Turf Magazine - October, 2008
Combine fertility and aesthetics
Homeowners have become
picky about their lawns and how they appear. They want their turf to be the
best on the block.
Nelson Garner with Gary’s Lawn Care, Inc. in
Forest, Va., says some homeowners with automatic irrigation systems care
more about how their lawns look and less about the environment—often
setting automatic systems to run all day instead of turning them off when
enough water is applied.
“We see them running in rain or any other kind
of weather conditions when they do not necessarily need to be
running,” Garner says, “and that’s leaching that much
more of your fertilizers and phosphates out of the soil to where
you’re having to go back and add that much more to keep the customer
happy with that dark green. They don’t want to see that yellowing in
|Turf Specialist Mike Goatley, with Virginia Tech, says that turf professionals can
fertilize most lawns without exceeding 3.5 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet.
So, how do you balance fertility level needs to
maintain turf health and meet the client’s expectations of a green
It depends on the situation. “Some turfgrasses,
such as the fine fescues of the cool-season grasses and centipedegrass or
zoysiagrass of the warm-season grasses, are well-adapted to minimal
fertility programs that only deliver 1 to 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000
square feet per year,” says Mike Goatley. Goatley is turf specialist
and associate professor in the crop and soil environmental sciences
department at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
He says Kentucky bluegrass and bermudagrass are
examples of grasses that typically have their best aesthetics at higher
management programs of 2.5 to 3.5 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet
per year. Tall fescue, on the other hand, fits somewhere in between these
programs, and the ultimate decision is left up to the homeowner in terms of
what type of quality they expect.
“Still, I don’t find much reason to exceed
3.5 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet for most lawn
applications,” he says, but “there are situations where higher
levels of nitrogen might be required for specialized golf and sports turf
situations. When synthetic, water-soluble nitrogen sources are used, their
application rates should not exceed 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square
Goatley says to pay particular attention to variety
characteristics when establishing lawns. He says that opportunities exist
to select grasses that inherently have genetically darker-green color than
other varieties, but the color is not related to extra nitrogen
Turf professionals can read more about genetic color
information, as well as overall quality and performance data through the
National Turfgrass Evaluation Program at www.ntep.org.
|Photos on this page by Rocky Womack.
|Nelson Garner, of Gary's Lawn Care, Inc. in Forest, Va., believes lawn care professionals can balance healthy turf and the homeowner's need for
aesthetics without compromising a successful fertilization program.
Using less to achieve more
When applying a fertility program, turf professionals
try to use fewer chemicals, which their clients demand. Goatley recently
attended a presentation by Brian Trotta of New York, who recommends
responsible turf management by following what
basics have been around for centuries: use “everything in
moderation.” Trotta told conference attendees that the word
“organics” depends on how one defines it.
Goatley says, “Misapplication of naturally
occurring products [such as fertilizers and pesticides] can cause the same
problems in the environment as synthetics if they are not managed properly.
A well-planned program using synthetic chemicals can still be
While a real interest exists in the more natural,
organic approach, Goatley says he encourages any lawn care professional to
consider offering programs that stress an “organic emphasis,”
while not necessarily totally committing to only naturally occurring
products. He recommends providing these products as part of an annual
program or an integrated approach in combination with synthetic chemistry.
“The push for ‘organic-only’
approaches is not going to go away,” Goatley says, “but
expectations of the consumer have to match the [deliverability] for organic
programs that often cannot provide the highest quality, uniform turf that
He says many of these programs can cost more when
passed along to the consumer. “It is important that everyone
understands that a healthy, properly fertilized turf is one of the
environment’s best friends, much more so than a non-fertilized turf
over time, [which can cause] more erosion potential and movement of
sediments and nutrients,” he says. “So, there is a lot of
educating the customer that has to be done.”
|Photo courtesy of Jim Novak, Turfgrass Producers International.
|Homeowners today want well-fertilized lawns, so the turf appears healthy and green.
Good management plan
During the winter weather, and before the warm weather
arrives, turf professionals may consider planning how they are going to
achieve a balance in their spring fertility program. Goatley tells
homeowners to “ease” their lawns into the growing season, for
both warm and cool-season grasses.
“A lot of spring nitrogen can quickly produce a
surge in top growth,” he says, “but it is at the expense of the
root system and, ultimately, can cause problems in the lawn as the year
The key is maintaining that balance. For cool-season
grasses, he says, fertility programs that
emphasize fall fertilization should remain focused.
Garner and his crew have done that and realized
success with most of the homeowners they work with each year.
“We’ve found the homeowner is very satisfied when we’ve
done the higher nitrogen rates; to do more of what Virginia Tech recommends
in line [with] the three-step application of fertilizer in the fall and
early winter and not have to go in the spring with anything,” he
says. “We see a good, early green-up with that program. We
don’t have the problem with as much fungal diseases getting into the
turfgrass and brown patch in the spring and early summer when we’ve
done the fall applications like that.”
However, Goatley admits that spring fertilization
offers unique advantages. He says research at the University of Maryland
has shown that the most efficient fertilization programs, considering both
fertilizer usage and turf response, are those where three-fourths of the
seasonal nitrogen is applied in the fall and one-fourth in the spring.
“This approach supports responsible spring
greening and actually enhances root growth, because the nitrogen is applied
in moderation,” Goatley says.
On warm-season grasses, he recommends waiting until
complete spring greening to make the first nitrogen application of the
spring. However, “we all realize that from a business and economic
standpoint that lawn care professionals often have to apply fertilizers in
combination with the spring pre-crabgrass products,” he says.
“Whenever possible, use controlled release nitrogen carriers in the
spring if weed and feed programs are necessary. This strategy applies to
either warm or cool-season grasses.”
Goatley says that the controlled release rates of
these nitrogen sources will improve nitrogen use efficiency and not
excessively promote shoot growth at the expense of the roots.
The homeowner’s fickleness spills over into
their need for speed when it comes to achieving that spectacular looking
lawn. “With these new lawns, they’re coming in [and] sodding
them instead of seeding them, because they want the instant
gratification,” Garner says.
Garner says that the balance of a healthy lawn and
aesthetics can be achieved, but the lawn care professional must play it by
ear sometimes. He advises taking a soil sample, having it analyzed by an
approved testing laboratory and seeing what the results are to follow the
fertilizer rates that the lab recommends.
The author is a freelance writer in Danville, Va.