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The Plant Doctor: Healthy lawns spring from grass roots work

Welcome to spring. Barring a rare snowstorm — and we have had some — let’s get out those garden-tool-skilled technicians and horticulturists, and ask them to test the soil and suggest the chemical additives that should be applied at this time of year.

Some gardeners are surprised to learn that the soil does not require a lime application, or that the area tested is rich in nutrients and requires few additives. Others may learn that the samples contain insect grubs that will quickly destroy a lawn, regardless of the amount of fertilizer applied.

The next step is to repair parts of the lawn that are damaged, thin or unhealthy. Remove the old grass and clear the area of rocks and debris. Work some compost into the soil. Lay down a piece of sod and cut to fit the space. Press the sod into place and water regularly, especially at the beginning when it has to develop roots and become established.

An alternative to sodding, one that is much cheaper, is sowing seeds. Preparing the soil is essentially the same. Select seeds that are consistent with your growing area and comparable or similar to the grass already established on your lawn. Select a seed that has a high-predicted germination rate. Sow the seeds in accordance with the instructions on the package.

Seeding a bare area presents two concerns that must be met at the outset. The seeds must be watered several times a day. If the seeds dry out, the germinating process grounds to a halt and the seed embryo dies.

Birds love seeds, and they are particularly in love with grass seed. To deal with this problem, cover the seeds with a thin layer of top soil or compost. The mulch will protect the seed from the birds and also help to keep the soil moist. Keep the mulch on the seeds until the shoots appear.

Allow the awakened spring lawn to grow at least 3 inches before the first mowing. Before you mow, however, retain the following guidelines. Don’t mow when it is wet. The clippings will clump together, forming a smelly sludge that is guaranteed to clog the mower and rust the blade. A dull rusted blade on a wet lawn is one way to ensure ripping and tearing of the blades of grass. Ragged edges on leaf blades are more susceptible to disease and insects than blades of grass that are cleanly cut.

Mowed grass should be maintained at a height no fewer than 2 1/2 inches. If you cut the grass too short you will prevent the grass from developing deep roots and will make the plants susceptible to drought. The longer leaves tend to shade the underlying soil and thus maintain moisture better than a close-cropped lawn.

Get started now for a lawn that will be a delight this summer. There will be more to come in future articles about maintaining that delightfully looking lawn.

Questions or comments on gardening and plant care should be addressed to The Plant Doctor, c/o Queens Publishing Co., 41-02 Bell Blvd. Bayside, NY 11361, or e-mail at

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