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Remember when spring was the accepted time to reseed, renovate and fertilize lawns?

If you have been listening lately, you know that turf grass specialists have been trying to get us to think fall when it comes to annual lawn maintenance.

The evidence, in terms of healthy, attractive Howard County lawns, just keeps piling up in favor of doing most of these chores now, not in the spring.

If a beautiful lawn is one of your priorities, it's time to get to work.

Then there is the larger picture.

Thinkback to the time when striving for a beautiful, well-manicured lawn was a homeowner given. No more. These days, our traditional preoccupation with lush, carefully clipped grassy expanses provokes controversy.

Lawns require too many toxic chemicals and too much fertilizer and water. Lawn runoff adversely affects ground water, our streams and the bay. Bagged grass clippings take valuable landfill space.

How about the fuel required to keep the grass mowed? California has passed legislation to limit small-engine hydrocarbon emissions. This includes lawn mowers and trimmers.

Howard County is fortunate becauseof its proximity to several area research facilities that are providing updated, reliable information on turf grass.

The USDA at Beltsville and the University of Maryland, as well as Virginia Tech, have been active in a "transitional" zone for grass growing. That is, our climate falls between warm-grass and cool-grass climates. Varieties of grass that thrive in many parts of the country don't do well here.

At present, the facts point to the following general conclusions. Turf grass as an element in the home landscape has useful, even beneficial aspects.

Managed wisely, home lawns have a minimal negative impact on the environment.

It is wise management that is key here and demands that homeowners care enough to be informed, attentive lawn-care givers. This applies whether we choose to rely on a lawn-care company, do the maintenance ourselves or plan to neglect the lawn.

There is positive news about grass. The Better Lawn and Turf Institute, while not the most objective of sources, provides some facts.

Lawns, because of the dense root mass, absorb and hold water, preventing soil erosion. Turf helps filter and purify water entering underground aquifers. It traps dust and dirt from the atmosphere. It also provides a significant cooling effect.

In a decade when tree planting has become close to sacred, it's interesting to note that, relativeto biomass, a grass plant can be four times as efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide and some toxic elements and giving off oxygen as a tree.

On the other hand, research has found much room for improvement in turf management techniques.

Dr. Lee Hellman, extension entomologist at the University of Maryland, offered the following statistics at a recent workshop on environmental stewardship for water quality.

By using, optimally, the knowledge we now have to maintain turfed areas, we could reduce pesticide use in Maryland by 40 to 60 percent, fertilizer use by 15 to 20 percent and irrigation by 30 to 40 percent.

Here are some recent turf grass findings that may surprise you, or back up what you already know. They point to ways to make our lawns an asset to the environment instead of a liability.

GRASS VARIETIES: Choices of grass variety affects the kind of care the lawn will require. Most of the turf grasses grown in Howard County are cool-season types -- either Kentucky bluegrass or tall fescue. Bluegrass is more traditional, lush and elegant. But it is also demanding of water, fertilizer, pest and disease controls.

New varieties of tall fescue grass are rivaling the quality of bluegrass and are proving far hardier, drought-resistant and less prone to diseases. They developminimal thatch -- the buildup of dried runners and roots at the baseof the plants that can block water and harbor diseases and pests.

The tall fescues are the grass of choice for most area homeowners. Apache, Rebel Houndod and Olympic are some of the cultivar names to look for.

Grass seed sold in garden centers and hardware stores varies tremendously in quality. Seed labeled "Maryland-Virginia Recommended" has been tested and approved at university test plots.

Fertilization: Lawns may not need the same dose, if any, of fertilizer and lime every year. Excess amounts can't be absorbed by the plants and runs off to become pollution.

Request and follow through on a soil test for your lawn every three years. (Test kits are available throughthe University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, $4 processing fee; 1-800-342-2507 or 313-2702).

Controlled experiments have shown that spring fertilization actually decreases root development, and creates lush blade growth that is susceptible to diseases, pests and drought.

In addition, the frequent mowing required to keep up with the new growth is stressful to the grass (and the homeowner). Apply all fertilizer in the fall. Splitting the total recommended amount into three equal parts, applying one third each September, October and November is also recommended.

Mowing: Mowing height has been found to have a dramatic effect on crab grass growth. Mow too closely and crab grass flourishes. Recommended height for tall fescue grass is 2 1/2 to 3 inches, and a half-inch shorter for bluegrass. Also, grass roughly cut with a dull mower blade is more susceptible to fungal diseases.

Don't bag it: Leaving the grass clippings on the lawn isin, bagged clippings on the curb are out. The nitrogen in the clippings may reduce the lawn's fertilization by as much as 38 percent.

Grass should not lose more than one-third of its blade per mowing or it is unduly stressed. Since grass blades are 88 percent water, the clippings will quickly dry and decay. Special mulching mowers are not needed if the one-third rule is followed.

Pesticide use: Insecticides, fungicides and herbicides should only be used if a problem has been noted, diagnosed and judged significant enough to warrant control. Mechanical and cultural ways to correct the problem should be considered before chemicals.

Earthworms have been found to have an important role in lawn health. They aerate the soil and their droppings help decay thatch. One pesticide application may destroy up to 99 percent of the earthworms present and have a 20-week residual effect.

Realistic expectations: A green velvet lawn isn't for everyone or everywhere. Times are changing. Common sense tells us we need to accept that there are different definitions of a successful lawn and that there are no magic, overnight solutions to our lawn's problems.

Brochures covering recommended grass varieties for Howard County, schedules for fertilization, diagnosis and treatment for turf grass diseasesand pest may be obtained from the University of Maryland CooperativeExtension Service, 1-800-342-2507.

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