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How to make your lawn perfect like a golf superintendent

Written by John Gordon
Note to readers: As COVID-19 continues its impact, some garden centres, lawn maintenance companies and equipment rental outlets are open in some regions while others are not. Therefore, some of the tips provided here may not be practical at this time. However, no matter what the circumstances, gardening remains a healthy form of self-isolation!

Introduction

You back out of the driveway, heading for the golf course, and as you pull away, you look at your lawn and ask yourself, “Why can’t that goat pasture look like the fairways at my course?”

The obvious answer is “time and resources,” according to Sean Gunn, superintendent at The Country Club in Woodbridge, Ont.  “We spend hundreds of hours a week maintaining our turf and the average homeowner spends, what, an hour or two? You just can’t expect the same results.”

It’s much like watching the pros at the RBC Canadian Open or the CP Women’s Canadian Open and wondering why you can’t play the game at their level. When the pros aren’t playing, they’re working on their games. When you’re not playing, you’re most likely just working.

But just like a few lessons with a PGA of Canada pro will elevate your game significantly, cadging some tips, hints and hacks from members of the Canadian Golf Superintendents Association and other turf experts will help improve your lawn.

The Cutting Edge

First thing in the spring, sharpen your lawnmower blade. You can do it yourself with a file or grinder (always following the proper safety guidelines) or take it to a local small-engine repair shop. At The Country Club, Gunn sharpens the blades of any of his members who bring them to his shop. “If your blade isn’t sharp, you’re tearing the grass plant, not cutting it,” Gunn says.

Cut at 2.5 inches (about six centimetres) or higher to encourage deeper root growth. Taller grass can better handle drought conditions and shades the soil, helping prevent weeds from sprouting.

Under normal conditions, cut your lawn at least once a week and don’t cut off more than a third of the leaf blade. Cutting more than that stresses the grass.  Leave the clippings on the lawn as they provide a source of nutrition for the grass. Cut in a different direction each time.

The more you cut, the denser the lawn will become.

“Grass wants to grow, so if you keep cutting it, it will find other ways to get larger and grow new tillers [shoots],” says Gunn.  “This is how we get putting greens to be so dense.”

Water, water everywhere

Course superintendent Ken Bruneski is sure his course is “the hottest property in Canada,” so if anyone is qualified to speak about watering guidelines for lawn, it’s him.

Located in a semi-arid desert near Oliver, B.C., NK’Mip Canyon Desert Golf Course sees many days each season with temperatures reaching 40C.

With higher temperatures being witnessed across Canada due to climate change, Bruneski’s experience provides valuable advice for homeowners.

With the luxury of a sophisticated irrigation system, he waters his fairway deeply three times a week during the overnight period.

“It drives me nuts to drive down the street and see houses with sprinklers going non-stop during the heat of the day. That’s not helping your lawn at all. In fact, it’s harming it.”

Depending on the amount of rainfall, the average lawn needs a deep watering (two to three centimetres) a couple of times a week, ideally in the evening.

“One irrigation hack is if thunderstorms are coming and your lawn is pretty dry and you happen to be home, water your lawn to get the surface wet to break down the surface tension so the rain from the cloudburst can be accepted into the lawn,” advises Dr. Eric Lyons, Associate Professor of Turfgrass Science in the University of Guelph’s Department of Plant Agriculture.

“Proper water management is paramount in the success of the lawn,” says Gunn.  If you’re really into it, he recommends you purchase a rain gauge. For about $10, it’s an inexpensive and accurate method of monitoring your lawn’s water input.

 Those pesky pests

“A healthy lawn is just like a healthy human who doesn’t have to see the doctor that often,” says Gunn.

Alan Golick agrees. Now a sales representative for Lawn Life Natural Turf Products (www.lawnlifenaturalturfproducts.com), Golick has 20 years’ experience in the turf business, including stints as an assistant course superintendent.

With environmentally conscious bans on traditional herbicides and pesticides, companies like Lawn Life are continually developing alternatives to control weeds and pests.  Company founder Richard Reed was a trailblazer in this category and the company now services the turf industry, lawn-care companies and homeowners.

Golick recommends a proactive approach to weed control, suggesting a selective herbicide that targets dandelions, plantain, creeping charlie and other common weeds. More importantly, he says homeowners must ensure good fertility in their soil by introducing, among other elements, composted fertilizer and more exotic inputs such as kelp (seaweed), humic acid, and compost tea (simply a mix of compost and water).

Dandelion

“A great lawn starts and ends with healthy soil, a healthy eco-system,” he says.

Lyons, who is also the director of the Guelph Turfgrass Institute, says if you have a healthy lawn, hand weed in the spring and apply a chemical control in the fall.

“If you have significant weeds, then a spring application would be recommended. To get the most effective control with iron-based alternative weed-control products, apply them in enough volume according to the label. That requires two applications three weeks apart.”

He also advises to apply a broadleaf weed control product before the first frost in the fall. If using an iron-based product, the daytime temperature should be about 20C consistently for both the first application and the next one three weeks later.

Enrich your experience

“What I see the most is homeowners not fertilizing or fertilizing at the wrong time,” observes John Scott, superintendent at Summerlea Golf and Country Club in Vaudreuil-Dorion, Que.

Not that you want to spend your holiday long weekends working on your lawn but if you are serious about keeping that grass well fed,  Mark Schneider says you should get your spreader out four times a season: Victoria Day, Canada Day, Labour Day and Thanksgiving.

In the spring, resist the urge to fertilize before May 24.

“The grass is still waking up from the winter and trying to build its roots. The key is to apply the right amount at the right time at the right rate and at the right place.”

Schneider, who was the superintendent at several Ontario courses, now is the technical sales representative for NuTrite (www.nutrite.com), a leading supplier of fertilizers to golf courses, lawn-care companies and homeowners.

