Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Gardening Today: Caring For Established Lawns

Caring for Established Lawns

The key to a healthy, attractive lawn is a balanced approach to maintenance. A lawn that is properly watered and fertilized will have fewer problems with weeds and disease.


Many people do not recognize the importance of proper mowing. A lawn that is mowed when necessary and at the height of 3" resists invasions of weeds, insects and diseases and has a more lush, healthy look. Mowing infrequently, which results in removing too much grass at one time, will eventually produce a lawn with a thin, spotty, or burned out appearance.

The penalty for cutting away one half or more at once results in leaf burn and root damage. Moving too high results in deterioration of leaves at the lower levels and more importantly development of a shallow root system rather than a healthy deep root system which can simplify lawn care.


Removing Clippings
Clippings from our cool season grasses do not seem to contribute to thatch build-up, and do return nutrients to the lawn. Two reasons to remove clippings include the potential for unsightliness, and the possibility of too much grass being cut off at once. Instead of sifting down and decomposing, the clippings can mat on top and suffocate the grass underneath.


Lawns should be watered as often as it needs it. How long your lawn can go between watering depends on several things. Roots grow only where there is water. If you constantly wet the top few inches of soil, roots won't grow any deeper. Eventually, the limited size of the root system will force you to water more often. Frequent water keeps the surface wet, which is ideal for weeds and diseases. If roots go deep into the soil, they can draw on a larger water supply and the lawn can go much longer between watering.

Soil conditions can also effect how often you need to water. Lawns in sandy soil will need water more often than those in rich loam. Lawns in a clay soil will need water less often and it should be applied at slower rates to avoid run off.

Do not water the lawn until the grass shows signs of wilting, such as loss of color or graying, or the retention of footprints. When you to water, apply 1 to 1 1/2 inches each time. During the summer, every 5-7 days is a normal schedule.


Three elements are critical to good turf growth, color and winter hardiness. In addition, iron and sulfur can also be very beneficial.

Nitrogen- The most important element in the fertilizer mix. A lack of nitrogen causes a lawn to look pale and yellow.
Phosphorus- Responsible for the development of strong roots, it also helps new seedlings become established.
Potassium- This helps in winter hardiness and overall vigor of turf plants. "Winterized" fertilizers, which are applied in late fall, usually contain at least twice as much potassium as formulas for spring application.
Proper timing of fertilization should take advantage of "cool-season" grasses, such as those found in Montana. The heat and light of mid summer naturally slows down growth. Application of fertilizer during the heat may be wasted, as the plants will not be able to use it. It is best to fertilize in the spring and fall to achieve the best results.


Weed Control
The best was to control lawn weeds is to maintain a dense, vigorous growing turf. A lawn which is under stress due to improper watering or fertilization, being mowed too short or compacted soil is usually too thin. This allows weed seeds more opportunities to germinate and grow.