As the average daily temperature finally dips into the low 90’s and below, the conditions are just right to start your fall planting. Your choices may depend on the aesthetics of your neighborhood, sun exposure, animal exposure, and hardiness in the winter.
Let’s face it: it’s probably still going to be “hot” until the beginning of November. At the same time, the amount of sun and the angle through which it moves in the sky will decline, yielding less overall light. Before you plant, it’s important to know whether your gardens and/or pots will have decent sun exposure by the time of the winter solstice or not.
Petunias, marigolds, dianthus, snapdragons, and many others need as much sunlight as they can get leading to and beyond the winter solstice, especially if you want them to survive into the springtime. Pansies, violas, alyssums, and lobelias are a few examples of fall annual flowers that can handle more shady conditions. Keep in mind, though, that a spot with zero sunlight isn’t going to be good for any plant.
After sun exposure, vulnerability to animals is the most important thing you’ll need to pay attention to when selecting plants. Are there more javelinas in your neighborhood than squirrels? More quails than doves? Some plants are favorite snacks of each of these creatures and many others. Some plants are typically left alone by most, if not all of them.
Marigolds, salvias, euphorbias, lavenders, pansies, violas, and alyssum are just a few common ornamental plants that are ignored by javelinas, bunnies, squirrels, and birds (most of the time). If animals are a prevalent destroyer of gardens in your area, avoid planting petunias, begonias, ornamental cabbage, morning glory bush, and generally any food plants.
Finally, it’s important to think about whether you want your flowers to survive through the winter. Most flowers can be preserved through frosty nights by covering them with permeable sheets (no plastic), but some are certainly more vulnerable than others.
Pansies, violas, snapdragons, geraniums, gazanias, and dianthus are a few choices for frost hardy flowers. Any remaining vincas, potato vines, and other summer flowers will likely lose most of their leaves in the winter but will usually survive and flourish in the spring if you’re willing to keep them during their off season. Particularly vulnerable flowers include small salvias, purple hearts, euphorbias, most food plants, and many others. Be sure to ask about cold hardiness when you’re purchasing flowers.
ELS Maintenance orders fall flowers for communities as early as possible from the best growers in Arizona to ensure that entrances, monuments, and other pottings in common areas look beautiful fast! If you know of a community or commercial property looking for a new landscaping company, email us at [email protected] and we’ll get started!
Aeration is a process vital to the success of turf spaces, and in the Phoenix area, it’s practically a regular requirement to keep grass looking happy and healthy. You may see aeration listed on your landscaping schedule, but what is it, and when is the best time to do it for your home’s lawn?
Why Aerate Turf?
A grass turf needs water to penetrate deep, through the thick mesh of living and dead material known as the “thatch,” in order to get to the roots. Over time, the thatch becomes thick and tightly woven, to the point where very little water makes it to the roots. This also prevents nutrients from getting to the roots. Grass without water or nutrients results in sad, dry grass that will look ugly for most of the year. Aeration is the most common solution to this inevitable problem.
The Aeration Process
In order to properly aerate a turf space, you’ll need an aerating tool or machine and a recently watered patch of grass. The turf is easier to penetrate when the grass has been thoroughly moistened. The aerator comes in a few forms. There are aerators that you can install on a lawn mower for larger grass spaces, or you can buy a push aerator for smaller grass spaces.
You also have a choice between spike aerators and plug aerators. We usually recommend the plug aerator, as it pulls chunks of soil up and out of the ground and allows for more water to pass the thatch. The spike aerator also works, though not as effectively. It pokes small holes into the turf at regular intervals. Whichever aerator you use, you need to make sure you pass the aerator over as much of the turf area as possible multiple times until there are sufficient openings for water and nutrients.
When To Aerate
The best time to aerate turf depends on the climate and ecosystem of the region. For the Phoenix area, the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension recommends aerating turf once a month from June through August. It’s the hottest time of the year, and during June the driest time of year, a time during which grass needs to be able to absorb as much water and nutrients as possible. Aerating during this time also prevents water waste and saves you money.
ELS Maintenance makes sure all turf spaces are properly aerated as needed, and you may see us poking holes or pulling soil plugs from golf courses, parks, entrances, and anywhere else with grass. For more information about turf care practices, the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension has many great sources. If you know of a community or commercial property looking for a new landscaping company, email us at [email protected] and we’ll get started!
