By: Jackie Carroll
Early spring bulbs look fantastic naturalized in grassy areas, but as pretty as they are, this planting method isn’t for everyone. The main drawback is that you have to delay mowing the lawn in spring, and the grass may begin to look a bit ragged before it’s safe to mow. Here are some things to consider before mowing bulbs in the lawn.
When to Mow Naturalized Bulbs
You have to wait until the foliage dies back naturally before mowing bulbs in the lawn. This allows the bulb to re-absorb the nutrients in the foliage and use the energy for next year’s blooms. Without these nutrients, bulbs make a poor showing the following year and over time they die out.
Small bulbs that bloom in early spring may die back before the time for the first mowing. These include snowdrops, crocuses, and squill. Tulips and daffodils may take several weeks to die back. It’s safe to mow when the leaves turn yellow or brown and lie limp on the ground. In most cases, the leaves lift off with no resistance.
How to Mow Flowering Bulbs
Consider the health of the lawn grass as well as the health of the bulb when mowing bulbs in lawn areas. If you’ve had to let the grass grow a little taller than usual, cut it back to its normal height gradually. Never remove more than one-third of the length of the blade in one mowing. If necessary, mow two or three times in a week until you get the lawn back to its suggested height, and then resume a normal mowing schedule.
If you have an uncontrollable itch to mow flowering bulbs in grass before they fade back completely, try an alternative planting site. Early spring bulbs flower before many ornamental trees leaf out. Once the foliage fills in, the shade helps disguise the fading foliage, and grass grown in shade is normally maintained at a taller height than that grown in the sun. Planting under the branches of a small, ornamental tree is a good compromise for many gardeners. In areas shaded in early spring, you can use woodland bulbs that tolerate shade like:
- Wood anemone
- Dog-tooth violet
- Star of Bethlehem
If you can’t delay the mowing maintenance of bulbs in the lawn, try planting them in out-of-the-way grassy areas. Brightly colored bulbs show up better than grass at a distance, so you don’t have to be close to enjoy them.
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Read more about General Bulb Care
How to Plant Flower Bulbs for a Meadow Garden Effect
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Lawns are not usually the focal point of a garden, but they can become a notable sight in spring if they're dotted with colorfully blooming bulbs like crocus, species tulips, scilla and other diminutive early bloomers. Mark Konlock, Director of Horticulture at the Green Bay Botanical Garden in Green Bay, Wisc., shares the following tips, developed from his experience creating meadow-like bulb-and-grass combinations at the botanical garden:
A mix of no-mow grasses and 'Tarda' tulips, 'Hawera' daffodils and grape hyacinths make up this meadow at the Green Bay Botanical Garden. Design and photo by Mark Konlock, the Garden's Director of Horticulture.
Use plenty of bulbs so that when they bloom they grab attention.
Choose bulbs that tend to naturalize (spreading by offsets underground and/or by seed) and that reliably come back each year. Top choices include species tulips and mini daffodils.
Plant in the fall at the normal bulb-planting time for your area.
Plant handfuls of bulbs in relatively large holes. At the Green Bay Botanical Garden, Mark and staff dig up a chunk of sod, tuck in several bulbs together and then tamp the sod back into place.
Keep it looking natural by positioning the planting holes randomly, with some close together and some more spread out. Plant different numbers and types of bulbs in each hole, rather than following a formula or pattern. In some holes, put all the same kind of bulb.
Allow fall's rains to settle the bulbs and initiate rooting.
In spring, wait until the bulb foliage dies back before mowing the lawn (if you mow it). This is key to ensure that the bulbs restock their energy stores so they can bloom again next spring.
For more bulb-planting ideas from Mark Konlock and other professionals, see http://www.bulbdesignnotes.com.
Related recommended reading:
If you love the look of a meadow garden but you don't have tons of space to devote to one, take a look at Mini Meadows by Mike Lizotte, in which he guides you through designing, planting and tending a small meadow garden that will add beauty while supporting pollinators and cutting maintenance time.
Part memoir, part how-to book, Owen Wormser's Lawn Into Meadows encourages readers to create meadow gardens where they'd otherwise tend a lawn. Drawing from his experiences, he includes design advice, information about the best grasses and wildflowers to use and thoughts on selling the idea to neighbors who love their turfgrass lawns.
Get the most from flower bulbs with the advice of Rob Proctor in his classic book Naturalizing Bulbs. Proctor explains how to combine bulbs with perennials for a natural look, how to choose bulbs for a specific site, how to care for bulbs so that they remain perennial and much more.
