There are two ways to put in a new lawn. The quickest is to buy sod with a grass mixture that suits your situation and the second is to seed the lawn area with a seed mix that fits your situation.
The advantages of sod are that it looks like an instant lawn. You have a construction site one day and the appearance of a finished lawn the next day. The last pro of sod is that you can lay it very late in the year and have a lawn instead of mud for the winter. The disadvantages of sod are that you will not be able to walk on it very much for about 3 to 4 weeks (which is quicker than seeding) and you will have to be very diligent about watering the first year just like seeding.
Another disadvantage of sod is it usually grown in a peet moss layer and the grass plants are reluctant to leave that nice growing medium and sink roots deep into the existing soil. This means that a sod lawn will always have a tougher time surviving a drought.
The pros of seeding is that the seeds are growing in the existing soil and are well adapted from the first, sending down relatively deep roots (4 to 6 inches) which allows them to survive later droughts once they are established. Your also have a wider range of grass mixes to choose from to suit your situation.
The disadvantage of seeding a lawn is that it takes longer to get a finished lawn. There are always spots where the grass seed doesn’t take for various reasons and must be reseeded once or twice the first year and often a small amount in the spring of the next year. After that you should have a tough healthy lawn. There is also a short period in the late fall when it is better not to spread seed. This is typically in October when the weather is sometimes warm enough to sprout seed but not warm long enough to establish it before winter sets in. You can compensate for this by spreading a heavier layer of seed to make up for the losses.
When you first put in a new lawn of either type watering is a very time consuming job. Your goal is to keep the soil moist but not soggy at all times. The amount you have to water will vary a great deal depending on wether the area is in the sun or shade and wether the soil is sandy or heavy with clay.
When starting a new lawn purchase a hose bib water timer that allows you to water at least 3 times a day. If you have good water pressure, string up multiple sprinklers in sequence so one timer can run them all. This will save you a tremendous amount of work. You still should check the lawn every day to make sure everything is working properly.
For sod you must water immediately and keep the sod moist at all times. Sod dries out quickly and you can kill sections of it just by missing a half day in hot weather. In warm spring or fall weather you can water it in the morning and evening and be alright. But if you have new sod laid in hot weather (especially if it is windy), you will have to water 3 times a day.
After about a 3 to 4 weeks reduce the number of waterings by about one time a day each day (i.e. from 3 to 2 times a day). (Note: If the weather is still hot you may have to extend the initial watering period). Then reduce the number of times each day you water by one time roughly every week and a half. Your goal is to keep the ground under the surface moist but not soggy. Gradually reduce the watering at one and a half week intervals till you are only watering once a week. In the later fall you will hardly have to water at all. The easiest time to take care of a new sod (or seed) lawn is in the late fall. The weather is cool and you may only have to water 3 or 4 times total if the timing is right.
For seed you can wait to start watering if the seed stays dry. This is nice because you can wait a week or so if it is not a good time for you to take on the watering schedule. Once the seed gets wet (either by watering or rain) you must start watering and keep the ground moist at all times. The soil surface can dry out quickly in hot weather and you can kill sections of lawn by missing a half day right when the seed is sprouting. In warm spring or fall weather you can water it in the morning and evening and be alright. But if you have new seed laid in hot weather (especially if it is windy) you will have to water 3 times a day to keep the soil surface moist.
After about a 3 to 4 weeks you can reduce the number of watering times by about one time a day each day (i.e. if watering 3 times a day start watering 2 times a day). (Note: If the weather is still hot you may have to extend the initial watering period). Do this for about a week and a half and then you can reduce the number of times a day again by one time. Soon you are only watering every other day and eventually only once a week. Your new goal is to keep the ground under the surface moist but not soggy.
In the later fall you will hardly have to water at all. The easiest time to take care of a new seeded lawn is in the late fall. The weather is cool and you may only have to water 3 or 4 times total if the timing is right.
You should start mowing your new sod lawn when the grass gets 4 to 5 inches tall or just before it starts to flop over. With seeded lawns you must look at the individual seedlings and wait till they have 3 to 4 leaves on the majority of the seedlings.
Mow carefully the first several times and make sure your mower blade is sharp, because the mower can pull up corners of sod or the tender seedlings.
To keep your lawn weed free it is better to have your mower set at a 4 inch height. Keeping your lawn at a four inch height will help the grass to shade out weeds. This does not mean you mow it less often because if you let it go, the grass will flop over and be hard to mow.
You need to fertilize your lawns to keep the grass vigorous enough to shade out the weeds. It is better not to bag your lawn clippings and let them work their way back into the soil. If you leave the clippings you can fertilize only 3 times a year.
Your soil is one of the best determinate factors of how well your plants will do. If you have organically rich healthy soil, teeming with microbes and fungi, you will have solved your drainage and nutrient problems from the start.
