Half of the gardening battle is anticipating problems. True, there is seldom a change in the sequence or timing of garden problems from one year to the next, but human nature being what it is, any problem in any given year is considered a "new" one by plant people.
Lacebugs seemingly have been a Washington legacy forever, but thousands of gardeners are shocked in late June to find lacebugs parading on their azaleas; in truth, the only shock is not finding lacebugs in the first place.
As June arrives, garden problems take a quantum leap in severity. Suddenly, the methods of spring are no longer viable because environmental conditions have worsened. Anyone who has done vegetable gardening up to now knows fully well the futility of cultivating the soil to stay ahead of the weeds; the only practical approach now is mulching the soil. The same holds true elsewhere in the garden where the parameters have inalterably worsened.
Through the summer, this column will focus on alerting you to problems you can expect in your landscape. The theme of "problem planning" should keep you a giant step ahead of the headaches that drain your enthusiasm for the garden.
Here's one such problem: Sunny lawns that "disappear" over the summer.
If you encounter this, it is likely that you are following the wrong summer maintenance program on the sunny lawn. (Shady lawns are something else and may not be a problem until late June or early July.) For the lawn exposed to full sun, cutting the turfgrass too short will precipitate all sorts of weed problems. Usually the problem is compounded by too little watering, often done at the wrong time of day. When potent weed-killing chemicals are applied with abandon to all parts of the lawn, the turfgrass may be killed along with the weeds. Finally, damage to the lawn will occur if diseases and infestation by soil insects are left untreated.
If you would keep your lawn while others are losing theirs to the summer sun, consider adopting the following maintenance program.
*Don't cut the sunny lawn this weekend, but let the grass grow taller. Tall grass shades the soil from the sun, thereby sparing the loss of valuable soil water to the sun every day. Tall grass helps prevent germination of weed seeds because it denies the seeds the sunlight they need to sprout and grow. Tall grass is better able to thrive in drought conditions, and keeping grass tall can help prevent the tip browning that normally occurs after grass-cutting.
*When you resume cutting the sunny lawn a week from now, be sure to raise the mower blade to the highest cutting height. Bluegrass, fine fescue, perennial rye and tall fescue will benefit from high cuts all summer long. The only exception is zoysia-Bermuda grass, which should be cut at the lowest setting on the rotary mower, usually one inch. Tall fescue (Houndog, Rebel) will thrive all summer if cut at four inches; consider wrapping friction tape over each mower wheel to raise the cut to this height. One of these days, someone will develop a plastic sleeve to fit over existing mower wheels to enable old mowers to cut at the four-inch mark; it's long overdue.
*Vary the direction of grass-cutting week by week to avoid graining and matting of the lawn. If parts of the lawn appear to have problems, cut the good grass first, then the problem areas. Once the mowing is done, mix in a bucket 2 ounces of liquid chlorine bleach to 6 ounces of water, then dip a rag in the solution and wash down both sides of the rotary blade (lift mower so that the left wheels are on the ground, the right ones are in the air), also cleaning mower wheels. In troublesome areas of the lawn, look for symptoms to pinpoint the nature of the problem. A summary of problems and diagnosis will follow in a June column.
*If you have seen goosegrass (clumpy islands of summer grass) on your lawn, especially in the same area where crabgrass has appeared, apply granular Balan or Dacthal by next weekend. Check the label for the suggested spreader setting, then decrease this setting by 1 and use that number. This prevents goosegrass seed from germinating in the next 18 days, so you should not see a clump of goosegrass on the sunny lawn this year. After you have applied the chemical, soak the lawn the following morning to wash the chemical into the soil; do not mow the lawn until you have soaked the grass after the Balan or Dacthal treatment.
*Water before 11 a.m. or not at all. Evening watering predisposes the lawn to diseases, mainly powdery mildew. Afternoon watering surrenders water to the sun and interrupts the built-in air-conditioning system of the grass (pores or stomates at the blade tip), and grass plants start heating up. Watering in early morning is best for turfgrass; this dilutes in the leaf blade the salty fluid (guttation) that helped spread disease. Watering the lawn in the early morning also establishes proper moisture levels for the grass before the sun climbs into the picture.