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Jerry George
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A homeowner’s guide to better lawn care

We asked Ben Romanotto, owner of local lawn-care company DreamTurf, to address some of the importance questions for homeowners involving lawn care. Ben has more than 15 years experience in the industry and provides a strong knowledge of lawn and landscape maintenance. Visit DreamTurf to learn more about Ben’s services.

Ben Romanotto, left, and Chris provide lawn-care services in Springfield and the surrounding communities.

As we head into the summer months, what are the first steps a homeowner should take when it comes to lawn care?

When it comes to planning for lawn-care needs, the first step is to ask yourself: “Am I taking care of the mowing and/or fertilizer and weed control services, or am I hiring it out?” There are several practices I recommend that will prevent future problems and save money. Here is my advice for every homeowner:

  • Have a spring pre-emergent for crabgrass control applied as crabgrass is rampant in our climate. Preventing it is much more cost-effective than having it sprayed later. I generally do two applications of pre-emergent for my customers in order to make their yards look better and to make my job easier later.
  • I highly recommend mowing your yard at 3- to 3.5-inches minimum in height. Taller grass discourages weed growth, tends to stay greener, prolongs soil moisture and forces the roots to grow deep. The taller the blade, the deeper the root, which is why taller grass is very beneficial in cases of drought or extreme heat in the summer.
  • Never bag your grass.  Nitrogen, one of the key ingredients of turf fertilizer, is naturally stored in the blade itself, so if you bag after you mow, you are removing natural and man-made fertilizer. Also keep a regular mowing schedule and assume that more than once per week may be necessary in the spring when the growth is extreme. Try to avoid cutting off more than 1/3 of the grass blade. Failure to do so will result in damaged, yellowed out, weakened grass.

Are there questions or concerns a potential homebuyer should consider regarding a property’s lawn and landscaping before purchasing the home?

Awareness of the potential landscaping and lawn-care needs that come with buying any home is extremely important. Homebuyers wanting to hire out work should first become familiar with local pricing to get an idea of how much they can expect to spend. When buyers are looking at a home, there are a few key things that are important to observe and take note:

  • The size of the lawn, which will determine how much it will cost to have it mowed weekly.
  • Changes or additions buyers may want to make, such as having fresh mulch put down in the spring.
  • The size and species of onsite trees and plants as they may require special care or increase the cost of cleanup.

Is there a difference in quality of mulch? What is the best? How deep should mulch be spread?

Most mulch is pretty equal in quality. Hardwood mulch is the industry leader in this area. I sell a dark-brown dyed mulch because it holds its color for a full season, while others turn gray after a few rains. Keep in mind that when purchasing a home with mulched landscaping, the mulch must be refreshed every year if you want to keep the yard looking neat and tidy. Rock, on the other hand, is permanent. Rock is typically more expensive than mulch to have installed initially but pays off immensely, especially when it comes to cleaning up leaves as there is no way around removing mulch in the process. Another important thing to remember when installing a new bed with mulch is that a weed barrier isn’t necessary because mulch is compost and will eventually create its own barrier against weeds. Rock, on the other hand, should never be installed on a bed without weed barrier.

What is the best way to apply weed control? Spray or spread? When should it be applied?

The only way to effectively control weeds is by using liquid herbicide. Bags of fertilizer sold in stores will often indicate that they also control weeds, but this is not totally true. Granular herbicide only really works if the grass is wet. Herbicides control weeds by penetrating through the foliage, and there is no way to do that with granular herbicide unless it sticks to a wet weed.  Crabgrass pre-emergent is different and does come in granular form. This is because it is literally sterilizing the soil throughout the yard to prevent grassy weeds from growing before they germinate. This is an extremely important note: Crabgrass pre-emergent will prevent grass seed growth, so do not apply this in areas where you have seeded or plan to seed. Fertilizer can be applied in granular or liquid form. I use only granular because it slowly feeds the roots over time. Liquid fertilizer is immediately released into the grass plant, which results in quick green-up but no long-term feeding.

How do I know if my lawn needs a lime application? What is the importance of lime?