Mowing the Lawn
Regular mowing is essential to the production and maintenance of a good lawn. Unless this is assured, expense, and work on all kinds of recommended treatments are of little value.
A first-class lawn needs cutting two or three times a week during periods of vigorous growth and even a very ordinary type of lawn needs cutting at least once a week. Less frequent mowing is adequate when growth is poor but the grass should never be allowed to exceed the chosen height by very much. Even in the winter months, occasional topping may be needed when conditions are suitable. Whenever mowing is carried out, the best results are obtained if the surface is dry.
The height of the cut depends on the quality of the lawn required and the type of grass sown. There is no need to maintain a lawn at the very short length required for bowls or golf. Such close cutting 5mm (1/2in) causes great strain on the grass plants and even the very fine grasses thrive best at heights of 8-12mm (1-4-in). Other grasses do not survive very well at all when cut at this height even, and so a height of 1-2cm (.5-1in) is more suitable. Even the best varieties of perennial ryegrass, however, should not be cut closer than 2.5cm (1in).
Grass cuttings contain a useful amount of mineral matter in their bulk of moist organic material and allowing cuttings to fall back on the lawn decreases the drain on plant foods which arises when cuttings are removed. On the other hand, the organic material is known to encourage disease, weeds, earthworm casting, and soft surface conditions so that the best rule is undoubtedly to box off the cuttings and use them elsewhere in the garden.
The essence of a good lawn is uniformity and to get a uniform cut it is necessary to have a smooth surface. The best ways of achieving this are care in the original preparation of the lawn (ie obtaining a smooth seedbed which is sufficiently and uniformly firm to reduce the risk of settlement) and top dressing the existing lawn with sandy compost material so as to gradually smooth out the hollows. Rolling helps, of course, but rolling also causes consolidation which restricts root development and impedes moisture penetration so that it is an operation which must not be overemphasized.
To achieve a really good cut you need a good mower in good condition. Clearly, you cannot achieve a bowling green finish with a second-hand grade C mower. The quality of a mower is generally related to cost, so buy the best you can afford from this list of quality lawnmowers. For really good results you need a good conventional mower giving the maximum number of cuts per yard run. Rotary mowers like a reel lawn mower are undoubtedly very suitable for many purposes but they do not give a first-class finish suitable for the really good lawn. Whatever kind of mower is used, the best results are obtained if it is set correctly and if regular cleaning, oiling, etc is carried out.
When mowing, start at one edge of the lawn and push the mower continuously, rather than with a ‘push-pull’ motion, until you reach the end of the lawn. Then turn and mow in the other direction, the cut slightly overlapping the first cut. This produces the alternate light and dark bands which so many people admire.
However, to obtain the best results, you should change the direction of mowing each time you cut the lawn. If you cut from north to south at one mowing, cut from east to west next time, and so on. Continuous mowing in one direction only will produce the so-called `washboard’ effect, a series of alternate ridges and hollows.
An exception to the rule of starting at the edge is when a `Cal Trimmer’ mower is used. With this machine the cuttings are not boxed but are left lying in small heaps on the lawn and, to avoid having to spend much time and energy raking them up after mowing, it is better to start by making the first cut down the center of the lawn and then making alternate cuts, first on one side and then on the other of the first cut, in opposite directions. It will be found that most of the clippings will be pushed gradually to the edges of the lawn and maybe raked up much more easily or with the last cut may be blown on to flanking flower beds where they will act as a mulch.
Aerate if You Must
If your lawn gets heavy traffic, such as lots of running and playing in the same spot, this can cause soil compaction. If you see moss, which thrives on compacted soil, you can get rid of it, but you need to look deeper into its root cause. In this case, it is your soil. It needs aeration. A lawn aerator creates openings in lawn turf that allows water and air to penetrate the soil and reach the grassroots. You can rent a lawn aerator at a big box hardware store or, if you have a small lawn, you can manually use a hand aerator to do it. Unless your soil has a high clay content, it probably doesn't make much sense buying a lawn aerator machine.
Spring is not the ideal time to aerate the lawn, but circumstances may require it. If soil is compacted to the point that existing grass can't grow, it may be necessary to aerate in the spring. Generally, though, spring aerating is discouraged because the aeration holes provide a perfect spot for weed seeds to germinate. Weeds (especially crabgrass) are the first seeds to germinate in the spring, and aerating the lawn stirs them up and gives them an ideal home. If you must aerate in the spring, consider around Memorial Day after weeds have started growing but before they go to seed.