When it comes to fertilizing plants, you can usually find your tree, shrub, and garden fertilizers at any nursery or hardware store, each one specified for all sorts of potential uses and purposes. But for many reasons, turf fertilizer is much less clearly understood by the general populace. What makes turf fertilizer different from other fertilizers, if anything?
Fertilizers, at the most basic level, are collections of nutrients that plants need in addition to water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide, in order to thrive. A “complete” fertilizer is one that contains each of the three most important elements for healthy plants: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Most of the liquid and granular fertilizer for trees, shrubs, and herbs will be some formula of a complete fertilizer. The ratio, typically written as (Nitrogen %) – (Phosphorous %) – (Potassium %), is important to note on any container, because different regions have soils with different amounts of each of these compounds. Additionally, every species of plant uses up its mineral supply at a different rate.
The Needs of Arizona Grass
The Arizona soil found in the Valley is known for being almost completely void of natural Nitrogen, and it just so happens that Nitrogen is the nutrient that grasses tend to use up extremely quickly. If your grass is looking sad, with patches of thinning or discolored foliage, there’s a high chance that your turf is running out of usable Nitrogen.
In order to ensure a good supply of Nitrogen for your grass, ELS typically recommends the use of Ammonium Sulfate. Ammonium Sulfate is a chemical compound that is not a “complete” fertilizer, but rather a nutrient that supplies exclusively nitrogen to the soil with the fertilizer ratio 21-0-0. We follow the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension’s recommendation of applying ½ – 1 pound of Ammonium Sulfate per 1,000 square feet of turf space, depending on how deficient the grass appears to be. The same ratio is recommended for your personal backyard spaces as well. For example, if you have 500 square feet of turf in your backyard, apply 0.25-0.5 pounds of 21-0-0 Ammonium Sulfate across the space, depending on how healthy your grass is looking.
How Often Do I Fertilize Arizona Turf?
Every yard space is different. Some yards have very poor soil drainage, some have more or less shade than others, some have more nitrogen in the soil than others. Because of this, you’ll have to adjust for how your grass behaves over the course of a year. The general recommendations, however, range from every four weeks to every eight weeks. The Maricopa County Cooperative Extension website with the University of Arizona offers a series of charts explaining the best fertilizing frequencies for different varieties and combinations of grass. Go to extension.arizona.edu/sites/extension.arizona.edu/files/pubs/az1817-2020.pdf to read the full explanation.
The most common grasses that follow rules for the examples provided are Winter Rye for the winter and Bermudagrass for the summer. Other, less common grass varieties may have slightly different fertilizer preferences, though these general rules pertain throughout most grasses.
Other Nutrients and Practices
While Nitrogen is the most important element to get into your grass, it’s not the only nutrient that could use an occasional boost. Sometimes, grass becomes deficient in iron, which leads to pale foliage and an overall sad look. To solve this, use iron chelate or other iron-filled supplements. The Arizona soil (and water supply) is often high in salts, which can clog up soil and hurt grass. For this, apply gypsum and “aerate” the soil using a tool called a “lawn aerator.” If you’ve recently overseeded, we recommend using a fertilizer that contains both Nitrogen and Phosphorous.
The ELS Maintenance Division is a group of experts who have been keeping turf spaces looking great around the Valley for nearly 50 years. If you have any questions or manage a community or commercial property that could use a new landscaping company, email us at [email protected] and we can get started.
Most of us grow up hearing our parents yell at us that money doesn’t grow on trees. The sassiest of us called them liars because money is paper, and paper comes from trees. What is indisputable, however, is that trees are tangible assets in the urban landscape that increase in value over time. Generally, the bigger and older the tree, the more valuable it is.
Economic and Ecological Worth
To assess the value of a tree, let’s first ask whether we are after its economic or ecologic worth. Economically speaking, one measure is a tree’s perceived contribution to the value of the property on which it is located. Other economic benefits of well-placed trees include providing protection from the weather. Tree canopies provide shade from the sun, and evapotranspiration cools the surrounding air. Tree canopies can slow down winds and reduce the amount of heat a building loses, particularly through its windows. For a homeowner, that sun and wind protection can add up to real savings from lower cooling and heating costs.
