A gardener and a gentleman, David Cira, a paramedic with the New York City Fire
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS BUCK Department, doesn't normally wear a tux when he cuts grass, but he does know how to
give lawns the white-glove treatment. He shares his tips with us, beginning on the right.
POPULARMECHANICS.COM I APRIL 2012 83
HEN ASKEDTO DEFINE A PERFECT LAWN, Peter J. Landschoot,
the director of the Center for Turfgrass Science at Penn State,
sounds like a philosophy professor. "There is no perfect lawn,"
Landschoot says. "It depends on the user's expectations,
the lawn's environment, and the owner's sense of aesthetics
and lifestyle. It's personal."
Nonetheless, there remains a committed breed of home-
owner eager to give perfection a try. Take David Cira, a 32-
year-old paramedic with the New York City Fire Department.
He grew up in a condo in Queens but spent countless happy
weel<ends at his grandfather's home nearby, where the lawn
was always just so. "Nothing thrilled me more than mowing
the lawn and helping in the garden," Cira says. "I was good at
it from an early age, and it was a passion I never got away from."
Today, Cira maintains his parents' pristine lawn in Mineola,
N.Y. He has taught summer adult education classes on turf care,
and he has consulted for a landscape designer. To his friends
and neighbors, he's an oracle oflawn wisdom. "with a beautiful
lawn, you get more out than you could ever put in," he says.
On the other hand, perhaps you've loved your grass but it
hasn't loved you back. We understand. We've been there. Lawn
enthusiasts like Cira and Landschoot know it's a year-round
relationship, not just a summer fling. That's why we worked
with them to develop a four-season guide to the perfect lawn.
require a spring dethatching. herbicide). Next, instead of the
"This will allow the soil to breathe normal step 2 (fertilizer with a
and permit nitrogen exchange weed preventer, or weed-and-
with the atmosphere to get the feed), he uses a straight fertilizer
lawn started off in a really good with high nitrogen content
place," Cira says. He recommends and spot-sprays a separate,
buying or renting a power selective weed control as
IITEST THE SOIL cost around $10, but some dethatcher (power rake) instead necessary. "Weed preventers
For a healthy lawn, you've got nurseries do the test for free. .of breaking your back with a don't prevent weeds-they kill
to work your way up from the manual rake. preexisting weeds-and anytime
bottom. So start each spring aWAKE UP YOUR LAWN you add chemicals to the lawn,
with a soil test. Grass grows best There is no better way to jump- IILESS IS MORE you stress it," Cira says. "Treat
in soil with a neutral pH (about start your lawn than with a proper Cira starts his lawn-care year weeds individually. The results
6.5 on the pH scale) and a mowing and edging. That's a in April, when soil temperature are much better, and it's much
region-appropriate amount of given. In the age-old debate about supports growth but before less expensive."
phosphorus, nitrogen, and whether it's better to mow before weeds can get a foothold (it may Don't forget to clean up.
potassium salts, aka potash. "If trimming or trim before mowing, be February in the southern U.s.). Sweep or blow excess fertilizer
your soil isn't the greatest from Cira puts himself firmly in the He begins work on a six-week off walks and driveways and
the get-go, you're going to have latter camp: "This way you mow lawn-chemical schedule, starting onto the grass; otherwise the
problems all year," Cira says. your trimmings. It looks neater." with a typical step 1 product chemicals will wash into public
You're also going to waste A very dense lawn could (fertilizer with a pre-emergent waterways.
money on fertilizer and other soil
:J amendments that won't work
properly because the soil is too
n: acidic or too alkaline. "I know a
co lot of people who put down lime
o annually because they feel they
should," Landschoot says. BECOME A LAWN JOURNALIST
"If your soil has a good pH
One of Cira'5 most effective tools to help him keep a lawn looking
U1 I ..
z and adequate phosphorus and
o consistently pristine is ajournal. Starting in the spring, he makes
potassium, all you need to do notations about weather and rainfall and takes digital images. He also
n: is put down nitrogen fertilizer x-
.... chronicles the products he uses, and battles fought and won-or lost.
U1 every once in a while, which You can forget a lot just a month later, and you're certainly likely to forget
...J is easy to do and relatively from one year to the next. For exampi'e, if you had a lawn problem and
inexpensive." Home soil tests bought a product that didn't work, but two years later the same thing
happens, you don't want to waste money on that product again. Ajournal
may seem obsessive, but lawns respond best to obsessive behavior.
