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Turf Management for Professional Results

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Posted Jul. 31, 2008

About a decade ago, my youngest son, Chris, came to me with a bag of used golf clubs and an interest in learning about the links. That spring, I built a tee box and a green on our farm near Ardmore. I labored until the tee box and green were both beautifully manicured. Admittedly, it probably was not up to United States Golfing Association specifications - it was still a farm after all - but it was nice.

I'm confident that any yard can look as good as a golf course if careful consideration is given to a few key turf management factors. With fall approaching, the following tips can help finish this growing season strongly and prepare you for next year.

The height of success
One of the most common mistakes in lawn maintenance is incorrect mowing height. Each variety of grass requires a unique height (see chart). The key is to find the recommended height and then remain there. Cutting turf at a consistent height promotes fullness within the yard. Plants grow out and together instead of just up. Additionally, when grass grows too high, it causes you to cut the wrong part of the plant. While you may have the correct height set on the mower, you end up cutting the stems of the overgrown grass instead of the leaves. Cutting stems can weaken the root system and affect the overall health of the plant. The suggested heights result in a cut that takes away about 1/3 of a leaf blade.

To determine proper height, use a ruler. Press through the grass blades until the ruler hits the soil. Be careful not to press into the soil, which will give you an inaccurate reading.

End of the fertilizer schedule
Beyond mowing height, fertilizer application is the most common (and tricky) turf maintenance issue. But, when should you apply?

A common misconception is that we need to constantly encourage the plants to grow, prodding them along with a continual stream of fertilizer. By August, the opportunity to fertilize is coming to a close. The warm-season perennial grasses that dominate Oklahoma and Texas know the dormant period is soon to arrive. If applied, the fertilizer's effectiveness will be minimal, and any additional growth could set the turf up for freeze damage. Fertilizer causes grass to sprout new tender shoots that have high moisture content, and, when those freeze, they'll burst, much like a pipe. Fall is when the grasses are storing nutrients for next spring. Forcing them to expend effort on new growth is ill advised.

The best times to fertilize are from April to early fall, but understand that as the season progresses, the impact of the fertilizer begins to slip.

Lastly, do not forget about overseeding. This is a simple process of planting a cool-season grass - one that grows during the winter months - directly on top of the warm-season grass, which falls dormant from Nov. through Jan.

An example of overseeding is to plant a ryegrass (cool season) over bermudagrass (warm-season). During the winter months, the ryegrass will flourish. As temperatures increase during early spring, the warm-season bermudagrass will transition in. This means there will be some mowing during the colder months, but it keeps the soil from eroding and can act as a fire retardant.

Remember, a properly mowed and fertilized yard - with the potential from overseeding - will be a fuller, healthier lawn. This, in turn, reduces the ability of weeds to germinate and helps cover unsightly bare spots. This is vital because everyone would rather have a putting green for a yard than a sand trap.