Image by Timothy Kennelty

David Chinery from CCE talks about turf and the best way to care or improve for your lawn

Episode 17: Lawns and Turf Grass

Spring weather refocuses us on our lawns. Join David Chinery from Cornell Cooperative Extension as he talks about turf issues and the best way to care for or improve our lawns. Then join Heidi Bock (Trekking the Trails) as she explores Borden’s Bond, near Chatham, New York. This 1.6 mile trail features a great forest setting that can be used for hiking, walking, trail running and nature trips. We hope you get inspired and get outdoors!

Hosts: Tim Kennelty and Jean Thomas

Guest: David Chinery

Photo by: Tim Kennelty

Production Support:  Linda Aydlett and Teresa Golden


Lawns and Turf: Cornell Cooperative Extension | Lawns (

Borden’s Pond (Trekking the Trails with Heidi Bock): Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center ; Native Plant Trust; Spring Flora of Columbia County

It’s all Greek (Jean Thomas):Plant Finder ( ; Explore Cornell - Home Gardening - Introduction ;; Etymonline - Online Etymology Dictionary


Welcome to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Our team's goal is to present science based information about gardening and all things nature in New York's Hudson Valley. Hosts Jean and Tim, along with team members, Teresa and Linda, are Master Gardener Volunteers for New York's Columbia and Greene counties. So if you're interested in gardening or nature or nuggets of information about what's happening outside your door, settle in, enjoy the conversation. Whatever the season, we have something to say.

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Tim: Hi, I'm Tim Kennelty. And I'm Jean Thomas.

Tim: And welcome to another episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Today our guest is David Chinnery. David is from the Cornell Cooperative Extension office in Rensselaer County, and he is a lawn and turf expert. Isn't that cool?

Jean: It's way cool.

Tim: Yeah, yeah.

Jean: David has been doing this for years and years and years. He was teaching this when I was in my first incarnation as a Master Gardener.

Tim: Yeah, he's really the go to person for turf and talks about what's changed in the industry, which is really interesting in terms of the kind of equipment you might use in terms of the type of grasses that are out there.

Jean: And I'm really sorry, I didn't get a chance to talk with him.

Tim: So we missed you. We missed you.

Jean: And I missed the chance to ask him about my love hate relationship with my writer mower.

Tim: Okay, yeah. While he talks a little bit about that, and some of the more environmentally friendly equipment like that, that you can use. And he talks also about kind of one of the new things which is alternatives to grass in your lawn.

Jean: Like my little meadow that I'm growing.

Tim: Yeah, exactly. It's a really great interview. We learned a lot from David. And also Heidi Bock is here from the Columbia Land Conservancy on Trekking the Trails, and she is talking about Borden's Pond. Have you been to Borden's Pond?

Jean: I have not, it's just outside Chatham, right?

Tim: It's a very cool place. Definitely. And if you go there, one of the great things about Borden's Pond and actually some of the other PCAs are the spring ephemerals, the beautiful, beautiful spring wildflowers you can see there at this time of year. So we're talking about things like trout lilies and red Trillium and Jack in the pulpits. So we should go there Jean, the spring ephemerals are just beautiful.

Jean: Timing's important.

Tim: It is. Okay, this should be an interesting episode stay tuned.

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Tim: Welcome to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Our conversation today is with David Chinnery, Rensselaer County, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Horticultural Turf Management, Senior Resource Educator. Wow, that's a mouthful. David is the go to guy for many of the surrounding counties and is in demand as an instructor for the Master Gardener volunteer trainings. David, how long have you been involved in the Cooperative Extension? Maybe you can tell us a little bit about your history and also kind of your interest in turf management.

David: Well, thank you for having me here. Today. I go back to 1989 when I started working for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Westchester County, and that time, I did all sorts of horticulture programs. And I wanted to move upstate. So the job in Rensselaer County came open in 1996. It was a turf grass position. It was regional. I didn't particularly like turf grass, but I said I want to move. And I came up here and I adapted and learned turf grass. So now I am a turf grass person, and I'm not really regional anymore, but I certainly help out the other Cooperative Extension counties and Master Gardener programs.

Tim: Could you define what you mean when you say turf grass? It's probably obvious, but you're using that kind of as a term. So what does that exactly mean?

David: Well, that's a good question too, because I remember giving one of my first lawn talks for an hour I talked about turf grass and lawns. And then, at the end of it, a lady in the front row, raised her hand and said, what is turf grass? So it is good to define what we mean by turf grass is anything that we mow and we walk on. That's how I look at it. So that includes lawns, sports fields, utility areas, golf courses, those types of areas where we're growing grasses, and we're growing them short. And we're using them for, you know, human activities for the most part.

