Establishing turf on low-maintenance sites

Establishing turfgrass on low-maintenance sites presents many challenges. Limited budgets and resources may result in cutting corners from standard turfgrass-establishment practices. However, you should realize that a difference exists between low-input maintenance and low-input establishment. If you follow some basic principles common to establishing turfgrass, you can successfully establish turfgrass on low-maintenance sites without undue effort and expense. However, you also should commit to meeting certain minimal conditions for your turf's establishment. This helps ensure a healthy stand that will provide the quality you want under a low-maintenance program.

In particular, you should direct your resources and attention toward the three most critical aspects of establishment: 1. Time of planting. Planting at the correct time of year may ultimately determine whether establishment is successful. 2. Soil amendments. Adding soil amendments to correct nutrient deficiencies and other inadequacies ensures rapid establishment. 3. Mulches. Applying mulches to conserve moisture, especially if irrigation is not available, is critical to ensuring successful establishment.

Let's look in more detail at these and some other practices that will help you quickly establish a healthy turfgrass stand on your low-maintenance site.

Planting date depends on turfgrass selection The first decision to make before preparing a site for establishment is the selection of the turfgrass species. Several species have characteristics desirable for low-maintenance sites, including low to medium nitrogen requirements and good to excellent drought tolerance. The species you use determines the optimal time of planting and the initial post-planting management.

Cool- and warm-season turfgrasses differ in their optimal planting time and establishment practices. You determine planting dates by considering the length of time of favorable soil and air temperatures after planting, rainfall potential and possible weed, disease and insect problems.

* Cool-season species. Some cool-season turfgrasses suitable for low-maintenance sites are tall fescue, fine fescues and fairway wheatgrass. The best time to establish cool-season turfgrasses is in late summer or early fall, because temperatures and moisture are favorable for rapid germination and growth, while weed competition is minimal. Spring and summer seeding can be successful, if not ideal, if irrigation is available and you apply herbicides during establishment. However, fall establishment reduces the need for such practices and is more appropriate when you have limited resources.

Use dormant seeding of cool-season turfgrasses on sites where irrigation is not available or on wet, poorly drained soils that are not suited for seeding in the spring. To be successful with a dormant seeding, it is important to seed in the fall after soil temperatures have dropped below germination temperature and that winter soil temperatures remain below the germination temperature. Thus, this method is appropriate for the North and northern areas of the Transition Zone. Use a slightly higher seeding rate and make sure to incorporate the seed into the soil. One way to cover the seed is with a light topdressing.

Dormant-seeded stands germinate in the spring as soil temperatures increase. Early germination in the spring helps young seedlings gain an advantage in the seedbed before weed competition becomes severe. It also takes advantage of moisture from early spring rains and snow melt.

* Warm-season species. Common warm-season turfgrasses suitable for low-maintenance sites include zoysiagrass, buffalograss and mixes of blue grama and buffalograss. You can establish warm-season turfgrasses vegetatively with sod, sprigs or plugs, or via seed.

The best planting time for warm-season turfgrasses is late spring or early summer when temperatures are warm enough to facilitate rapid germination and growth. Avoid early spring and late-summer or fall establishment.

Soil amendments Before beginning any soil modifications for planting it is important to test your soil. Take soil samples at a depth ranging from 2 to 4 inches at various locations on the site. The soil-test report should allow you to recognize and correct nutrient deficiencies or pH problems before planting.

Apply a starter fertilizer with 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet at planting and incorporate the fertilizer into the top 3 to 4 inches of soil. Add phosphorus and potassium as your soil-test report indicates. If the soil test indicates pH adjustments are necessary, apply elemental sulfur to soils with a high pH and lime to soils with a low pH. For high-sodium soils, use gypsum instead of sulfur to improve soil condition. Proper soil-nutrient levels and pH are critical to successful establishment. Neglecting soil amendments at establishment may result in reduced seedling vigor and delayed establishment.

Weed control and seedbed preparation Eliminate weeds growing on the site before beginning grading operations. Either till the weeds under the soil or apply a non-selective systemic herbicide such as glyphosate or glufosinate.

