Greening Your Lawn How to Keep Your Grass Green and Healthy

Grass grows, yes. But lush and healthy grass doesn't just grow on its own. Whether you live in a townhome community or a high-rise condominium complex, your lawns and grassy common spaces act as a welcome mat to all who arrive at your property. The grass that grows there provides a backdrop for shrubs and flowers, adding to the curb appeal—as well as the overall value—of your property. By mapping out a sound lawn maintenance program, your building or association can add value and enable residents and shareholders to enjoy beautiful lawns and green spaces throughout the year.

Planning Before Planting

Cultivating picture-perfect green spaces might seem like a chore too tricky to manage without serious professional assistance, but it isn't really that difficult if you begin the process the right way from the ground up.

According to the Community Associations Institute (CAI), the lynchpin of any successful grounds maintenance program is the designation of a grounds maintenance or landscaping committee. The committee can be made up of one or more people whose job it is to assess the grounds, identify sections that need improvement, which need minimal attention, and which areas have the highest traffic, thus putting them at risk for overuse.

After the committee has been appointed and some rough goals and expectations for the property mapped out, it's decision time: will you handle grounds and lawn maintenance in-house, or will you contract the job out to a professional? Perhaps a combination of the two approaches might be best for your community. CAI recommends that landscaping and grounds committees ask themselves a few questions to determine what approach best fits their needs:

First, how are the property and facilities used? High-traffic and high-visibility areas clearly need more regular, specialized care than more remote portions of the property. Depending on the level of in-house expertise, it may be acceptable for an association or building staff to oversee lawn maintenance.

Second, what is the size of the area to be maintained? Bigger properties require more people and more man-hours for adequate upkeep. Professional landscaping and lawn care companies maintain work crews who may be able to do in a day or two what would take a week or more if done by an in-house staff juggling other non-lawn-related duties.

Third, what facilities and equipment will need to be maintained? If a good lawn care program would necessitate the purchase and maintenance of a lot of expensive, complicated equipment, it might make more sense to outsource lawn care to a fully equipped professional.

Next, who within the community is available to help with grounds maintenance? The answer will help determine the extent to which professional contractors should be involved.

And, how does the geographic location of the association affect its grounds maintenance needs? If your association is on hilly land that's difficult to mow, or in a lowland prone to flooding, a professional landscaping contractor may be able to advise on drainage issues and can carry out routine maintenance safely and effectively.

And lastly, what is the cost of in-house versus contract maintenance? If money is tight, but your building or association has the expertise and manpower to formulate and carry out an effective lawn care regimen, it may be to your benefit to simply do it all in-house.

The Total Package

Of course, if your association can afford to, you might decide to just bring in a landscape contractor who can take care of all the lawn maintenance for you. According to Wayne Greenleaf Jr. of Greenleaf Landscape Systems and Services Inc. in Red Bank, the cost for an annual full-maintenance program varies by location, size, and type of development. "A program could cost $5,000 a year for a small high-rise down by the Jersey shore to upwards of $300,000 to $500,000 for a widespread townhouse community with a lot of plantings."

As part of the planning and budgeting process, your lawn contractor may work with your in-house lawn care committee to assess the particular needs and challenges posed by the property. According to CAI, the grounds committee and the lawn specialist should map the community into "maintenance zones" which will give both the contractor and association staff a clear picture of what kind of care each section of the property needs.

The four most commonly identified maintenance zones are high maintenance—those areas that require a lot of attention, either because of their visibility, high usage, or issues such as steep slopes or poor drainage areas—average maintenance areas—those that are somewhat visible and utilized, where weeds and crabgrass can be tolerated and mowing is not required as often—low maintenance areas—located far from any residences, streets, and median strips—and natural areas, such as woods and meadows that can be maintained in their natural state, or landscaped sections that the association would like to return to a natural state to minimize future maintenance costs.

According to the professionals, while standard service packages vary from contractor to contractor, there are a number of services that most lawn care specialists offer as a matter of course. Fertilization is a standard part of any lawn care program, and most companies will offer both pre-emergence and post-emergence weed control as part of their standard package. Many lawn care programs also include control of surface-feeding insects like chinch bugs, bluegrass billbugs, and sod webworms as part of their standard program, while getting rid of grubs—which live underground—is usually offered at an additional cost. Some companies don't offer insect control at all, and turf disease control and prevention is usually offered as an added expense.

The bottom line is that the bigger your property, the more plantings, shrubs, and embankments you have, and the more stringent your standards, the more you can expect to pay your lawn care contractor. That said, however, Greenleaf feels that there may be significant savings to an association by hiring a landscape contractor to handle the grounds as opposed to using in-house groundskeepers and maintenance staff, but either way, it's not a bad idea for your building or association board to be informed about the lawn care process and know exactly what goes into creating those flawless green expanses.