84 APRIL 2012 I POPULARMECHANICS.COM
1. WATER WISELY As temperatures increase, so does lawn
stress. Under normal conditions, a lawn needs about an inch
of water a week. But when conditions are hot and dry or, worse,
hot and windy, you need to add water to replace what has
evaporated. Depending on rainfall, you may need to go from
watering intervals of every five or six days to every four or five days.
Buy yourself a water gauge. It's especially important for homeown-
ers served by municipal water systems, not wells. "A lot of towns
have lower water pressure in the summer because of pools and
carwashes," Cira says. "Just 5 psi less can equal Yo!nch less water
per session, so increase its time to compensate."
Water has to have a chance to soak in so it reaches the roots.
Each watering session should provide 1 inch of water. Avoid brief
watering sessions, which contribute to shallow rooting. For the
gearhead there are all manner of toys to eliminate guesswork,
such as temperature-sensing weather stations that connect
wirelessly to your computer. Yet Cira is partial to simple devices,
such as a cup-style rain collector. "The techie stuff can be helpful,
but I still like the old-school stuff the best," he says.
2. TWEAK YOUR LAWN HEIGHT
that when the temperature
Top lawn scientists
rises, so should your grass.
Landschoot says a freshly mowed height of 2 to 2Yo!inches is a
reasonable goal. The old ")13 rule" is still valid: You shouldn't cut
more than one-third of the leaf tissue in one mowing. "Every
time you mow too low, you're opening up the canopy. This
increases weed infestation, since weeds need light to grow,"
he says. Think ofthe entire
plant system. Tall grass has
more plant tissue to hold
water, produce chlorophyll,
and shade the ground below,
BEYOND THE MOWER keeping it cool and reducing
root stress. This also reduces
water lost to evaporation, so
more is available for the grass.
Cira uses the holidays as
a guide to adjust his mower
height-up a notch on Memorial
Day and again on July 4, down
a notch on Labor Day, and back
to his starting point by the time MYSTERY SPOTS
Columbus Day rolls around. Don't assume a brown
spot is caused by a lack
3. BATTLE BUGS Many of water or the neighbor's
gushing Great Dane.
Lawn Junk homeowners buy a fertilizer
Difficult Terrain A fungus may be to blame,
It's no fun dealing with sticks, with a broad-spectrum and this can be difficult
If you've got a large lawn or one
that's bumpy, invest in a better nuts, vines, and especially litter insecticide, but Cira isn't a fan. or even impossible to
spreader. It's tiring to push in the course of your lawn care. Nationally distributed products treat without professional
ajunky spreader with small, Consider a no-clog rake like the are formulated to kill a wide advice. First, take some
solid-plastic tires; a narrow Ames True Temper model above. range of common pests, not high-resolution pictures
handle; and a balky feed It's got rugged, interconnected of the blighted areas and
always those specific to a
mechanism. It can waste tines and a sturdy handle. share them with your
expensive lawn-care products. region. Cira uses a simple nursery or a university
Buya spreader with a large Rocky Soil organic, low-nitrogen fertilizer cooperative extension
handle, pneumatic tires, and, A tool suited to digging or and a separate, granular pest office. Whatever you do,
if needed, an edge guard to keep weeding in rocky soil is one control that targets certain don't just waltz into a
seed, fertilizer, and herbicide drop-forged from a bar of nursery carrying a hunk
bugs. This keeps his lawn
where it belongs-on the grass. steel, like the Sneeboer of c;seased lawn. Fungal
healthy while using the spores that break loose
We show a 7-gillion model by forked weeder above. It's
Agri-Fab. It can spread a beautifully made and covered least amount of chemicals from it can spread. If the
10-foot-wide swath in one pass. by a lifetime guarantee. necessary. nursery says a sample is
okay, it will also tell you
how to contain it.
IISNATCH THE THATCH
Thatch, a mat of yellowish dead
grass that can block air and
moisture, needs to be removed.