It is the soil microbes that surround the mineral and organic particles in the soil and keep them from sticking together. This gives you the nice crumbly dirt that all gardeners want. This crumbly or friable soil allows air and water to easily flow through the dirt and is essential for the health of your plants and the soil. Microbes also do a whole host of other functions like fix nitrogen from the air and break down organic matter.
Mycorrhizal Fungi live in the soil and are able to break down the tough chemical bonds that hold organic matter together. Once these chemical bonds are broken nutrients can be made available in forms that plants can use for fertilizer. Mycorrhizal Fungi also are able to enter the plants root systems and supply the plants with both water and nutrients. Bonding the fungus to the plants roots multiplies the reach of the plants root system by many times what the plant itself can do. In return the plant feeds the fungus with sugars it produced in photosynthesis. Plants attract these Mycorrhizal Fungi by emitting chemicals attractants through their roots to lure the fungi into these symbiotic relationships. Establishing or not establishing these relationships can make the difference between one plant thriving and another of the same kind struggling.
If you are starting over with a bed it is good time to spread large amounts of compost and mix it in. The most common soil in Madison is a silty loam that has been starved of organic matter for decades, (we rake and haul away the leaves etc.). Because of this the soil tends to be very heavy. Dense soil cannot hold as much oxygen and does not let the water flow through it easily, plus it does not have the decaying leaves, wood etc. to supply food for the various soil organisms. Without enough food and oxygen the microbe and fungi populations tend to be very small. As a result it is harder for the plants to establish the symbiotic relationships they need to thrive.
Adding large amounts of compost to the soil both introduces organic materials to supply nutrients, and inoculates the soil with living microbes and fungi so it can begin to bring the soil back to life. Plants planted into living healthy soil will thrive and have stronger defense systems to fight off diseases and insect invasions.
If you are not redoing the entire bed you can slowly improve your soil by adding compost in thin layers each year and alternate mulching with different types of mulch each year (leaves and garden refuse one year, shredded bark the next). Over the years you will build up the top of your soil into a rich layer for plants to grow in.
Pruning trees and bushes is part art and part science. You need to take care of the structural needs of the plant first and then prune for the aesthetics you want to achieve.
New plants should be left to grow for 2 or 3 years before regular pruning is started. A new plant needs to establish its root system to become established and it needs the energy that photosynthesis provides to expand its root system. This is why you should only prune out branches that were broken in transport and branches that are growing into the center of the tree or are already rubbing on other branches and creating wounds in the bark. Otherwise let the plant get established before you begin regular pruning.
Structural Health: You create a healthy structure by removing branches that are growing into the center of the tree and any branches that are rubbing together causing damage to the bark. You should also remove any branches that are coming off the trunk at a 90° angle or more or less than 20° angle since roughly a 45° angle is structurally the strongest and will resist breaking under heavy snows. There are several exceptions to this advice where the branches on certain types of tree always grow off the trunk at near a 90°angle, such as Pagoda Dogwoods, spruce trees and certain weeping trees, and where certain types of trees (specialty cultivars) always keep their branches close to the trunk and will have less than a 20° angle.
Thinning the branches of larger bushes, roses, and trees allows better air flow and will help prevent fungal diseases that attack many plants leaves.
The final stage of pruning is to create a shape and size that is pleasing to you when you look at your garden.
The most common goal for small bushes is to keep them at a size appropriate to their setting.
is also a goal for some bushes susceptible to fungal diseases such as roses.
Renewal pruning will bring struggling or overgrown bushes (that can be renewal pruned) back to vigorous health if they have not been left to struggle too long.
Note: Clipping a branch randomly without picking a direction to grow in will result in a bunch of growth at the end which looks like a fuzz ball at the end of a stem.
Other bushes such as yews, privets and boxwoods can be clipped to form hedges with a hedge shear. After hedging the outer branches make sure you go into the bushes and tip back some of the inner branches to make the bush fill out.
If you are not having problems with diseases (examples; powdery mildew, rust on leaves) or insect problems such as Iris borer it is better to wait to clean up your garden till early spring (March) when the snow first melts off the garden. The various plant stems will catch leaves and snow, insulating your plants from the frequent freeze and thaw cycles or early and late winter. These rapid swings in temperature are what most often kill garden plants by heaving them out of the ground when it freezes and, sinking them back in when it thaws. This up and down movement damages many of the plants fine feeder roots making it difficult for the plant to survive.
It is best to chop up the garden debris into small pieces and spread them over the garden to recycle the nutrients that are stored in the old stems and leaves. Do this by spreading the garden debris out in a 2 to 4 inch layer over the lawn and driving/pushing your lawn mower back and forth over the debris to chop it into pieces. Then you can spread it over the garden once again. This gets the debris to lie down and look nicer and helps speed decomposition.
