Texas Tech University

Looking to Get Outside During COVID-19? Try Working in the Yard

George Watson

April 22, 2020

lawn mower

Texas Tech turfgrass expert Joey Young offers tips for bringing your lawn back to life, giving those staying at home a way to get outside.

With the country still gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced people to hunker down inside, those spending more time at home than normal are seeking ways to get outdoors while still maintaining social distancing and staying safe from contracting the virus. The best way to accomplish that goal is staying within the proximity of one's house.

One of the best ways to do that is taking care of the lawn. As the weather begins to warm up and trees and lawns come back to life, the population of the U.S. is beginning to get their landscapes in order for the summer months. But there are still steps that must be taken – both related to the virus and in general – in order to bring that lawn back to life as quickly and safely as possible.

Joey Young
Joey Young

Joey Young, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science in the Texas Tech University College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, is an expert in turfgrass who researches water quantity and quality issues related to turfgrass management.

There are many aspects of lawncare that will not change through this pandemic, but the ability to find products to use, such as weed control and fertilizer, and having multiple people working on a lawn at the same time will mean being warier of working in the time of the coronavirus. Young offers tips on general lawn maintenance and methods that could help reduce potential exposure to the virus while allowing people to enjoy the outdoors.

With the weather warming up, most people are beginning to bring their lawns back to life. What are the first basic steps people should be doing at this point?
This is an excellent opportunity for quick irrigation checks and fixes. Turn on your in-ground irrigation system to look for any problems (clogged nozzles, nozzles spraying outside of landscape, spray pattern irregularities). Correcting these problems early in the season will help save water and money. Put out a rain gauge or catch cans in your lawn, run your irrigation system for a known length of time (i.e. 10 minutes) and determine the depth of water applied per unit time or irrigation cycle. During warm summer months, this knowledge can assist with providing your lawn 1 inch of water per week to maximize health and water conservation.

Bermudagrass lawns: Most are in the process of spring green-up as our temperatures fluctuate a good bit. Speed of green-up may be related to cultivar selection, but continual warm temperatures are the main ingredient to get fully green bermudagrass. Mowing practices can begin, and this is a great time to consider getting the lawn height dialed in to the target height. Bermudagrasses can be maintained at 1-2 inches, depending on homeowner preference, but handles lower mowing heights better than other turf species adapted to this area. Soil temperatures currently are 46-79 degrees on the April 15 West Texas Mesonet Soil Data, which is below the optimum temperature for bermudagrass growth. The bermudagrass should have ample stored carbohydrates to initiate spring green-up as temperatures warm, but fertilizers should be applied as we move into later April or May to encourage foliar growth and improved color. Irrigation can be applied as needed, but current temperatures would suggest less water is needed now compared to hotter summer months.

Tall fescue lawns: These lawns should be in peak form with our current weather conditions. Mowing should be well underway for tall fescue lawns with recommended mowing heights between 2-4 inches for residential locations. The optimum growth conditions currently make the lower height more manageable, but heights should increase as summer temperatures climb in July and August. It is the perfect time for an initial fertilizer application to tall fescue. Target 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet in this application. Irrigation will benefit tall fescue lawns in this period of active growth, but 80 percent of evapotranspiration (ET) should be replaced per week.

Pro tip: Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium (NPK) percentage is represented on all fertilizer products as percentages. Let's assume you found a 16-4-8 grade fertilizer. To apply 1 pound, you would divide 1 pound of nitrogen by 0.16 lb (product N percentage), which equals 6.25 pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet.

Are there any dangers to working in the yard or garden during the pandemic outside of what is already commonly known?
I am not an infectious disease epidemiologist, but I have listened to many experts with that title to learn more about the spread of COVID-19 and how to best protect myself. The viral particles released from asymptomatic or symptomatic individuals are relatively large in size, which led to our common social distancing factor of 6 feet spacing for safety. If multiple individuals are assisting with lawn activities, remaining 6 feet apart should limit potential for viral spread among individuals. Additionally, practicing effective hand-washing techniques and hand sanitizer usage when interacting with others are good safety precautions. The act of working in the landscape should be seen as a minimal risk to contract COVID-19 as professional lawn care operations have been identified as "essential" in Texas and other states with significant disease outbreaks.

What are the best ways for people to get what they need to work on their lawns and gardens while also doing their best to maintain social distancing?
Many of the common national and local retailers are still available for purchase of items needed to initiate lawn activities. The same practices that would be taken when purchasing food and other necessities of life should be taken while shopping and purchasing lawn-care items from these retailers. It would be beneficial to think through all aspects of your lawn management needs to limit your physical visits to these locations. Another alternative would be purchasing lawn-management materials (top soil, compost, fertilizers) from national or local retailers with an online presence. This would lead to delivery of ordered products directly to your residence, and most effectively maintain social distancing.

Are there homemade remedies or elements they can use in place of store-bought aids to help with their lawns?
The main area where there is lots of information about "homemade" lawn products revolves around natural herbicides for weed control. Most are vinegar or salt based, and the combination of household products can control some lawn weeds. The chemical concoction would provide non-selective control (this means that any living plant material contacted by this chemical would exhibit chemical burn). These mixtures would also provide "contact" damage to plants, which means the chemical only affects the outer portion of the sprayed plant. As a comparison, many herbicides labeled for weed control in home lawns are selective (only control targeted weeds without injuring desirable landscape materials) and systemic (enter and move to plant roots to provide extended weed control). Because we all have more "free" time on our hands or kids at home, a shovel is one of the most effective and environmentally friendly weed-control options out there. Simply force the shovel into the ground at the base of the target weed and extract the unwanted plant material out of your lawn.

