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Low-maintenance grass and composting issues

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Q. Are there any lawn grasses that require less mowing and fertilizing? I would like to grow other groundcovers, but I have children and pets and need something that will tolerate wear and tear. -- Jerry G., Monmouth Junction

A. Lawn grasses are the only living groundcover that can withstand moderate to heavy traffic. Some great varieties require less mowing and fertilizing and still look good.

Fescues are among the best low-maintenance lawn grasses. In particular, fine fescues and turf-type tall fescues are tough grasses for low-maintenance landscapes. Two great fine fescue types are the hard and sheep fescues. Tall fescues are another great group of fescues and have deep root systems that can tolerate drought.

As a general rule, fine fescues will tolerate partial shade better than most other cool-season grasses such as bluegrasses or perennial ryegrass. They also will perform well in full sun when planted at the proper density.

The following is a list of some of the low-maintenance turf grasses that have been tested at our New Jersey Agricultural Experiment station and showed promise for our area. Special thanks to Dr. Stacy Bonos of Rutgers University for her work on low-maintenance turfgrass at NJAES and at our EARTH center, where we are continuing to test many of the varieties listed below.

Great low-maintenance lawn grass varieties for our area include:

'Nordic' hard fescue
'Oxford' hard fescue
'Stonehenge' hard fescue
'Jasper II Strong' creeping red fescue
'Ambassador' chewings fescue
'Celestial Strong' creeping red fescue
'Zinfandel' Kentucky bluegrass
'Cindy Lou Strong' creeping red fescue
'Princeton P-105' Kentucky bluegrass
'Rembrant' tall fescue
'Falcon IV' tall fescue
'Ambrose' chewings fescue
'Constitution' tall fescue
'Five Point' tall fescue
'Titanium' tall fescue
'Tiger II' Colonial bentgrass

You may need to search on the Internet to find local suppliers or sources for top varieties that will perform best in our area. It is very important to select quality-named varieties. There are many companies that sell quality seed and it depends more on the specific variety than the company name. For the latest information on the best seed for this area, visit ntep.org and look for the test information for our New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in New Jersey.

Q. I planted organic seed last year and some of the plants came up but died at an early stage. I like to garden with my young daughter and try to avoid using any pesticides. Do I need to buy treated seed?
-- Valerie S., Cranford

A. Organic seeds are not treated with pesticides but can be grown successfully with the proper techniques.

First, you need to make sure to order your seeds from a reputable company that tests its seeds for germination and other common problems. If you suspect a problem with germination, you can test a few seeds within a damp napkin to see if they will germinate.

Second, you need to provide a sterile seed starting mix for many vegetable transplants such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers and melons. Use a sterile potting mix to prevent damping off disease organisms that can kill young transplants. Keep the seed starting mix moist but not overly wet. Avoid contamination of grow mix with garden soil or a non-sterile mix that may contain disease organisms.

It is wise to use untreated seed when gardening with young children. Make sure young children keep their hands away from their mouths and eyes when helping in the garden, and wash their hands thoroughly after leaving the garden.

Q. I started composting last year, but it seems to be taking forever for the waste to break down. I bought a commercial bin and compost food waste, leaves and old newspapers. How can I get the mixture to break down faster?
-- Kathleen C., Carteret

A. The composting process requires proper ingredients, moisture, micro-organisms and temperature to proceed efficiently. The ingredients should be as wet as a damp sponge, but not saturated.

Sprinkle garden soil over the compost pile to incorporate the necessary micro-organisms to break down the compost. Turn the compost once every three weeks during cold weather and once a week during warm weather and mix all ingredients thoroughly. Mixing helps to aerate the pile and incorporate ingredients evenly throughout.

Many commercial bins are insulated to maintain the proper temperature. Open bins can be covered with a dark tarp to help maintain temperature in between watering and aerating the compost pile.

One of the easiest ways to turn the compost pile is to use the pointed end of a shovel or rake to mix the ingredients. If odors occur, you may need to add a little lime and dry ingredients if the pile becomes too wet.

Make certain to chop up all ingredients for the pile into small pieces for rapid decomposition. If you are adding newspapers, tear up or shred the paper and avoid adding thick layers of whole newspaper that may break down slowly.