The grass doesn't always have to be greener on the other side of the fence. If you plant the right kind of grass seed at the right time -- and then take care of it -- chances are your lawn will look great even when the dog days of summer arrive.
"When thinking about grass, it's usually in the context of front lawns, backyards or on a sports field, and its benefits as a living plant are rarely given much thought," says Bruce Augustin, chief agronomist for The Scotts Company. "But grass is an important and critical part of nature. Grass works to sustain its surrounding ecosystem and create fertile soil."
What kind of grass you should plant depends on where you live. Kentucky bluegrass and fescue are good for colder climates; zoysia is fine for warm climates. If you live in the Southeast, try centipede or Bahia grass. Floridians should plant St. Augustine or carpet grass. Bermuda grass does well in very dry climates.
Mixes of ryegrass and bluegrass are good for the Midwestern states, which experience a wide variety of weather. Ryegrass (which has only one blade per seed) will come up in seven to 10 days and will "hold the soil" until the bluegrass (which produces a lot of blades) has a chance to germinate and grow over a period of two to three weeks.
People who live in warm climates can plant in the fall. However, if you are in an area that experiences four definite seasons, it's best to plant in the spring, before the weather gets too hot, or wait until the early fall, when the weather turns cooler but is not yet freezing.
If you have doubts about what grass to plant, go to your local hardware or home improvement store and ask a sales associate for advice, says Steve Fafoglia, who owns a True Value hardware store. At those stores, seed usually comes either in bulk or in a bag.
"Bulk seed is less expensive because it hasn't been cleaned of weeds," Fafoglia says. "The seeds in bags have been cleaned and cost a little more." Just remember that you might spend more money in the long run if you have to get rid of weeds.
"Grass seed must be either raked or slit seeded into soil that is dry on at least the top layer," Fafoglia says. "Seed should be planted a quarter- or half-inch below the ground surface to make good contact with the soil." Plant any higher than that and you merely are inviting the birds to breakfast. Of course, new seed must be kept watered.
Once your grass is planted and the lawn is established, you need to take care of it. Fertilizing, "or feeding," your grass three to four times a year provides it with nutrients that thicken grass and build deep root systems, Augustin says. When fertilizer lands on driveways or sidewalks, sweep it back on the lawn to keep nutrients where the grass will use it.
When mowing, set your mower to the highest setting. Leave your clippings on your lawn to break down and recycle nutrients back into the soil. When you mow the grass, mow in one direction one week and a different direction the next.
If you choose to water beyond what Mother Nature provides, Augustin says to wait until your lawn dulls in color or begins to wilt. Sometimes hot and dry weather will make your lawn go dormant and turn brown. If that happens, it will bounce back again when it starts to rain or when you give it a good soaking. Watering in the morning or the coolest part of the day reduces water loss from evaporation.
Of course, not all areas of your lawn will grow equally well. That's why Jack Robertson, president of Jack Robertson Lawn Care for more than 30 years, says spring is the best time to plant under trees. "Growing conditions don't deteriorate as quickly under the shade of the leaves," he says. "In the fall, you'll have the leaves coming down, which means you'll have to keep the leaves off it." Remember that tree roots rob new grass of moisture, so grass competing with tree roots requires more water.
Sometimes planting grass just isn't feasible. "That's when you have to take a step back and ask yourself, 'Is grass going to survive here?' For example, if you have a 100-pound Lab that runs along the fence all day long, grass is not going to grow there. Maybe you should put rocks there instead," Robertson says.
"If you have a very shady part of the yard that gets less than two or three hours of sun a day, you'd be better off putting in shady-area plants," he says. "It's just best not to fight a losing battle."