In order to maintain healthy grass, it’s important to understand the various elements within your lawn and how they work together to create a thriving environment. The anatomy and health of a lawn work hand in hand so it’s helpful to understand both.
Like the human body, when you understand how lawns function, it’s easier to provide better care. This is done by enriching the soil, using proper lawn care techniques, and keeping the lawn ecosystem in balance.
Let’s start by gaining an understanding of what type of soil you’re working with.
Your lawn’s soil contains both organic material and mineral particles. The amount of mineral particles dictates whether the soil texture is that of sand, silt, or clay.
A loam soil containing an ideal proportion of all three mineral particles is the best for growth and will usually feel sandy.
This type of soil has a large amount of air space, allowing it to quickly and easily absorb water. These spaces also allow the water to easily circulate and penetrate root systems.
You can determine which type of soil you have by squeezing a handful of it into a ball. If the ball breaks easily you most likely have loamy soil. If the soil keeps its shape it's probably clay-based.
Topsoil and Subsoil
The topsoil is the top layer of the soil matter of your lawn. It's dark in color and loose in texture because of its high organic matter content. The subsoil is the lower layer of the soil matter of your lawn. It's typically lighter in color because it contains fewer nutrients.
You can easily observe the soil below your lawn by cutting a vertical slice of it from your yard. Be sure to cut a piece deep enough to be able to see both the topsoil and the subsoil.
The investigation can tell you a lot about the soils you’re working with. For example, if the entire sample looks like molding clay, your lawn may face some challenges you’ll need to address.
Although loamy soil is the premier choice, it’s rare. Clay soil can be a perfectly functional base for grass, especially drought-resistant fescue.
The pH levels of your lawn indicate the acid and alkaline amounts within your soil. The pH levels in soil range from zero to 14. Soils with pH levels higher than seven are alkaline and those lower than seven are acidic. A level of seven indicates that the soil is neutral.
Soil that is moderately acidic with a pH level between six and 6.5 provides an environment where the most nutrients are released. Acidic soils are generally located in regions where there are high amounts of rainfall.
If your soil is too acidic, the pH levels can be raised by applying lime. If your soil is too alkaline, the pH levels can be reduced by adding sulfur.
According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, you can do a quick test at home to determine your pH levels.
It says, “Place two tablespoons of soil in a bowl and add ½ cup vinegar. If the mixture fizzes, you have alkaline soil. Place two tablespoons of soil in a bowl and moisten it with distilled water. Add ½ cup baking soda. If the mixture fizzes, you have acidic soil.”
In modern times, we also have easy-to-use scientific tests that can provide a more definitive answer. There are test strips you can use to measure the pH. They are simple to use with a small sample from your yard.
Another option is a home pH meter that reads the soil directly by sticking it into the dirt. For less than $10, you can order a tester that reads moisture, light, and pH to provide a comprehensive overview of soil health.
Your lawn is a habitat for many different living organisms including worms and spiders. These organisms form a food web within the soil and help to maintain the health and growth of your lawn.
They decompose the clippings that are left after you cut your lawn, mix organic and mineral matter within the soil, and create spaces that allow water and air to circulate and provide nutrients to plant life.
A rich, healthy soil will be moist to the touch, slightly crumble in your hands, and be loaded with worms and other organisms.
Remember the soil in your yard is part of a timeless ecosystem where nutrients are passed between plants and animals benefit from those plants as they grow. When the animals die they, in turn, add nutrients back into the soil.
When humans disrupt the established ecosystem, adjustments must be made to keep all components healthy. Simply maintaining a lawn is not the same thing as understanding how it’s connected to the surrounding flora and fauna and supporting that system as a whole.
This is the primary reason pesticides and herbicides are so dangerous. Not only do they eliminate insects or weeds, but they destroy the nutrient base and chemical balance within the soil.
They also poison the animals that eat the grass or live in the soil. These animals are then eaten by other animals, who are also affected by the toxins. For example, a mole that ingests insecticides in the soil may become sick or even die. An owl, hawk, or eagle that then eats the mole can also become ill or die.
Lawn chemicals are also responsible for a significant amount of water pollution since water that drains from a treated yard ends up back in the water supply. Spraying weed killers and other products also contribute to air pollution, especially for anyone nearby.
Science is now seeing the spread of backyard and agricultural chemicals as they make their way to nearby organic farms through air and water pollution. The long and short of it is that lawns aren’t natural when compared to the ‘wild’ yard nature provides.
The process of clearing land, tilling soil, amending, planting, watering, mowing, aerating, mulching, and thatching means taking away animal habitats, disrupting the circle of life, introducing non-native species, and increasing water consumption as well as pollution.