A tree’s worth in ecologic terms is even more interesting. Arborists and other scientists geek out on measures that include stormwater runoff interception, energy savings, air quality improvement and CO2 reductions. Trees serve to control urban pollution by reducing stormwater runoff and are considered a rainwater harvesting technique. They intercept and hold rain on their leaves, branches and bark, increasing soil infiltration and storage of rainwater through their roots. They also reduce soil erosion under their canopies by diverting and slowing rainfall before it strikes the soil.
How Trees Work For You
Trees phytoremediate water, taking in trace amounts of otherwise harmful chemicals from the soil and transforming them into less harmful substances that they use as nutrients or store in their tissues. Trees can reduce the level of air particulates and ozone because their leaves absorb ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide and generate oxygen during photosynthesis. They can also reduce atmospheric carbon by sequestering CO2 in their roots, trunks, stems and leaves while they grow, and in wood products after they are harvested.
To quantify and predict the economic and ecological value of one or more trees, use the clever modeling tool from i-Tree Design. This tool uses the tree’s location, species, diameter and condition to let you model your built structures and predict the value of specific tree species over a 1 to 99-year period.
Still, we humans usually plant trees for far simpler reasons—reasons that are rooted in neither economic nor ecologic value. We simply like how they look. They add curb appeal, design interest and sometimes privacy to our yards. We like them for bearing fruit, seeds or nuts. We like how they flower or change color with the seasons. We enjoy them as a source of recreation, like for a tree house, a rope swing or a hammock. And we admire how they are the simplest of homes, supporting local ecosystems of bees, birds and squirrels.
Whatever the value you desire or derive, invest in your landscape and property through proper tree selection, placement, pruning and nourishment.
Love trees but hate the mess they make? In this month’s post, we are featuring desert-adapted evergreen trees you can enjoy in your Arizona landscape, with minimal maintenance. Although it’s rare for trees to produce zero litter, you can count on non-deciduous trees to produce minimal debris.
As always, match the right tree to the right location to maximize your enjoyment of the trees you select.
To help you select the most suitable trees for your landscape, we have listed the main characteristics of some of our favorite low-litter species, followed by more detailed descriptions.
Willow acacia (Acaciasalicina): 30’ high, 20’ wide; shade tree for narrow spaces
Detailed Descriptions of Low-Litter Trees for Arizona Landscapes
The African sumac (Rhus lancea) is an evergreen tree with a wide, rounded canopy that spreads to 20-30 feet high and wide. It features dark brown, cracked bark and 4-inch-long leaves that are dark green on top and silver underneath. On female trees, its yellow spring flowers produce green berries that many bird species enjoy. It tolerates heat and poor, dry, salty soil.
Arizona rosewood (Vauquelinia californica) trees are slow-growing shrubby evergreens that grow to about 10 feet tall. They feature dull, dark green serrated leaves and clusters of short-blooming white flowers between late April and early May. Performing best above 2,500 feet in elevation, Arizona rosewood grows in partial or full sun but yellows in the hottest Valley temperatures.
The Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius) is a dense shrub that can be pruned into a small tree that can reach 30-40 feet high and 20-30 feet wide. The Brazilian pepper features clusters of flowers 2-3 inches long in a long flowering season, September to November, with glossy fruits that ripen to red clusters of peppery edible berries.
Blue Arizona cypress (Hesperocyparis arizonica, formerly Cupressus arizonica) trees are native to the southwestern U.S. but do not always perform well below 6,000 feet in elevation. They are fast-growing, reaching 40 feet in height and 30 feet in width. Planted together, they can form a windbreak or a privacy screen along fence lines.
Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) trees require direct sunlight and are drought-tolerant. Their vertical, conical shape makes a strong, vertical focal point, reaching 30-50 feet high and 5-8 feet wide. Cypress trees shed small amounts when the old, interior growth ages. They can be planted in a row to provide an imposing wind break or natural barrier.
The carob or locust bean tree (Ceratonia siliqua) is an evergreen native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Reaching 30-40 feet tall and 30-40 feet at maturity after 20-50 years, it features a broad, hemispherical crown, sturdy branches, and a deep taproot. Female and some bisexual varieties produce summer flowers and 6-inch-long edible seed pods that taste like chocolate.