Match mowing heights according to species and situation.
Most mowers have adjustments for raising and lowering the mowing height. Be sure to set your mower on a solid surface such as a driveway or sidewalk and determine what height you get from various settings. Then, set your mower’s cutting height to match the appropriate height of cut for your particular grass. If your lawn has a white hue rather than a green color after you mow, it is a good bet that you are cutting too low. While there are some differences in tolerable cutting heights between the various species of warm and cool-season turfgrasses, a general rule of thumb is to clip them in the 2-3 inch range. For cool-season turfgrasses, it is always a safer bet to begin raising their cutting heights in late spring/early summer to maximize tolerance to environmental and pest pressure. Taller cutting heights at these times help maintain the plant’s root system. On the other hand, warm-season grasses respond to mowing on the lower side of their recommended range in the summer by increasing in density. Note that shorter mowing heights will require more frequent mowing.
What about turf in the shade? Mow on the high side of the recommended range in order to maximize the plant’s leaf area. Your lawn grasses will already be at a huge competitive disadvantage to the trees in regards to light, water, and nutrients, so it needs some special attention to maintain a canopy.
Your lawn, just like many of your garden plants, behaves and grows differently across each of the four seasons.
Understanding a little about its habits and knowing the simple tricks that will help it flourish can assist you in having a lawn that looks its best year round.
Feeding across the seasons
Lawns require regular feeding with a quality fertiliser to keep them looking good and growing strong.
The ideal is to fertilise three times a year – spring, summer and autumn.
Watering across the seasons
A well fed, maintained and loved lawn will withstand dry conditions better than a neglected one.
If your lawn is larger than a courtyard and your suburb’s water restrictions allow sprinkler systems, then consider changing from hand watering. You’ll save yourself loads of time and looking after your lawn becomes quick and easy.
Use a quality lawn sprinkler:
- With an adjustable pattern that can be set to avoid watering hard surfaces.
- Put a timer on your tap so you don’t forget to turn it off.
Autumn, along with spring, is the ideal time to do any maintenance on lawns, including patching and re-sowing.
- Fertilise. Feeding now will green your lawn up ahead of winter also make it stronger and better able to resist damage from extreme cold, even frost.
- Watering. It can be easy to overlook the lawn drying out at this time of year. Windy weather can be just as drying as a hot day.
- Mowing. Mowing frequency will decrease as growth slows. In autumn, your lawn is storing energy for winter so and growth/mowing frequency should drop. Ensure you clear leaves to allow your lawn as much sunlight as possible leading into the harsh winter.
Lawn maintenance over winter is limited, as growth slows in the cooler period.
- Fertilise. Fertilising in winter is not generally recommended, especially if you have already fed it three times since the start of spring. There is little point in feeding because growth has slowed and the lawn will not take up nutrients.
- Watering. The need to water over winter will be low, take care not to over water because a lawn that stays wet can rot when it’s cold.
- Mowing. In most places, you’ll probably not need to mow too often over winter. Keep the lawn clear of fallen leaves and trim back overhanging branches that may be restricting light.
- Weed watch. Most weeds are dormant over winter but try to remove any that do crop up, to get a head start for spring!
Spring is a great time to get your lawn in tip top shape for the upcoming summer bbq season! If your lawn is looking a bit lacklustre after winter, the following tips will help you whip it into shape.
- Rake vigorously to not only clear fallen leaves and twigs but more importantly to strip out dead and brown grass (“thatch”) to allow more light through to new shoots.
- Fertilise. This is the critical time of year to give your lawn a balanced, slow release feed. Fertilising now provides the nutrients to reinvigorate the lawn so it can power into summer. If you only fertilise once a year, do it in spring!
- Watch watering. This can be a tricky time of year for watering. The soil hasn’t warmed and nights may still be cool, so a deep watering may last for longer than expected. Burrow your finger down into the lawn. If it’s damp, don’t water.
- Mowing. Now’s the time to get your mower serviced and the blades sharpened or changed.
- Weed watch. Weeds are coming to life too! Fertilising the lawn to thicken it up will help keep weeds at bay. Very sparse areas are the most likely to become infested with weeds.
This is potentially the most challenging time of year for your lawn, with extreme heat, wind and dryness all getting thrown at it. While you can’t do much about the weather, you can make sure your lawn is well set up to survive these trying conditions.