Lime is a base designed to even out your soil pH. Every yard can benefit from lime, some more than others. Pet owners will typically see yellowing of the grass where female dogs urinate.  Lime application will get those areas back to green. Some trees, such as pine, are heavy in acidity, which affects the soil, and fertilizer is full of acidic compounds. The optimal pH level in soil for grass to thrive is at least 6.0, and the closer to 7.0, the better. I apply lime at a rate of 25 pounds per 1,000 sq. ft., which typically brings the pH of the soil up by 0.5. In yards where the pH is 5.0 or less, I would double that rate. Keep in mind, regularly fertilized yards are getting constant applications of acid, so lime every year or every other year may be necessary.

Is the fertilizer used on lawns the same that is used for trees, shrubs and flowers?

Whether you are dealing with trees, plants or turf, fertilizers, both liquid and granular, are made of the same basic compounds. There are three active ingredients to look for, and those are displayed on the bag. The three numbers with dashes (i.e. 32-0-7 or 19-0-6) represent percentages of each active ingredient. The first number stands for nitrogen (N), the second represents phosphate (P2O2) and the third indicates potash (K2O). In turf fertilizer, nitrogen is responsible for top growth and the deep green color. The nitrogen is stored in the leaf blade (which is why, again, you should never bag your grass clippings). The phosphate has been removed from fertilizer here by the Department of Agriculture. The potash is responsible for root growth, which is very important especially if we have a drought and those roots need to dig deep.

When is the best time(s) of the year to fertilize?

Believe it or not, your late-fall, final application of fertilizer is most highly represented in your lawn in the spring. The amount of nitrogen applied in late fall dramatically determines spring green-up, shade of green and growth patterns. I always apply a high-nitrogen fertilizer in late fall at the highest recommended rate in order to ensure a healthy start to my customers’ yards. This practice is integral to giving a lawn that WOW effect we all appreciate after a long winter of yellow yards and gray skies. Fertilizers containing pre-emergents for crabgrass should typically be applied between March and May but will still be effective if applied through June. Fertilizers with insecticides for the control of grub worms are best applied during the summer months with early August being the absolute latest. Starter fertilizers for growing grass should be applied on the same day of sowing grass seed. Tree and plant fertilizers are best applied in early spring and again in the summer.

When is the best time to seed? How often should I water a newly seeded area?

Seeding can seem complicated so I will simplify as much as possible. Spring seeding can be very successful if done before May 1 when the temperatures stay under 85 and rain is plentiful and persistent. However, there are several complications with spring seeding. For one, you cannot apply pre-emergents until the grass has emerged. You also cannot spray any herbicides for weed control until the new grass is at mowing height. Because this is a fragile time of growth, we run into problems with weeds taking over, and a combination of less rain and people neglecting to drag the hose around because it simply gets too hot. Grass needs at least a good thirty days to germinate and emerge. Grass will not germinate at all once temperatures reach 80 degrees or higher and stay there. New seed needs to remain moist at all times. Frequent, light irrigation for 10-20 minutes in each area should be sufficient. Take a look at the soil. If it looks dry, it is dry. The absolute best time to seed is the entire month of September when we have cooler temperatures, timely rains, and crabgrass and weeds have run their course.

How much water is needed to keep lawns green during the summer months in central Illinois?

Watering times and patterns can vary depending on the average temperature, the water pressure at your home, sunshine and natural rainfall. I always recommend 30-45 minutes per zone, twice per week in the summer months (July and August mainly).  It is not hard to tell when your grass needs water. I do not recommend starting any watering until June 1, and I would not continue to water after October 1. Every yard is different along with every irrigation system’s design. If the yard is green and lush in the summer and requires weekly mowing without being sopping wet, you are in the sweet spot. If grass turns brown, stops growing and you can see cracks in the soil, water is desperately needed.

How do I stop grub and insect infestation? What are the most common insect problems in central Illinois?

Grubs are easily prevented by applying a granular insecticide with fertilizer in June or July.  Other turf-destroying insects, such as sod webworms, can be more difficult to prevent and unfortunately have to be dealt with once the damage occurs and is noticed. Those two are the most likely to harm your turf. As for trees, the emerald ash borer is a deadly insect in this area.  Japanese beetles can eat certain trees’ entire foliage but will most likely not kill the tree. They can also harm certain perennials and shrubs. Rose leeches are also common in central Illinois. All of these insect pests are treatable if the timing is right.


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