Cascalote (Caesalpinia cacalaco) or Mexican bushbird is a native Mexican evergreen tree that likes full sun and grows in a vase-shaped form to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide. It grows in full sun in well-drained soil and has bright green leaves and seed pods. It attracts hummingbirds with its very showy yellow flower spikes, winter through spring.
Cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) is an evergreen shrub or small tree is useful as a privacy screen. It attracts butterflies and bees with its fragrant, cream-colored flowers, followed by red berries that attract many bird species. It grows 20-25 feet tall and 20-30 feet wide but can be trained into any shape. The cherry laurel tolerates full sun and full shade but performs best in part shade.
Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) is a large tree with showy orange and red leaves in late fall which it drops all at once, once a year. Chinese pistache is dioecious, which means each tree is either a male that produces pollen that has little or no allergenic qualities, or a female that produces inedible berries that are attractive to birds. It is fast-growing and enjoys full sun and fast-draining soil. At maturity, it reaches 30-35 feet in height and 20-30 feet in width and is very drought-, wind-, and heat-tolerant.
Indian laurel fig
Indian laurel fig (Ficus nitida), also called Chinese banyan, is a fast-growing, medium-sized evergreen, native to Asia and Hawaii. It features tropical-looking foliage that is glossy and dense. Its spring flowers are inconspicuous. It tolerates air pollution and grows 20-30 feet high and wide.
Desert ironwood (Olneya tesota) is native Sonoran Desert evergreens. The oldest know specimen is over 2,000 years old. It features green leaves and lavender flowers in late spring that mature into bright red berries. Ironwood can reach 15-30 feet tall, 15-20 feet wide, and can grow in rocky, infertile soil, but it requires full sun and 6 inches or more of annual rainfall. Its wood contains compounds known to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Leather leaf acacia
Leather leaf acacia (Acacia craspedocarpa) is a dense evergreen shrub that can be pruned to a small tree that grows slowly to 10-13 feet. Its rounded leaf petioles are silver and leathery. Native to Australia, it grows in full or reflected sun and blooms with yellow puffy flowers, spring to summer. It tolerates poor, dry, rocky soil and is frost resistant to 18 degrees Fahrenheit.
The live oak (Quercus virginiana) tree is a broad, evergreen shade tree. It differs from typical oaks in that it is a medium-fast grower that is drought tolerant once established. It grows in full sun, 40-80 feet tall, spreading 60-100 feet wide. It features large, dense foliage for deep shade. It has subtle green flowers in spring.
The mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus) grows as a large shrub or small tree that is 15-20 feet high and 20-30 feet wide. It can be pruned into topiary shapes, and its resin can be chewed to clean teeth. It tolerates poor soil and hot, dry growing conditions. Spring flowers develop into small, red berries that ripen to black.
The mulga acacia tree (Acacia aneura) is native to Africa, Asia, Australia and North America. With silver, needle-like foliage and gold flowers in mid- to late summer, the mulga is great for color contrast. Mulgas are slow growers but reach 15-30 feet in height and 15-20 feet in width and have roots that grow to 35 feet. Mulgas lose their leaves only in extreme drought conditions.
Neem tree (Azadirachta indica) is an evergreen tree native to the Indian subcontinent. It is widely used for medicinal properties and in cosmetics, producing white or yellow flowers in spring that develop into vibrant yellow fruit that attract birds and insects. It grows 30-40 feet tall and 10-20 feet wide. A neem tree is sensitive to frost and needs frost protection.
Red cap gum
Red cap gum (Eucalyptus erythrocorys) is a fast-growing Australian-native evergreen that likes full sun. It has 4-inch-long silver-blue leaves and grows to 30 feet high and 25 feet wide, serving as an effective screen. It features red buds followed by yellow clusters in the summer.
Silk floss tree (Chorisia speciosa) is a lush, dense tree, native to Brazil and Argentina. It likes full sun and grows to 30-60 feet in height and 20-30 feet in width. It features an eye-catching spiny trunk and deep green 5-inch-wide leaves. In the fall, the tree drops its leaves and produces showy, pink, lily-like flowers, and then produces seeds and cotton-like fibers in the seed capsules.
