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Make your bed: Lawns 101

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The first lawn-makers in late Renaissance England wanted to flaunt their wealth by replicating the look of a sheep-shorn pasture in their front yard. Some even went to the extent of incorporating actual sheep. In addition to visual charm, the sheep handled the mowing and fertilizing chores in exchange for room and board. You probably won't find a deal that good in the Triangle.

Short of investing in a shepherd's crook, a "lawnlet" can be kept looking good with the right tools and timeliness.

Mowing a lawnlet like ours at less than 100 sq. feet can be handled aerobically with a good, sharp sling blade from any hardware store for about half the cost of a month's gym membership.

When you get up to 500 sq. feet (20' x 25') or so, you can manage well with what afriend calls an "acoustic" mower. That's the old-time, non-motorized reel mower that sings a little birdsong as it shears the grass. If you're committed to staying in shape, you'll have no problem clipping the grass before it gets too high.

When you've got more than 500 sq. feet to mow, go with a cordless electric mower. I've got a Ryobi that I use when the grassy paths in the backyard get too high for the reel mower, but I mostly use it to shred tree leaves in the winter for mulch. I love this machine--it turns on with the push of a button. The only sound is that of the blade quietly whirring. Mow weekly so that you never have to take off more than about a third of the grass'sheight. Sharpen the blade every couple of years because a dull blade tears grass leaves and gives them a dull brown sheen.

For watering your little grass crop, invest $10 in a timer that threads onto your spigot. You can set the timer in the morning on your way to work, knowing that the sprinkler will turn itself off before your lawnlet becomes a swamplet. How long to water? Set an empty tuna fish can on the grass and clock how long it takes to fill up. A full tuna fish can equals about an inch of rain. One inch per week should keep you in the green.

Artificially creating the conditions of the Eurasion prairie here in the Southeast means applying the right amount of lime and fertilizer on a timely basis. Use the free soil testing kit from your county horticultural extension office to get your recipe right. It doesn't matter when you spread lime, but not using lime or using the wrong amount may cause the fertilizer you apply to not work as well as it should.

Just like a fish tank with too much fish food, too much nitrogen fertilizer will stimulate diseases in fescue. So use a bag of slow-release fertilizer labelled 18-24-6 or an organic one labelled 18-8-6. The Triangle's ace horticulturalist, Tony Avent, has a trick for remembering optimal fertilizer timing: feed fescue around Valentine's Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Reseed about 5 lbs. per 1,000 sq. feet--or half a pound per 100 sq. feet every September to replace the grass that dies.

At any time of year, it's recommended to flop down on your lawnlet, look up at the big old sky and ask yourself: "Just how much lawn do I need?"

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