Linda: So David, no doubt you've seen significant changes in turf management practices over the years. And I know from attending a class, you've always taught respect for the environment in turf care. Can you tell us about some of the biggest changes you've seen?

David: Sure, you know, being around for 33 years, I'm getting to be the old timer. But there have been a lot of changes in that time. The first one I always think of is that we have a no phosphorus and lawn fertilizer law that came about in 2012 in New York State. And that basically said, we're not supposed to be putting phosphorus on lawns that are receiving fertilizer. With a few caveats, if you're starting a new lawn, you can still use a fertilizer, like a starter fertilizer that has phosphorus, or if you have a soil test that says you need phosphorus, but that law, hopefully is working to reduce phosphorus runoff into waterways, lakes, places like that. So that's a big one. Certainly, the grasses themselves have been changing. There are people called turf grass breeders. And they've been working to make grasses that grow slower, grasses that are better tolerant to drought, grasses that are more pest tolerant, grasses that need less fertilizer. So the industry if I can call it that, when the research is really moving towards more sustainable lawns, because the grasses themselves are changing. I think people are interested very much in low mow lawns, no mow lawns, lawn mowers that are not going to be as polluting. So that's a big change and we're moving in that direction. I think we have more alternative, what I call alternative practices. Rather than just going to the store and buying a bag of fertilizer and a bag of grub control and just putting it on sort of mindlessly, there's been a lot of work on trying to figure out how we can use less pesticides, how can we use products more effectively, things like over-seeding, which I've been working on for a long time, reducing the amount of herbicide that people use, there's new management things for grubs coming along, which is great. So, you know, back in 1989, people want, some people wanted that stuff and we just didn't have it. And now we have more alternatives like that. And the last one, which is really very new is that we have genetically engineered grasses coming along. So that's going to be very interesting.

Tim: Can you talk a little bit about what you just mentioned, in terms of chemical overuse, because I know, certainly when you drive by like golf courses, and they're just so pristine, I always feel like they're pouring, you know, huge amounts of chemicals. And a lot of my neighbors, I think, put a lot of chemicals on their lawns, a little bit about that, and kind of what kind of education is out there and what people what the trends are and what people seem to be doing in terms of that?

David: Sure. Well, you know, the world is geared to marketing, right? People buy what they see people buy what they know, there's a lot of money that is behind lawn care products. So you know, something like a step program that tells people to, you know, put these things on and this order, and you're gonna have results, that is really attractive to people, because it's sort of easy to do, it's in front of them, it's at the store, they don't have to think about it a lot. So, you know, we're asking them to step back, to think about your lawn to understand what's going on in your lawn. And that takes a lot more work. So we're kind of up against that marketing and sort of ease factor. But I take hope in that people like master gardeners, and certainly a lot of concern people that you know, have a lawn, but they don't want to make it something that is going to be detrimental to the environment. They want to be more environmentally friendly. They're the ones that are really looking for, you know, the information that is a little more involved. And certainly I want to say golf course people have changed a tremendous amount to there's a huge interest among golf, people of being more environmentally friendly. So I think that's a big change, too. You know, they're under pressure to have good turf grass, because that's what they need to have. But there's a lot of folks that want to do alternatives. So I think the message is getting out there. I would like to I would like it to happen faster. But it is changing, so I take heart in that I guess.

Tim: I don't know if this is alternative or not but my lawn, I basically mow the weeds. It's one of those things where I don't think I've ever put fertilizer on my lawn and I don't think I've ever put herbicides. So is that is there anything wrong with that? I mean, it looks like grass. It's not beautiful, but I know there's a lot of kind of what you would call weeds. I have clover certainly that's pollen and nectar for the bees and there's plantains. Is there anything wrong with my just doing kind of nothing?

David: No. If you came to my lawn, I would call it a weed test laboratory. Because I have every weed no demand. I'm a big fan of clover because I'm a beekeeper. I think those lawns are fine. If that's, you know what you want. To me, that's okay. The only caveats I would say with something like that would be if you have a lot of crabgrass and then that crabgrass dies in the fall, and you have bare ground over the winter. That's a source of erosion and nutrient runoff. So we like to see really dense lawns because dense lawns hold the nutrients, they slow down the water. So areas that sort of go bare with crabgrass or annual weeds, I'm not really thinking that's helping the environment, I would rather see dense growth there. So that, you know, it's actually probably more environmentally friendly. So sometimes doing a little bit like fertilizing your lawn, and having a denser may actually be better than having a lawn that really is causing, you know, or allowing nutrients to run off. So, but I think, you know, there shouldn't be any pressure involved. I, I always run across people that live in upscale housing, and there's this pressure to have a beautiful lawn or, or to try to achieve that. And I don't like social pressure, I don't think people should do that to each other. So I don't subscribe to the social aspects of lawn care.

