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Lawns can be a beautiful ground cover for outdoor spaces, and a few basic steps can keep grass weed- and pest-free and beautiful all year long.

click to enlarge A well-nourished, regularly watered lawn is like a welcome mat for your home.

A well-nourished, regularly watered lawn is like a welcome mat for your home.

  Here are the basics of lawn care compiled from Louisiana Lawns Best Management Practices (BMPS) from the Louisiana State University AgCenter ( and The Old Farmers Almanac.

  Test your soil. Take a plug of soil from your lawn and have it tested for soil fertility factors (the AgCenter offers a kit and testing for $15). The analysis will determine necessary ratios of the main nutrients phosphorus, potassium and lime.

  Once the nutrients have been applied and the lawn has responded, use nitrogen fertilizers to control weeds and pests.

  Too much fast-release nitrogen fertilizer can build grass thatch (clippings and plant pieces, living and dead, that lie on top of the soil but beneath the green part of grass plants), cause rampant growth and grass burn and leave plants vulnerable to pests. Slow-release fertilizers are more expensive, but are applied less often and are less likely to cause sudden fast growth or burn (caused by excessive phosphorus) than fast-acting complete fertilizers. Fertilizer bags indicate the chemical analysis of the product with three numbers (8-8-8, 24-6-12, etc.), which is the percentage by weight of (always in this order) nitrogen (N), phosphate (P205) and potash (K20).

  Apply fertilizers when grass blades are dry. Afterward, water lawn to wash fertilizer into the soil. When spreading fertilizer, make sure to overlap the broadcast area so the grass doesn't develop stripes of nonfertilized lawn. With a drop spreader, walk at a medium-fast rate and make a single, continuous pass, then position the inside wheel of the spreader to run in contact with the material that was just spread. Broadcast spreaders tend to leave thin and heavy spots, so walk at a medium-fast rate and apply the fertilizer at half the rate and half the swath width and overlap the broadcast pattern on subsequent passes.

  Grass needs regular watering, and the best time to water a lawn is in the morning. Generally 1 inch of water once or twice a week during dry periods is sufficient. Light watering, however frequent, isn't recommended as the water doesn't soak into the ground and can cause grass to grow shallow roots.

  A thin layer of thatch insulates the soil, reduces damage from foot traffic and helps retain moisture. If thatch reaches three-fourths of an inch, however, turfgrass roots begin to grow in the thatch instead of the soil, the layer blocks water and fertilizer from reaching the soil, and plants become susceptible to insects and diseases. Excessive thatch often indicates overfertilizing, overwatering or under-mowing.

click to enlarge Brown patches, uneven growth and a pale color are signs of a lawn under stress.
  • Brown patches, uneven growth and a pale color are signs of a lawn under stress.

  Lawns in Louisiana are warm-season grasses, which grow fast in a hot, moist climate. In general, mow grass before it reaches one and a half times the height to which you have set the mower blade. Allowing grass to grow longer consistently will make the turf (the top layer of earth with a mat of grass, roots and weeds) thin and weedy. Keeping grass at lower heights can increase the quality of turf but may require fertilizing and mowing more often.

  Retest your lawn's soil every two to three years; its chemical composition changes often.

  Some tips for greening: To make centipede grass a darker green, fertilize it frequently with a mixture of 2 to 3 ounces of ferrous sulfate (iron) in water per 1,000 square feet of lawn. For a green lawn in the winter, overseed warm-weather grasses with rye grass seed (10 pounds seed per 1,000 square feet) in October or November and apply a top dressing in mid-December. A second top dressing can be applied seven weeks later.

  Weeds, insects and fungal diseases are the main pests of turf grass, but maintaining proper fertilization, thatch control and mowing procedures should develop a turf capable of fending off those pests naturally.

Pets and lawns

While humans see a lawn as a tidy presentation for their home, dogs see it as a soft playground, a place to run, play fetch, chase squirrels and relieve themselves. Pets and lawns don't need to be at odds. Here are some ways to keep your pets safe and your lawn pretty.

  Pet urine is high in salt that can cause a lawn to have brown spots ringed by fast-growing grass that's normally a darker green. To avoid the spots, flush areas where your pet has urinated as soon as possible to dilute the salt. You can patch damaged areas with sod or reseed them. There also are commercial products to neutralize the salt.

  Consider mulching an area in your yard for your pets to use as a toilet and training them to do their business there.

  When applying fertilizers or pest control products to your lawn, be sure to follow the manufacturers' recommendations concerning how long to keep pets off the lawn to be safe. Some products recommend watering the lawn after such applications and waiting until it's dry before any people or animals walk on it. (This also keeps people and animals from tracking residue into the house.) Others say exposure to the products, even when wet, is not harmful to pets. Check the recommendations, since dogs and cats sometimes eat grass as a remedy for an upset stomach.

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