Texas mountain laurel
Texas mountain laurel (Dermatophyllum secundiflorum, formerly Sophora secundiflora) is a small, shrubby evergreen native to the Chihuahuan Desert. It features dark green leaves and beautiful hanging clusters of purple flowers in spring. It is frost-tolerant and grows in full sun to 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide.
The Texas olive (Cordia boisseri) is a medium-sized evergreen that features multiple trunks and a growing size of 40 feet high and 25 feet wide. It has narrow green leaves and produces white blossoms from February to April that attract hummingbirds. Its fruits are edible, but the seeds have been known to cause serious illness in humans. It prefers moderate summer temperatures but can withstand freezing winter temperatures.
The weeping myall (Acacia pendula) is an Australian native evergreen that resembles a weeping willow, with graceful, draping grey-green foliage. It creates dense shade and features pale yellow balls in spring and winter. Frost- and drought-tolerant, the weeping myall needs full sun and is slow-growing, reaching 15-30 feet in height and 15-25 feet in width at maturity.
The willow acacia (Acaciasalicina), an evergreen native to Australia, is an excellent shade tree for narrow spaces. It likes full sun and grows to 30 feet high and 20 feet wide. Its spring blossoms are puffy and cream-colored.
As the summer grass fades and we wait for the winter grass to grow in, you may notice our maintenance crews sprinkling grass clippings from our mowers across the grass. Some mowers are even made to spit out grass clippings. Why do we do this? In short, grass clippings are a great mulch that provides the next batch of grass with good nutrients to give it a head start!
When mowers cut lawns, the blades of grass cut off contain lots of nutrients. This is great for the existing grass and for the seedlings of future grass. The reason for this? Grass cuttings are a perfect fertilizer for grass, since they are made of… well, grass! If the lawn was healthy, chances are that using its own lawn clippings as fertilizer will make for a healthy next batch of grass.
The only thing to really look out for is the quantity of grass. While small, well-spread clumps or a thin even coating are great for fomenting future grass growth, if there’s a spot covered with way too much of the lawn clippings, then that may inhibit the development of seedlings or new grass.
Overall, there’s no need for concern when you see lawn clippings gradually decomposing over the existing lawn. It’s there to help the grass of the future!
If you’re looking for community maintenance from ELS, call 602-243-1106 or visit elslandscapeaz.com.
By Northeastern U.S. standards, fall tree color comes to Arizona late in the season. Here in the Sonoran Desert, we might see our deciduous trees change to the iconic reds, oranges and yellows of autumn between October and sometimes January. Think of it this way—Arizonans get to enjoy an even longer leaf peeping season.
The Science Behind the Colors
Getting a little scientific for a moment, leaves change color on deciduous trees, trees that shed their leaves in the winter, as opposed to evergreen trees, which tend to keep their leaves on their branches throughout the year. In the warm months, trees are busy producing food to grow. That process is called photosynthesis and produces chlorophyll, which creates the green color in leaves. When seasonal temperatures cool and the amount of daylight shortens, most trees slow down their growth and photosynthesize less. As chlorophyll production declines, other pigments that are always present in leaves gradually dominate over the green. In trees where the leaves turn yellow and orange in the fall, carotenoids are the pigments you see showing through in the leaves. In leaves that turn red to purple in the fall, you see the anthocyanin pigments come through.
Leaf Peeping in Arizona
To leaf peep in Arizona, look along our many waterways and riparian areas. You’ll spot fall color dotting our lower elevation cities, but the most showy fall tree varieties tend to be very large and generally aren’t suitable for urban landscapes. So head for the hills, where you are likely to see a preponderance of native trees that change color in autumn.
Easy to spot where there’s flowing water, Fremont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii) trees turn a gorgeous yellow in fall. Deep red leaves characterize tall Texas red oak (Quercus texana or Quercus buckleyi), the oak variety that is more common in urban landscapes and at lower elevations, while the shorter Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii) grows at higher elevations and shows in bright yellow and orange. At higher elevations, look along streams for the orange fall leaves of Arizona sycamore (Plantanus racemosa var. wrightii), for gold on quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and for light yellow on the Arizona walnut (Juglans rupestris var. major).
