Designers Speak: Why Grass Rules

by Jim Wike, Landscape Architect, Nature Explore

A sterile monoculture or a magical play surface?

I’m a turf guy. I like my lawn. Many can debate all the attributes both positive and negative, but I’ll leave that to others. One thing I know is that turf is a magical surface for children.

When I was young grass is where I collected acorns, chased fireflies, watched Robins pull worms, felt the intensity of summer sunshine and sculpted snowmen. Lawns were a play setting of high value. There is no doubt that the value of grassed spaces to children continues. Ask caregivers of infants or toddlers and they will sing the praises of a nice area of turf. Preschoolers discovering their legs find a safe place to run jump and dance with little consequence to a fall or stumble. On it goes, through the age groups, each finding their own value to good quality grassed areas.

Things I’ve learned to understand and consider when designing and maintaining these all important grassy areas? Why, I’m glad you asked:

First, understand that intensive use will occur and select a variety  that will promote vigorous growth with few additional resources. In “cool season turf areas”, instead of Bluegrass select drought tolerant varieties of Fescue. RTF is a variety that is more self-repairing and may work for you. In “warm season turf areas”, look to the smaller texture of Bermuda hybrids and Zoysia hybrids. Pay attention to sports fields and the turf varieties chosen for use there.

Second, allow taller mowing heights of 2 to 3 inches. The general rule of thumb here is not to remove any more than 1/3 of the height at any one mowing. This also makes it easier to leave the clippings on the lawn. Cut a bit lower the first mow or two in spring and then raise quickly to the taller height.

Third, understand that watering will be necessary. If the turf area will have an automatic irrigation system; take the time to understand its control and use. Install a rain switch if possible. Keep an eye on total rainfall. Have a rain gauge in your play area and have the children help keep track. Most grasses will be fine with between ½ and 1 inch of rain per week. Make up with irrigation for amounts that don’t occur naturally. Set a controller to deliver that amount in one or two waterings during the next week. Continue this approach through the summer.

The fourth area to consider is fertilization and pest management. Generally, fertilizer can be applied three times (early spring, late spring and late summer/early fall) according to soil test results. Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, can be an effective approach for your entire garden including turf areas. As with all the above information, consult local sources that are “in the know” such as area extension services and local horticulturists.

Turf is a material that deserves close consideration; especially given all the joy and associated aspects it gives children of all ages.