The objectives of grading operations are to provide a relatively smooth, firm surface for planting and to incorporate soil amendments. You should always rough-grade a site before planting to smooth surface irregularities and remove debris. But when preparing a low-maintenance site, you may be able to reduce the amount of grading to save money. It's often unnecessary to remove all stones and debris from the site because the site may only be used to provide grass cover. The presence of a rocky surface or less-than-desirable drainage on a low-maintenance site may slow establishment, but it is more important to use limited resources for soil amendments and weed control during establishment.

Planting procedures Use certified seed or vegetative material to ensure genetic purity and look for relatively weed-free material. Due to the lower cost of seeding compared to vegetative establishment, most turfgrass managers establish low-maintenance sites with seed. Warm-season grasses establish well from plugs or sprigs, but the cost on larger sites may be prohibitive compared to seeding.

If your budget allows, you can establish zoysiagrass and buffalograss from 2-inch-diameter vegetative plugs spaced 12 to 18 inches apart. The spacing of plugs determines the amount of time it will take for turf to cover the area. When planting vegetative plugs, prepare the soil in the same manner as for seeding. Plant the plugs in pre-drilled holes and press them into the ground to ensure good soil contact to prevent rapid drying.

You can reduce seeding rates on low-maintenance sites because the objective usually is to only provide an acceptable grass cover and not a high-quality turf. However, reduced seeding rates increase establishment time. Plus, thinner turf leads to increased soil drying and weed competition, so do not be too aggressive in cutting seeding rates (see table, at left, for a range of acceptable rates).

Seed small sites with a drop spreader in two directions to ensure adequate seed distribution. Larger sites generally require broadcast seeders. Incorporate seed to a depth of about 0.25 inch using a ridged cultipacker. This implement, which makes shallow depressions in the soil about 0.5 inch deep and 1 to 2 inches apart, improves seed-to-soil contact and speeds establishment.

Mulch Mulch increases the chance of successful establishment, especially on sites without irrigation. Applying mulch after seeding offers physical protection from erosion, modifies temperature extremes and reduces soil drying. Research has shown that applying a straw mulch can reduce soil drying by up to 60 percent. Apply mulches so that they cover about 50 to 75 percent of the soil surface. You will not need to remove a light mulch, but a heavy applications-those approaching 75 percent or more-may need removal from the site around the time of the first mowing. Mulching may not be necessary in areas with adequate moisture or irrigation.

Post-planting management * Irrigation. Even though you may plan to provide only minimal irrigation for the mature stand, the seedlings' chances of success are much greater with supplemental water during establishment. Ideal planting times are based on favorable temperatures and moisture conditions. However, if rain is lacking, establishment time increases, and the planting may fail if temperatures and drying become extreme. Therefore, if you can irrigate, do it during the first couple of weeks after seeding to maintain a moist soil surface. Doing so helps the seedlings develop an adequate root system.

Depending on soil and weather conditions, you may need to irrigate several times during the day. After the seedlings emerge and reach a few inches tall, reduce irrigation frequency, but keep the total amount of irrigation constant unless excessive runoff prevents you from applying larger amounts of water in a single application. On larger sites where irrigation is not available to the entire site at the same time, consider establishing the site in sections.

* Mowing. Normally, you do not mow a young turfgrass stand until it exceeds its intended height. However, because turfgrass managers often maintain low-maintenance sites at 3 to 4 inches, you should mow such turf sooner than this. Mowing promotes growth and lateral spread of turfgrass and speeds establishment. Always use sharp blades when mowing young stands to prevent damaging seedlings. If possible, use lightweight mowing equipment, and mow when the surface is relatively dry to prevent rutting and compaction.

* Herbicides. If weed competition begins to limit establishment, use post-emergence herbicides. However, delay post-emergence-herbicide applications of 2,4-D, mecoprop and dicamba until after the first mowing. Delay applications of organic arsenical herbicides such as MSMA until after the second mowing. If weed competition is so severe that you must apply herbicides before mowing, use half-rates to reduce damage to the seedlings. However, remember that if you plant at the correct time of year and control weeds beforehand, post-emergence-herbicide applications usually are unnecessary.

Planting at the proper time with good site preparation should minimize the need for post-planting irrigation and weed control. Just remember that your goal is to establish a stand that requires minimal on-going maintenance, and good establishment practices increase your chances of achieving this. Give your stand a good start, and it will succeed as the low-maintenance turf you intended.

Kevin Frank, formerly a turfgrass researcher at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln), recently joined Michigan State University as Extension Turf Specialist.

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