Add Showy Trees at Home
Want to add some fall color to your home landscape? This author is partial to the shape and color of the non-native Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) tree, whose red and orange anthocyanins and carotenoids burst through in fall. Another tree for urban landscapes is the Arizona ash (Fraxinus velutina), and cultivar ‘Modesto’ is known for particularly splendid yellows. The boxelder (Acer negundo) ‘Sensation’ cultivar turns light pink in fall. In smaller spaces like patios, Pomegranates (Punica granatum) are excellent choices, with stunning reds and oranges, plus edible fruit in autumn. (Note, however, that dwarf varieties of pomegranate will give you a colorful autumn show but produce inedible fruits.)
This is by no means a comprehensive list of native or desert-adapted plants that change colors in autumn in Arizona, but now you have a little bit of the science behind the transformation in leaf color and a lot of pointers on what to look for on your leaf peeping escapades between now and January.
After a summer full of storms that brought heavy rains and even flash flooding, the granite that covers much of Phoenix’s landscapes is likely ready for replenishment.
Why Granite Shifts
Rain isn’t the only factor that can lead to the displacement of landscape granite. Human, vehicle and animal traffic can cause gravel to shift. The ground itself can also rise or sink due to movement of groundwater changes through the seasons.
One of the main benefits of granite topdressing is the fact that it slows down soil erosion by a significant factor. Even if it’s slowed down doesn’t mean that it is permanently stopped, so eventually erosion beneath the granite can lead to some unwanted granite displacement. Put all this together, and your community’s landscape could probably use anywhere from a little bit to quite a bit of granite re-dressing by this time of year.
How ELS Can Help
Adding fresh matching granite is a common practice during the fall and winter that ELS Maintenance & Construction takes care to provide whenever necessary. We’re officially past the monsoon season, and the fall and winter tend to be dry in comparison. That makes now the perfect time of year to get your granite looking as good as it was on Day One.
If you’re looking for help with your community and its granite, email us at [email protected] and we’ll send you a proposal.
Is the neighborhood landscaping still eye-catching? HOAs—and homeowners—can get excellent bang for the buck with landscape investments, which can save on maintenance and repairs in the long-run and can keep homeowners happier about the value they receive from their association dues.
Here are our suggestions for different ways you can invest in your landscape and add value to your home and neighborhood:
Make Simple Design Improvements
Some of the showiest landscape upgrades are the simplest and cheapest.
Add accent lighting, like uplighting a tree, downlighting a path, or shadow lighting an architectural element.
Install a water feature, which can attract nature and also calm road noise.
Refresh an outdated landscape design with topdressing and new plantings.
Invest in Plants
Appealing landscapes have healthy, thoughtfully placed, and properly maintained plant material.
Replace missing trees and plants for an instant boost to visual appeal.
Fix wrong plant, wrong place problems, which may have resulted in lack of vigor, undersized/oversized scale issues, or misshapen forms.
Prune and shape trees to restore their form and enhance their value.
Create plant focal points, a common problem in older or overgrown landscapes.
Deep-root fertilize non-native trees to keep them vigorous and healthy.
Hardscape upgrades can make a big difference because they draw the eye, create architectural design elements, and delineate spaces.
Repair uneven curbing or replace missing sections to restore continuity to a landscape area.
Add hardscape elements like low walls to create new planting beds or to divide big spaces into smaller, more defined areas.
Consider where new sidewalk or pathway surfaces may be needed to contain foot traffic and prevent further landscape damage and erosion.
Landscape Investments for Homeowners Associations
A one-year boost to your HOA’s landscape budget, or a one-time allocation of reserve funds, may be all your neighborhood needs to complete a landscape facelift. Replacing missing plants and trees, refreshing decomposed granite topdressing, and revitalizing planting beds are the quickest and most impressive investments in neighborhood home values. Go further by power-washing and painting common area structures, installing landscape lighting, or refacing entrance monuments and marquees.
Have ELS assist with your landscape projects. For a quote, talk to your ELS area manager or complete the online request form.
Overseeding in Arizona, you might hear people talk about throwing down perennial ryegrass seed after scalping. The term ‘throwing seed’ is a terrible misnomer because ryegrass seed thrown by hand would result in far too much randomness for a pretty lawn.
Like in the photo below, you’d have uneven patterns in the new grass. Instead, let’s call the process ‘spreading seed.’ Seed spreading is more art than science because it requires finesse.
Uneven patterns from hand-thrown perennial ryegrass seed.