To that end, Troizier recommends adopting a yearly maintenance plan, regardless of whether your building or community uses a professional contractor or maintains a year-round grounds staff. The following is a rough timeline for a typical lawn care program:

March/Spring Clean-Up: This phase is the first salvo in the annual war against weeds, brown patches, and scraggly growth, and includes raking lawn areas, removing any downed branches and leaves from flower beds, pruning all dead branches on shrubs, and removing any lawn waste. In preparation for the spring/summer growth season, grounds staff and lawn care specialists often hit green spaces with several applications of herbicide to control weeds and crabgrass, insecticide to deter pests, fertilizer to encourage growth, and aeration to improve soil quality.

April-September/Lawn Maintenance: Once any winter damage has been dealt with, lawn professionals and groundskeepers turn their collective attention to upkeep and maintenance. This phase includes weekly lawn mowing, bi-weekly flower bed maintenance, monthly shrub pruning, and weekly dead heading of all perennials. This is also the time when lawn care experts advocate an application each of fertilizer, insecticide, and herbicide. Troizier also recommends seeding in the early fall for next spring's grass growth.

October-November/Fall Clean-up: As winter approaches again, it's time to rake and dispose of fallen leaves to prevent grass and decorative plants from smothering, and to apply lime and a last couple of doses of fertilizer before the ground freezes.

Seed and Sod

Even with conscientious fertilizing and weed control, some green areas are bound to have spots where grass is difficult to grow due to shade, roots, or heavy foot traffic. If that's the case, you may have to take drastic measures to correct the problem. According to Alan Milstein of Live Oak Landscape Contractors in Piscataway, if grass can't easily grow in a certain area, "you're better off using something else entirely, like paving stones or ground covers like juniper, ivy, and pachysandra, which are green all year and require no annual cut-back."

If you're faced with a patch of bare earth—either because of underground maintenance work or new construction—you'll need to decide whether to seed the area or sod it, and what kind of grass to use for the job.

"People love bluegrass, which is probably the most used turf grass in New Jersey," says Yan Troizier, senior plant care division manager at Growing Concern, Inc. in Cranbury. "Bluegrass looks good because of its texture and color."

In this area, seeding is usually done in the fall, when the temperatures are cooler and less threatening to new growth, whereas sod, which can be purchased from sod farms in large rolls, can be installed at any time of the year. Associations needing to patch up a bare spot in the summer may perhaps go the sod route. As long as you have a good irrigation system to water it and sustain the growth of the young grass, then you should be okay, says Troizier.

The downside is that sod is more expensive. According to Troizier, sod costs about 15 cents per square foot, though, overall, prices generally go down for larger areas.

Are Chemicals Necessary?

A good lawn also won't have patches of weeds and wild grasses growing out crazily from cultivated grass. Your grounds-keeping staff might need to use a broadleaf weed control product in the spring and early summer to get rid of unattractive plants like dandelions and clover. Other products can get rid of the grassier-looking crabgrass, a flat, ugly weed that skulks close to the ground.

Nitrogen is the key nutrient in turf fertilization programs, and lawn care companies usually supply Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and fescue lawns with 3 to 5 pounds of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn per year. Phosphorous and potassium are sometime supplied with the standard fertilizer program as well, though the pros say that the actual requirement for the latter two nutrients varies from one lawn to the next. The needs of your green spaces can easily be determined by professional soil testing.

If your grounds-keeping committee or staff opts to apply the diluted versions of professional-grade herbicides and fertilizers, it's important they follow the labels accordingly for safety, and to remember that residents' children and pets should stay off the area for 24 to 48 hours after application, or until the product is watered in. "There are products that are restricted to those who are licensed by the state to apply such chemicals," says Troizier. "If you buy the same chemical from Home Depot, it's definitely diluted. And there are some active ingredients that are available only to people with licenses. You have to be able to calibrate your equipment, you have to know what rate to use, you have to know when to apply it. You learn all that in the process of getting your license."

In order to be licensed by the state of New Jersey, a landscaper must take training courses and successfully complete an exam. After that, they are required to obtain continuing education credits in order to maintain their licenses. Some landscapers don't stop at this license but rather have a college degree in a related field such as agriculture, horticulture, landscape architecture or engineering.

According to Troizier, "You definitely don't need chemicals all the time. If you want the 'perfect' lawn, then use them. But you might want something that just looks decent enough—it depends on your expectations."

Other than that, and your regular watering, Troizier suggests just giving your lawn plenty of TLC. "Just keep your eye on it," he says. "If anything doesn't look right, you can figure out what to do next."

Domini Hedderman is a freelance writer based in Erie, Pennsylvania, who owns and manages a small residential real estate portfolio.

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