Along with his easy-to-remember schedule, he has some other simple tips for fertilizing.

“Buy a premium product with a high slow-release factor. Follow the instructions on the bag. Don’t over-fertilize. Avoid the economy brands.

“The most important thing is to get a fertilizer where the first number is the highest.”

You no doubt have gone shopping for fertilizer and seen three numbers on the bag. 10-10-10. 12-0-4.  33-0-3. And so on.  Starter fertilizer, spring fertilizer, fall fertilizer…  It doesn’t have to be confusing.

Those numbers identify the proportions of three elements: Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Of those three, experts agree the first one—nitrogen—is the most important.

“Most lawns do not need much phosphorus,” says Lyons, adding that, in general, “the last number on the bag should be about half to equivalent of the first number.”

Generally, says Schneider, use the same fertilizer all year long.

Hole-y aeration!

Our experts are divided on whether you should aerate and/or dethatch your lawn annually. (Back in the day, some folks swore they were aerating their lawn by wearing their metal golf spikes while mowing.)

Aeration is the process of removing plugs of soil from your lawn to relieve the compaction and introduce air, water and nutrients to the roots. Dethatching removes the layer of dead and decaying plant material between your grass and the soil. While a certain amount of thatch is beneficial, too much insulates the roots from getting enough water, oxygen and fertilizer.

You can rent a power aerator and/or a dethatcher or hire a lawn service to do the job. Small lawns can be dethatched with a specially designed rake while larger properties will require a power unit.

Lyons and Bruneski downplay the necessity of these practices for the average home lawn but Scott Bowman begs to differ.

According to the Speare Seeds web site (www.speareseeds.ca), Bowman is the company’s general manager and “turf genius,” so his opinion is well worth considering.

He suggests aerating your lawn in the late summer or early fall but never in the spring and early summer. “If you aerate in the early part of the season, those holes are a perfect spot for weed seeds to fall into and germinate. Now instead of a great lawn, you’ve created really healthy and deep-rooted weeds.”

Sprouting up

When it comes to anything turf-related, Bowman’s credentials are impeccable. That “turf genius” tag is no joke. Prior to his current role, he was a superintendent at some notable courses, including Glen Abbey Golf Club. He also is co-owner of South Port Golf Course in Southampton, Ont.

As soon as the snow melts, our pent-up desire to get a head start on our lawns is released. But Bowman and other experts say hold your horses, rein in that impulse.

“Everybody’s excited to get going, but if you don’t time it right [seeding], you’re just wasting your time and effort and money,” says Bowman. “You won’t get real germination and if the seed sits there long enough, it loses its viability.” That’s “turf genius speak” for “the seed is dead.”

Before you think about seeding or over-seeding your lawn, wait until the soil temperature is at least 12 to 16C. You can either use the familiar broadcast seeder or rent a slit-seeder which creates gaps into which it inserts seeds. In any case, the seed must have contact with the soil to germinate.

According to Bowman, your lawn should be over-seeded every year, preferably in mid-August when the days are warm, the nights are cool, the dew is heavy and the fall rains start to arrive. It’s a good time, he says, to incorporate this with your aeration and/or dethatching.

When it comes to the type of seed to use, Bowman says that is dictated by a couple of factors: the type of soil and how much effort you want to dedicate to your lawn.

“Every lawn is a reclamation project to one extent or another. It all depends on what your personal threshold is.”

Don’t even think about bentgrass, favoured by most courses for tees, greens and fairways.

Bowman says bluegrass, most commonly used for the rough on courses, has shallow but aggressive roots. “It’s a nice, high-end grass but requires more inputs [of water and nutrients].” The fine fescues are more drought resistant while perennial ryegrass “grows just about anywhere.” That’s why most seeds sold at retail are blends of these types.

Raking: More harm than good?

According to Lyons, the theory behind raking is that it removes old leaf and stem tissue, allowing the soil to warm up and the grass to grow more vigorously in the spring. However, much like aerating early in the season, raking opens up the soil and allows it to warm, causing increased germination of weeds.

“You don’t see them raking the rough at the golf course, do you?” says Lyons. “Generally, the effort put into aggressive raking would be better spent elsewhere on your lawn unless you have tree leaves to remove or you’re renovating a weedy lawn.”

Having said that, aggressive raking in the spring will remove dead crab grass and/or annual weeds from the previous year and allow over-seeding to take hold.  In an area with limited weed controls, he adds, raking does more harm than good and also is a lot of work.

Old Man Winter

The first step to prepare your lawn for the oncoming winter, says Gunn, is to stop cutting the grass to let it “harden off.” In Woodbridge, Ont., where his course is located, this is about the third week of October.

“Hardening off is letting the plant prepare itself by sealing the last cut you did to prevent any carbohydrate loss.  Carbs/sugar are the antifreeze that keeps the plant alive during the winter.  The more carbs/sugars, the heartier the plant.

“Letting the plant grow a little longer in the spring and fall is a good idea since the daylight is shorter and the strength of the sun is weaker.  The longer the blade, the more efficient the plant is at photosynthesis.

“I use the analogy of grass and solar panels.  The more solar panels you have, the more energy you can attract. “

The key to a good spring is strong preparation in the fall.  Schneider says about 80 per cent of your lawn-care efforts should be focused on the period from August to November.

Lyons emphasizes the importance of removing leaves as they fall and don’t allow them to get trapped under the snow.

Finally …

When it comes to your lawn, like your golf game, you likely will never be a pro. But if you practise the fundamentals, you can be a respectable amateur.

Having said that, Canada has a diverse ecosystem and while the preceding are general guidelines, you may have to adapt them to your specific area. Speak to a local turf expert—like the superintendent at your course.

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