Should people be aware of conservation of resources at this time, not knowing how long the pandemic will last, i.e. water conservation, things like that?
Pandemic or no pandemic, resource conservation in our landscapes should be a high priority. We may perceive water as an endless resource because we all take for granted that water will come from a faucet when turned on or fresh water will fill our toilets when they are flushed. However, water is a precious resource throughout West Texas. We never know when the next long-lasting persistent drought will occur, and those conditions put massive pressure on our water availability. For this reason, it will always be imperative to conserve water in our landscapes. Initial steps suggested for checking your irrigation system for problems and knowing the depth of water applied over time is a great first step. West Texas Mesonet Current Daily Climate Data or weekly forecasted reference ET maps such as the National Weather Service Graphical Forecast Map are great assets.

Bermudagrass and other warm-season grasses can be easily managed with 50-60 percent replacement of the total water loss estimated from either source, which is generally accomplished by the common recommendation to apply 1 inch of irrigation per week. Tall fescue and other cool-season grasses will require 70-80 percent replacement of total water loss. The estimated water loss based on forecasted weather conditions for April 15-21 suggests bermudagrass would need 0.7-0.9 inches water, and tall fescue would need 0.9-1.2 inches of water. These are maximal irrigation needs, but keep in mind these turfgrass species are resilient and capable of remaining healthy with lower water totals.

Now that people have additional time at home, what are some simple tips that even beginners or those who don't normally worry about their lawns can do to help their lawns?
Mowing and fertility are the most practical and effective practices that improve your lawn. Consistent mowing to maintain the one-third rule is pivotal in maximizing turfgrass health and density. The one-third rule states that you never want to remove more than one-third of the leaf material from the desirable turfgrass. If you desire to mow bermudagrass at 1 inch, bermudagrass will need to be mown when it reaches 1.5 inches in height (0.5 inches of growth). In contrast, if you want to manage tall fescue at 3 inches, tall fescue will need to be mown when it reaches 4.5 inches (1.5 inches of growth).

Weeds do not handle mowing as well as turfgrasses, so that is one reason frequent mowing benefits turfgrass. Secondly, frequent mowing increases density, or thickness of foliar canopy, of the turfgrass, so turfgrass outcompetes, or "chokes out," weeds in a lawn. Mulch or return clippings when mowing grass to deliver additional nutrients to the lawn. Optimal soil fertility will enhance the growth of turfgrass. Soil nutrient testing is required to know the exact nutrient status of soils, but majority of a turfgrass-fertility plan revolves around nitrogen application. Between 0.5 and 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet should be applied per fertilizer application. Bermudagrass lawns should be fertilized monthly from May to early September. Tall fescue should be fertilized more heavily in fall (September to November) and then a single application in spring (March or April).

What are some more advanced tips that you could provide that people might normally not have time for but do now to help their lawns grow?
Our lawns can experience many problems that take away from the uniformity and street appeal, such as temperature extremes, lack of rainfall, weeds, insects or limited time to manage the lawn. Many of us have some additional time on our hands now and will go stir crazy if we cannot get out of the house for a little while. It is a great time to fill in some weak areas of your lawn.

Bermudagrass lawn: Here is a great hack for the bermudagrass lawn folks; you can dig out some healthy bermudagrass from good portions of your lawn and plant them in the weakest, limited cover areas. Keep in mind that bermudagrass does not like shade, but areas of limited bermudagrass cover that get 6-plus hours of sunlight are good places to attempt plugging. Plugging bermudagrass is a simple, cost effective way to increase bermudagrass coverage and regain uniformity in your lawn. I would recommend filling in the small hole from the plug with regular soil or bagged garden soil/composts to improve regrowth. Be sure to bury the new bermudagrass plug planted in the weak area. The plug(s) will need to be watered frequently until new growth and roots begin to develop. A little nitrogen fertilizer in the area also will help quicken the growth of new bermudagrass into this weak area. Depending on size of the weak area, bermudagrass can fill in those spots within the summer or sooner.

Tall fescue lawn: I have noticed seed applications to established tall fescue lawns in my neighborhood over the last couple of weeks. However, this is not the best time to initiate new tall fescue growth in our established lawns. The practice of "overseeding" new tall fescue seed into existing lawns is incredibly valuable, but it would be best accomplished in the fall. Reminder that tall fescue prefers moderate temperatures and does not like summer heat. The newly developing grass will not be "big and strong" if plants are just beginning to grow in the spring, but those same plants given fall and spring to grow and mature will be ready to withstand the heat and drought conditions commonly felt during summer months.

Are there things people could do on a daily basis to help their lawns grow as a way of getting outside at least once a day?
Weeds are predominant pests in our landscapes. Herbicides are applied to many lawns to prevent annual weeds (pre-emerge) from growing or kill weeds that are present in the landscape (post-emerge). Some may choose to accomplish these procedures on their own or through professional services. Hand-pulling weeds can be an excellent way to get outside for short periods of time and benefit the visual appeal of your lawn. You are mostly trying to search out plants that "look different" than the desirable species in your lawn. My yard has high quantities of rescuegrass, little barley, and a number of broadleaf weeds. Some caution should be used if hand-pulling weeds in this region as some weeds may have large spikes or spines that may hurt (i.e. sandbur, puncture vine, prickly lettuce, thistles). Hand-pulling weeds is both economically and environmentally friendly, plus it can be an excellent mental relaxation period from the stresses of home-bound life.