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The Plant Doctor: Backyard work is simple with lawn care know-how

Typical homeowners love their backyards; what they don’t love is backyard work. There has to be a better way to allow us more yard play and less yard work.

Here are a few suggestions that will get you on the way to a more enjoyable spring and summer.

Start with a good seed mixture to permit the best and most productive lawn, with minimum care required. Reading a seed label is not that difficult but is worthy of review. The term “cultivar” is used to designate specific cultivated species that are blended to grow fast and be resistant to drought and disease. A mixture of cultivars specially blended for our zone is your best bet.

Next, check the manufacturers’ germination rate for the seed product. This rate indicates the expected percent of seeds that will sprout after planting. The higher the percentage, the more expensive the product. Generally you should look for a product that has a germination rate between 75 percent and 85 percent.

You should also be aware of weed seed indicators, which are a manufacturer’s statement that the package may contain a certain percent of undesirable seeds. While 0 percent is best, stay away from bags of seeds that indicate a percentage greater than .5 percent.

Eventually, if you have selected the correct seed mixture, prepared the soil properly and watered to specifications, you will have to mow the lawn. A few recommendations on this task: Cut your grass to the highest recommended setting for the type selected; this keeps the roots cooler, cuts down on water need and helps prevent weed germination. Keep your mower blade sharp and clean, and don’t mow when the grass is wet.

Mowing the lawn is easy compared to the final trimming process around trees and flower and vegetable bed edges. With a little planning, you can eliminate a lot of trimming. For example, most nurseries sell edging strips that allow you to trim the edges as you mow.

Another way to plan for a healthy lawn is to be wary of fertilizers enriched with an abundance of nitrogen. As they view the brown thatch of winter, many individuals overwhelm their lawns with a plentiful supply of this type of fertilizer. This super boost to the lawn’s system encourages the grass to grow very fast — probably much too fast.

A word of caution to overanxious gardeners: Aside from having to mow the lawn more frequently, the high nitrogen content also can kill the soil organisms that mulch up your grass clippings, leaving you with a thatch problem that requires more work on your part.

The best bet is to test the soil first for pH and mineral content. A pH too high or too low will prevent the plants from absorbing the fertilizer. Most nurseries will accommodate a request for this testing. Like a well-balanced diet, slow-release fertilizers provide just what your lawn needs, when it needs it. The key to plant nutrition is to fertilize as little as possible and as seldom as possible. The best time to fertilize is just after mowing and just before it rains.

Final note in this brief primer: Grass clippings get all the blame for causing thatch, which is probably why most people rake them, bag them and throw them out.

Most thatch problems result from quick-release fertilizers, pesticides and weed killers. These products are used to beautify the lawn; however, when incorrectly used they kill microorganisms and earthworms, whose basic job is to break down the accumulated clippings. A balanced lawn ecosystem is self-sustaining. Thatch and weeds become an item of the past, and one less task for the backyard warrior.

Questions and concerns about gardening and plant care may be forwarded by e-mail to the Plant Doctor at

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