When I exit the garage to get my newspaper about 6 a.m. every morning, I’m greeted by soothing shh-shh-shh sounds.
Yes, it’s May and the pollen is gone and the lawn sprinklers are going.
When we bought our house in West Neck Villages in early 2016, I frowned when I saw the underground sprinkler control box on the garage wall. I knew immediately what was coming – green grass envy and high water bills.
I’ve had experiences with sprinkler systems and neighborhood men who love their lawns. While living in Kiln Creek in Newport News years ago, I watched the men, including my husband Ken, stand in the cul-de-sac, admiring their lawns and chuckling good-naturedly about which one of them had the best-looking lawn.
The unofficial losers walked back to their garages, grumbling and heading for the irrigation control boxes. You can bet the next morning – mornings, afternoons and evenings – the sprinklers were running and the lawn-care companies were pouring on the nitrogen.
About that time, I started the “Diggin’ In” gardening column for the Daily Press in Newport News, where I was a reporter and editor for decades. As the gardening writer, I started a crusade to teach people about the pros and cons of too much water and too much nitrogen on turf, especially cool-season fescue.
I have no patience or time for finicky plants or an irrigation system that can cause root rot quicker than you can say “plant, please, don’t die.” My gardening motto: You grow or you go.
So, for lawn lovers everywhere, here are my words of wisdom, based on experience and education – and Master Gardener certification:
Grass, and plants of all kinds, needs an inch of water per week. The worse kind of watering is frequent, short watering — such as 10 minutes, seven days a week, causing roots to grow shallow instead of deep. Instead, set your sprinklers for longer, deeper watering, maybe 20 minutes, three days a week. Too much water is also bad, causing fungal diseases like brown patch, especially during hot, humid weather. Some weeds also thrive in too-wet soil. Avoid the inclination to water when you have an inch of rainfall in a week’s time.
Grass clippings are full of nutrient-rich nitrogen and moisture. Instead of bagging and dumping clippings, use a mulching mower to return those clippings back into the soil, where they will decompose and enrich your soil. Mow to remove one-third of the grass blades so the clippings decompose and do not clump on the lawn; mulch-mowing properly should not cause a thatch buildup.
Fertilize and seed wisely.
Cool-season fescue thrives best when it’s seeded and fertilized in fall, giving roots the time to develop before hot summer weather arrives again. Too much nitrogen pushes top green growth at the expense of important underground root growth. Instead, a healthy balance of each is needed.
You will find helpful month-by-month, lawn-care calendars for cool- and warm-season grasses through Virginia Cooperative Extension at https://ext.vt.edu. These are guidelines Ken and I have faithfully followed for years, and we thank Virginia Tech and its research-based gardening advice for helping us avoid sprinklers when we can.