The takeaway is that in understanding the anatomy and health of a lawn, we must ultimately understand the ecosystem as a whole.
Insects and Other Pests
Speaking of those ecosystems, pests can be a major player in the health or illness of a lawn. While you simply want to enjoy a soft surface underfoot, animals in the yard are busy using your precious soil and grass blades for transport and food.
Ants, armyworms, billbugs, moles, gophers, cutworms, grubs, crane flies, fleas, beetles, and countless more lawn invaders should be monitored while evaluating lawn health.
For example, a crane fly here and there never hurt anyone, but if left to take up residence in your yard, you’ll quickly find your entire lawn decimated. As per the conversation above, there are natural ways to treat lawn pests.
Effects of the Seasons
While the types of soil and grasses growing within your lawn will vary based on where you live, most lawns are able to survive the differences in weather that come with the changes of the seasons.
Grass is generally able to withstand all of the seasons, even if it goes dormant during that time. They survive harsh conditions because of the rapid growth that takes place during the spring and autumn months and the dormant states during summer and winter months. Effective lawn care routines follow the natural life cycles of grass throughout the seasons.
Grass shoots begin to grow during the early spring using the nutrients they stored within their roots during the autumn and winter months.
The best shoot growth occurs when the temperatures outside are between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Root and leaf growth slows down during the summer when temperatures begin to rise.
Grass rests during periods of heat and drought. Soil temperatures over 85 degrees Fahrenheit can lead to root damage. During the autumn months, the grass shoots begin to grow once more. They also store nutrients for the winter months in their root systems.
The best root growth takes place when the soil temperatures are between 50 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Types of Grass
There are myriad options when it comes to grass. Just like trees, roses, and moss, the characteristics of different grasses vary widely.
Start by choosing the right grass seed for your area and situation. Some like the sun, some don’t. Some will do a great job of keeping out weeds, some don’t. Some are thirsty and readily absorb copious rainfall and others do just fine in close-to-desertlike conditions.
Even if you’ve inherited an existing lawn you can seed over with a selection of your choice.
Talk to the pros locally. Do some research online. Generally, wide blade grasses require less water, but the easy way to find a suitable option is to look for the drought tolerant label. Then make sure it’s a variety that will grow well in your planting zone.
There’s a big difference between grasses meant for the Vegas heat versus those that will thrive in the wet Pacific Northwest.
Doing your research for the best match up front will save you countless hours of needless watering and weeding.
“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Ralph Waldo Emerson understood that weeds are as natural as any other plant on the planet. While we may not prefer them in our lawn, it makes sense they would put themselves into the mix.
When we discuss the anatomy and health of a lawn, we must also discuss the elements that support it and tear it down. In the modern world, we remove weeds primarily because we’ve been trained to believe they are an unacceptable part of a well manicured lawn.
The truth is, though, they are destructive to the lawn environment.
Weeds compete with grass for nutrients and water and they drink up fertilizer faster than the grass, leaving the lawn weak. They also invite unwanted guests into the yard since many pests live on weeds. Over time, weeds will drive out grass, taking over the entire lawn.
Lawns need water, as nearly every plant does. However, in general we tend to overwater or water incorrectly. In the name of water conservation and a healthy lawn, there are a few things you should know before turning on the tap.
The first is that lawns need deep and infrequent watering. This is probably the most important rule for maintaining a healthy lawn. When watering, the goal is to provide water to the roots. That means it needs to soak in four inches or more underground.
Have you ever had a large backyard pool deflate, dumping hundreds of gallons of water across the lawn? If you have, you’ve seen the lush, fast-growing grass that results from the deep watering.
Proper watering encourages roots to spread and move deeper below ground. This improves the soil and increases the grass’s resilience.
Maintaining a Healthy Lawn
How well you take care of your lawn will greatly influence its health. By taking good care of your lawn, it will be better able to take care of itself during times of extreme temperatures and drought.
Healthy lawns also better resist insects, disease, and even fire. You can ensure that you have a healthy lawn throughout the year by following some simple tips.
Avoid giving your lawn too much water. When you overwater a lawn, the spaces created for air become filled with water. This decreases the amount of oxygen that can get into the soil.
Avoid applying too much fertilizer. Excess fertilizer will create an imbalance of nutrients which could affect the organisms living in the soil. Do not apply fertilizer during the early spring as this is when the grass growth should be slow.
Reduce the amount of pesticide you use in order to protect the insects that are beneficial to the health of your lawn.
To learn more, check out our related articles No-Mow Lawns and Saving Money with Lawn Care and Garden Care.