True lawn lovers.know that early
fall is the season to reboot. If you
need to reseed, Cira advises using
IITURN OVER A LEAF
Remove leaves-they block
sunlight just when grass needs
as much light as possible for
PICK UP STICKS
If you slacked on the dethatching proprietary turfgrass seed, photosynthesis and root growth. Autumn would be easier if
in spring, now is the time, but available at nurseries, on the Web, Grass should go from vigorous leaves were all that fell, but
don't go at it too aggressively. and from landscape-supply houses. growth into winter, not enter it it's also the season of
If you set the tines too deep on Turfgrass breeders constantly weak and underfed. seedpods, branches,
a power rake, you can destroy the improve their seed, and many Even when the lawn is nutshells, husks, and rotten,
lawn. ''you're better off making produce specific regional types. dormant, it needs to eat. You've unpicked fruit that has fallen
three or four shallow passes, While this seed is more expensive run the race all summer, now don't out of the trees. Careful tree
in which you increase the depth than what's sold at home centers, fall at the last hurdle. Put the lawn pruning can reduce the
of the tines, than going too deep it's also more vigorous. Cira quotes to bed with winterizer (or stage 4 problem but not eliminate it.
in one pass," Cira says. Likewise, the old adage that a cheap tool is fertilizer) sold at any big-box store. You're going to need
use small flags to mark sprinkler an expensive tool. "You might "The potash in it promotes root something more powerful
heads to avoid collateral damage. pay a few dollars more for a stability, cold-weather hardiness, than your handheld leaf
Don't rent a dirty dethatcher. proprietary seed, but the results and disease resistance, so you blower to deal with this
It's always a bad sign when rental are tremendous, and you don't get great results come spring," bulky, prickly mess.
equipment is beat up and dirty, have to keep constantly Cira says. "The lawn greens up Backpack and walk-behind
but more so if it's lawn gear. reseeding," he says. much quicker." leaf blowers are far better
Dirt and debris from a previous To seed a bare area, Cira tills than handheld blowers for
customer can spread disease the soil, applies the seed, and moving difficult debris off
and weed seed from the rental then covers it with a thin layer the lawn or at least into piles
machine to your lawn. Choose of lightweight, compost-soil/ that can be gathered. If you
your rental center carefully. peat-moss blend. Then he keeps can afford it, consider a
Look for clean, well-maintained it moist. Once the seeds get dry, pro-quality lawn vacuum
equipment. they're dry for good. (typically $900 to $1500).
HIT THE BOOKS You finally have a little breather. Take some ,!,
.~~~~~~~ThetJ illl 51i
final notes and start poring over your journal. It's as important to first rule of winter storage is to
study what went wrong as what went right. Visit sources online. do what the manufacturer of
"Look for information based on research, and try to stay with your equipment recommends.
local sources," Landschoot says. "Grasses are managed differ- Owner's manual instructions
ently in different parts of the country. I'm obviously a biased trump anything we or anybody
source, but university websites are a good place to start." else has to say. If the manufac-
Universities with turf-care and horticulture programs and turer tells you to run your
cooperative extension services often post weed-identification equipment dry and store it
pictures ·online.lfyou know your enemy, what prompts its growth, over the winter that way,
and what it's vulnerable to, the battle is halfway won. so be it. If, on the other hand,
it advises putting it to bed with
PREPARE FOR SPRING Now is the time to clean and repair a full fuel tank, that's what you
equipment. Remove grass clippings and dirt that hold moisture, need to do.
which can cause rust. Cira even disinfects under the mower deck The most important thing
using a dilute 10:1 water-bleach solution followed by a rinse. to know is that today's ethanol
STAKE YOUR CLAIM Next, remove the spark plug and air filter on four-cycle and
two-stroke machines. Drain and replace the engine oil on four-cycle
gasoline decomposes quickly in
storage. It can damage or even
Don't let nine months of
obsessively hard work get equipment, and sharpen or replace the mower blade. Clean the ruin equipment, especially
wrecked once the snow falls. string-trimmer head and wind fresh line on it. Finally, install a new, when the equipment sits
Stake the perimeter of your properly gapped spark plug in your mower, trimmer, and blower. around over the winter. Add
driveway and walks to reduce Generously lubricate cable linkages and pivot points with fuel stabilizer to both four-cycle
gouging by snow throwers
spray oil. Pump grease into fittings, and replace drivebelts if and two-str~e fuel mix.
and plows. Reduce the use
of de-icing chemicals to the they've reached the number of hours of service life recommended This prevents the chemical-
minimum amount required to by the manufacturer. When in doubt,just replace them. decomposition process. PM
do the job. Excess de-icer can