Seven Tips to Improve Your Lawn

To dispute Kermit the Frog's famous lament, it's not so tough being green, especially if you take a little free advice from today's college campuses.

1. Always scatter $1 worth of seed on $10 dirt.

To put in a lawn without amending the soil properly - working in well-rotted compost so that comprises 1/3 of the soil - is a fatal error, warns Ciscoe Morris, manager for grounds and landscaping at Seattle University. "You'll spend thousands of dollars in time and materials trying to make that lawn look right." He should know. When he moved into his position 20 years ago, he inherited a bare patch where a former gardener added sand to Washington State's clay soil. The combination formed a cement texture that to this day resists a pick.

2. Don't fret the grass-cutting chore.

According to PGMS, Kentucky bluegrass should be 2 to 3 inches tall; tall fescue 2.5 to 3.5 inches tall; Bermuda grass .5 to 1 inch tall; and zoysia grass .75 to 1 inch tall. Because weed seeds need light to germinate, these heights shade them and prevent them from germinating as easily. The few that do pop up are easily tolerated. And by following this policy, William Lesser, the grounds manager at Aims Community College in Greeley, Colorado, hasn't paid to spray his Kentucky bluegrass for pests that often move in to attack thin, weedy grass in four years.

3. Adopt a multi-generational attitude.

Flowering trees and trees that resemble perfect lollipops in the nursery have more initial curb appeal than the long-lived trees. "And a person in their right mind wouldn't buy an oak or Kentucky coffee tree in a nursery because they don't look good," says landscape wizard Mike Van Yahres. "But this is an investment. If you plant blue chip investments, indigenous shade trees, they'd start to gain stature when those junk bond ornamentals are dying on your property."

However, even when purchasing oaks, maples, ashes, and poplars resist the temptation to choose the cultivar versions. Their gene pools are weaker, demanding more maintenance dollars because of the pests and diseases they attract. Not to mention their inherent growth weaknesses, Gillan adds. Take the popular Bradford Pear for instance. "This symmetrical, medium-size tree was designed to be globular, so it has lost a center trunk. These outreaching limbs with no trunk core are very susceptible to wind and ice damage; they reach a certain age and start breaking all over the place," he points out.

4. Plant trees where they're welcomed.

An oak three feet away from a building will block windows with its massive limbs and crack the building's foundation with its roots, warns the PGMS. Search for trees with vertical root systems and avoid trees that generate messy fallen fruit and pods.

5. Bark up small trees.

Osika also has learned to place four inches of bark mulch within a two-foot minimum radius around all trees that have a basal diameter of one foot or less. True, this offers summer moisture-holding advantages that feed nutrients to the roots and eliminates hand weeding. It also prevents mowing in the area. "Many inexperienced people fail to realize how much lethal tree damage they can do in a single day if they don't steer clear of the base and collars of small trees," he explains.

6. Don't assume perennials offer easier maintenance.

"People think if they put a perennial bed in, they don't have to plant it every year like an annual and it's maintenance free," Sandy Wacker of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln rolls her eyes. Perennials only bloom for two to three weeks, so it takes a lot of skill and different plants to have flowers during the entire growing season. Annuals, by comparison, are long blooming, less expensive to purchase and have less demanding culture requirements.

7. Think organic to save your plants' lives.

Morris has learned two economic reasons to rely on organic fertilizers when your flowers need them. First, the organic version must be broken down by the microorganisms in the soil, which are only active when conditions are right for growth for the plant. "So you are very unlikely to burn the plant because your fertilizer doesn't become a salt," he explains.

In contrast, when rain falls on synthetic chemicals, they tend to crack and start releasing their nutrition. A dry spell then causes an imbalance that basically sucks the fluid out of the plant's roots.

Second, synthetic chemicals encourage a flush of growth. "New growth is very attractive to insects. They key in on certain colors such as light green, so they are much more likely to attack a plant growing too rampantly than one growing slowly and uniformly," he notes.

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