There are two approaches to how often to mulch. Some people spread 1 inch of mulch every year to keep nice brown color of bark much looking fresh. This also is a less daunting task to spread since it is a smaller amount of mulch.
The second approach is to mulch every other year with 2 inches of mulch which reduces the number of times you have to mulch but doubles the amount of work when you do mulch.
Note: Mushrooms in the mulch: With any of the mulches don’t be surprised if you see mushrooms or slime molds growing on your mulch for a short period of time. These fungus are needed to knit the mulch material into a mat that will suppress the weed seedlings. The fungus also initially decomposes the material to make the nutrients accessible for plants.
There are many different types of mulch and it is better for the soil if you vary the types of mulch you use to end up with a rounded balance of nutrients in the soil.
Shredded Bark Mulch: The most common type of mulch used is shredded hardwood bark that comes from the lumber mills. It is an attractive mulch that does a good job of forming a mat to suppress weed seedlings.
Stained Shredded Wood Mulch: You can now buy shredded wood mulch that comes from old pallets and construction waste. They grind up these boards and then dye them with various colors. It is a good reuse of material that would otherwise go to the landfill, the dyes are unlikely to be organics and they give the mulch a uniform color which looks unnatural. Because of this I don’t generally use this product unless a customer asks for it.
Leaf Mulch: Leaf mulches both suppress weeds and quickly improve the soil because they break down faster than the wood based mulches. When using leaves it is more attractive if you chop up the leaves and then spread them. Do this by spreading the garden debris out in a 2 to 4 inch layer over the lawn and driving/push your lawn mower back and forth over the debris to chop it into pieces. Then you can spread it over the garden once again. If you can it is good to spread a mixture of oak and other leaves that break down quickly like maple, ash honey locust, and hackberry. The quickly decaying leaves can form a dense mat in wet springs that can be bad for the perennials if it is a thick layer. Shredding helps alleviate this, but it is best to mix in oak leaves (also shredded if you are shredding) which are rigid and decompose slowly. This creates air spaces in the mulch and keeps if from getting too dense in wet years.
Coco Bean Mulch: Coco Bean mulch is very attractive, and depending on the person either smells wonderful or awful. It has a rich brown color and a nicer even texture but it comes from countries where chemical spray restrictions are looser and tends to have a chemical residue on it. If used it should be mixed with rice hulls because in wet years it will not get a chance to dry out and can become very slimy.
Straw: Wheat or Oat Straw makes an effective mulch if spread on thickly but it can bury smaller plants and is generally better in vegetable gardens where the plants can get above the straw. You will also get wheat and oat seedlings which look like grass growing in the mulch (which some people find unsightly. These are annuals and if you stop them from going to seed (by pulling out or mowing if in the lawn area) they will be gone the next year.
Marsh Hay: Marsh hay is very similar to straw but tends to have fewer seeds that can grow in the average garden setting.
Regular Hay: You should not use regular hay to mulch because it is riddled with seeds and will introduce a whole host of weeds into your garden.
Follow the application levels listed on the package closely so you do not over fertilize. Over fertilization will burn the plants and send the excess draining into the lakes to create algae blooms. It is better to apply slightly less fertilizer than recommended especially when using synthetic fertilizers.
Continually composting and mulching with different types of mulch (i.e. leaves, bark etc.) is the best way to build up your soil and create a continuous flow of fertilizer. Supplemental organic fertilizers can be applied but it is best to stay with the organics that emit a low level of fertilizer continuously. Synthetic fertilizers high in nitrogen will burn out the active cultures in the soil and burn the plants roots.
Organic Fertilizer: Organic fertilizers have a slower release time and lower dosage of nutrients that is similar to the way nutrients are released in nature. This supplies the plants with a sustainable steady supply of nutrients and does not spike their tissue sugar level which would invite sucking insect invasions. Organic fertilizers depend on microbes and fungi to break down the nutrients and slowly release them in a form the plants can use. Because of this, organic fertilizers are feeding the soil as well as feeding the plants. Having healthy soil is one of the three most important elements (the other two are water and proper light levels) to having healthy plants.
Note: If you are using manure from animals it needs to be composted for a year so it does not burn the roots of the plants and to eliminate the possibility of food bacterial contamination.
Types of Organic fertilizers are: compost, worm castings, leaf mulching, bark mulching, organic granular fertilizer, compost teas and many other sources.
Synthetic Fertilizers: If you choose commercial synthetic fertilizers choose ones with low numbers listed on package (10-6-4), especially levels of nitrogen (the first number, Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium). You should aim at nitrogen levels around 10 and lesser amounts of the remaining two numbers. It is much easier to burn plants and the soil with synthetic fertilizers and they require more care to avoid over application.