In this post, we have set out for you here the basic steps in the seed spreading process to give you a few tips of the trade and to explain where the finesse lies for a showy winter lawn.
Let’s begin with what to buy. There are different grades of perennial ryegrass on the market. Buy the best you can afford, because ‘premium’ seed is certified (in writing on the back of the bag) for a guaranteed maximum percentage of weed seeds mixed in. Cheap seed means more weeds.
Next, how much seed to buy is math. Start by estimating the size of your lawn area in square feet. For example, if your lawn is 10 feet wide and 20 feet long, for example, you have 10 x 20 = 200 square feet. If your lawn has rounded edges, pretend they are square corners to make for an easier calculation. Now, round up your final number because it’s better to have seed left over than to run out.
Next, multiply that number by a common ryegrass seed application rate of 8-10 pounds per 1,000 square feet for a typical front or back residential lawn:
200 sq ft x (8 lbs / 1,000 sq ft) = 1,600 / 1,000 = 1.6 pounds of perennial ryegrass seed
Here’s the first bit of finesse. Before you head off to buy 1.6 pounds of seed, know that it’s always a good idea to buy about 10% more seed than you need to fill in any bare spots that don’t germinate well. In this example with 200 square feet to cover, you’d round up your 1.6 pounds an extra 10% and go buy 1.76 pounds (more easily rounded to 1-3/4 or 2 lbs) of perennial ryegrass seed. When you get ready to start spreading, take out the overpurchased 10% (about ¼ of a pound in our example) and reserve it until after you can see how well the new grass plants are filling in. Divide your target 2 pounds of seed into two equal halves.
Here’s the goal: for the most even coverage when we overseed, we want to spread half the seed in one direction (think east-west) and then the other half of the seed in the perpendicular direction (think north-south). That’s why we divide the target amount of seed into two equal halves.
The next step is to calibrate your spreader. This is the second bit of finesse. It doesn’t matter if you are using a hand-held spreader or a walk-behind spreader. And your spreader can be a whirlybird/rotary spreader or a drop spreader. But every spreader has a scale (e.g. 1-10 or 1-20) indicating how open it is. Start with 20%-25% open, like setting 2 on a 1-10 scale or setting 4 on a 1-20 scale.
Remember…we said seed spreading is an art. In this example on a 200 square-foot lawn area, you are walking in the east and west directions to spread half of your 1.76 pounds (half is 0.88 pounds). The finesse here is to watch how fast the seed is leaving the hopper. If it’s spreading too slowly or too quickly, adjust your spreader’s opening. Slower is better because you can make as many passes as you need in the east-west directions to use up all of that first half of your seed. The key is to spread that half of the seed as evenly as possible in that direction over the entire 200 square-foot lawn area until it’s gone. And stay within the boundaries…keep seeds off surrounding rocks and concrete, or they will grow wherever water reaches them.
Now, in this example of seeding 200 square feet of lawn, you spread the second half of your perennial ryegrass seed (the remaining 0.88 pounds) by walking in the perpendicular north and south directions. Keep your spreader at the setting that spread most evenly when you were going east and west. By the time you are finished going north and south, you will have used up the second half (0.88 pounds) of the seed. At this point, you have spread all 1.76 pounds of seed evenly across your entire 200 square-foot lawn area, and you still have in reserve the 10% you overpurchased.
THE ART OF SEED SPREADING TEST: Mark off 1 square inch anywhere in your turf area. Count the seeds laying within that 1 square inch patch of soil. Are there 13-14 seeds? More than 13-14 and your turf will grow in more densely. Fewer than 13 or 14 and your winter lawn will be more sparse. (This seed count assumes you used a typical residential application rate of 8 pounds of perennial ryegrass seed per 1,000 square feet.)
Water in your newly spread perennial ryegrass seed, keeping it moist throughout the day until it germinates and new ryegrass plants grow. Watch the growth patterns carefully and adjust your sprinklers for completely even coverage. Patches where ryegrass doesn’t grow indicates water coverage problems. Fix sprinkler problems to achieve even water coverage, and then spread some (13-4 seeds per square inch is your goal!) of the 10% of the reserve seed you overpurchased to correct coverage problems.
You’re done. Step back to admire your artistry and your lush winter lawn.