pull a couple of plugs of dirt from different areas around your yard and send those soil samples into the company. They will send you back a detailed description of your soil, including recommendations for how to improve any found nutrient deficiencies.
With a healthy soil in place, a healthy, vibrant, and resilient lawn will be much easier and less dependent on chemical inputs.
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