Used for Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Hollies, Blueberries and other acid loving plants.
When planting plants that need acid soil you must first add soil sulfur to shift the Dane county area’s alkaline soils to a slightly acidic soil. This can be achieved by mixing the appropriate amount of soil sulphur (follow package instructions) into the soil every year (preferably in fall). You will have to do this every year or your soil will shift back to being alkaline. It takes about 3 years before your soil is acid enough for azaleas and blueberries to be happy, but you can speed up the process by adding Aluminum Sulphate along with soil sulphur the first year. Aluminum Sulphate in not organic but it acidifies the soil quickly and then fades quickly. Soil Sulphur is considered organic and begins working slowly and lasts for about a year.
Acidic soil breaks down the nutrients so it is easier for acid loving plants to use those nutrients. Because of this, acid loving plants benefit from fertilization at the same time as spreading soil sulphur for the first 3 years.
Things to consider when choosing the size and type of trees and bushes to plant.
All trees and bushes take three years to establish their root systems so there will only be moderate growth for the first three years.
Smaller Potted Trees and Bushes: Smaller trees and bushes recover better from the shock of planting at your site. They have fewer roots to disturb when they are planted. They often catch up to the larger trees planted on the same site within 15 years.
Larger Trees and Bushes: Larger trees and bushes give you more of the look and screening you want right in the beginning. They have had more of their roots cut or disturbed while being moved so they are at a higher risk of dying and will take longer to recover from transplanting. Trees up to 6 to 8 feet are usually a safe size to plant without any troubles. Trees over ten feet are fine but the watering must be monitored more carefully. Trees with deep tap roots such as oaks and hickories tend to suffer the most transplant shock from having their roots cut. These trees do not like their tap roots cut or cramped in containers that are too small. With tap rooted trees it is better to use smaller sized tree or if you are going for a larger size use a B&B root ball instead of a potted plant.
The Bare Root Plants: are the cheapest and are the easiest to water because they are in your existing soil instead of a soilless potting mix. The down side is they have suffered the hardest level of disturbance. They have lost many of their roots and have no fine root hair structure (root hairs are what actually absorb the water and nutrients). This means that they will have the highest failure rate at first and will be the slowest to perform the first year. They will however perform well if they are watered properly and will look just as good in the long run. You can only get Bare Root plants in the early spring.
Container Plants: have a fine root hair structure so they are ready to go when planted but they are usually potted in a soilless mix. This means they will tend to dry out quickly during the first year so the watering must be monitored carefully until the plant has established its roots in the local topsoil.
B&B (Balled & Burlaped): These are trees and some larger bushes that have been grown in the ground by a nursery. A good nursery prunes the roots around the plant while it is growing in the ground. This stimulates the plant to create a dense mass of roots in the root ball area. Once the plant is dug, the root ball area is relatively undisturbed so it has many of its roots intact. B&B root balls have a much larger reserve of energy stored in the root system and have much better water retention ability due to being grown in real soil. Watering still has to be monitored because the soil type of the root ball is often different than your site so it will dry out at a different rate.
Watering Goal: The goal of watering the trees, bushes and perennials is to keep the soil under the surface evenly damp but not soggy all the time for the first three months and then slowly taper off your watering.
How do you know when the soil is evenly damp under the surface? You determine if the soil is evenly moist by sticking your finger down into the soil about one to two inches deep in 2 to 3 places near the center of the plant. If the soil under the surface is damp to the touch, then you don’t need to water.
Trees and Bushes: Your trees and bushes will need roughly 1 to 1 ½ inches of water per week for the first month and then taper down to 1 inch per week after that. In hot weather they will need more frequent watering and in cool fall weather they need very little watering.
Perennials: will always need 1 inch of water a week but in frequent shorter waterings right at the plants base. If is hot check every day for a while because they may need more watering.
New Gardens: When you have put in a completely new garden it is good to give it a good overall soaking with a sprinkler and then start with the individual plant waterings listed above.
There is no general advice on how many times to water each week because each site has different soil types, run off issues (slopes) and sun exposures. So the rate at which you will need to water will vary greatly. The best guideline is to check by sticking your finger down one to two inches into the soil to see if it is damp. If it is you do not need to water. Some places recommend one inch of water per week as a general guide. The question always is how much water does your sprinkler, soaker hose, etc. put out? You can answer this by setting up your sprinkler and placing a straight walled bucket or can in the area being watered and see how long it takes to fill the can with one inch of water. Note: be careful not to place the can at the end of the sprinkler’s range because it deposits more water at the end of the range. You want to know what the water time is for the lower flow majority of the sprinklers range, not the heavily watered ends.
Note: There are some types of plants that need to dry out between watering. Talk to the designer to see if you have any of these.