Linda: So we noticed that there's a push to plant more naturalized landscapes and alternatives to green grass lawns. Could you tell us a little bit about some IPM practices people could use instead?

David: Well, as far as if you want to have a lawn, and you want to take care of it, I would say you know, do a soil test, learn what your nutrient levels are. If you need phosphorus, you might need to add it. But you probably don't need to add phosphorus. But the soil test tells you a lot of interesting information, for any kind of gardening. So I'm a huge fan of soil tests. So contact your county Cooperative Extension office and they can help you with that. That's kind of step one. The over-seeding, which is something we've worked on a lot is just using grass seed, especially perennial ryegrass or tall fescue, and putting that down in the fall several times. And that will increase the density of the lawn that will cover up the bare spots. And then the next year you're going to have more grass. And it also works to crowd out the crabgrass. Crabgrass is probably the number one weed that is in New York State lawns and people put on pre-emergent herbicide in the spring. So we would like to get them to use grass seed in the fall, build up the density of the lawn, then you don't need to use the pre-emergent herbicide. And that's something that Cornell people, Iowa State and me, we've been kind of the three people that have been pushing that. And that's actually starting to get out in the main stream. So I think that's really exciting. That's my top tip really for IPM sort of a lawn. And then you know, if you have grubs, we have some alternative methods for controlling those. Chinch bugs or a problem that come along. We have grasses that are chinch bug resistant. So you know, if you have a really bad chinch bug problem, maybe you need to use an insecticide. But then don't plant the same old grass, try to find the chinch bug resistant grasses use the genetics. And then you'll probably have less chinch bugs in the future. So there's a lot of little tricks like that now that of course that's not marketed out there. And that's not sold easily in the store. But we can help people with those sorts of things.

Linda: So I have to ask, I've not heard of a chinch bug. Could you describe what the damage might be that I could recognize?

David: Ah, yeah, well, the chinch bugs See, the problem with the lawns is they're either green or they're brown, right? So they're a little hard to diagnose sometimes. But the chinch bug is a little sucking insect. It's literally in the bug tribe of insects. And they come along July, August and September. If you have a large population of those build up, they suck the juice out of the grass plant, the foliage of the plant,the crown, the grass turns brown, and it sorts sort of looks like drought damage, it could look like rub damage. It looks like disease damage. But if you're really skilled, and you can see well, you can see these little chinch bugs down there. So they are around in our area we've had I think last year we had quite a few calls and samples of chinch bugs. So there's something people are going to find occasionally. But if your lawn has a lot of weeds in it the other thing is you don't often have things like chinch bugs because there's not a grass enough grass for them to be interested in. So chinch bugs would happen on a little bit better quality lawn.

Tim: See, this is why I don't have a high quality lawn because then I don't have to worry about chinch bugs. I'd love you ask question, Linda, because I've never heard of chinch bugs either. So you've talked a little bit about golf courses a few minutes ago. So golf courses and parks and, you know, big areas and where people are taking care of lawns, I assume that they have kind of totally different issues and that they have to approach, you know, the maintenance differently than I would as a small lawn owner. Is that, is that right? Do they have different issues?

David: Oh, yeah, I think, you know, each of these areas has different pressures, they have different demands. You know, we talk about for a home lawn, what is your level of quality that you want? Are you somebody like Tim or I that just mow and we have weeds and it's green, we think that's fine. But, you know, a golf course has to have some level of quality, it has to be visually attractive. If it's a very high end golf cart course, there's demands from players that want this to look good. So they have to have a lot of visual quality. And they also have a lot of traffic - carts, foot traffic - that so that doesn't help the grass at all. And mowing grass really short, like they do on greens and tees, that doesn't help the grass. So so that's the highest demand highest quality. Then you flip over to like a park and think about you know, a park probably has a pretty limited budget. They probably have a lot of foot traffic, they have a lot of wear on like a picnic grove or a playground. They have mowers, but they probably don't have people there that really are going to be very knowledgeable about turf grass. So, you know, we would like to have dense turf grass in those areas, because it's more attractive, it prevents erosion. On playgrounds, you know, if people fall down, they'd rather fall down on grass than on bare soil. So you know, that's a whole other set of parameters. Each of these has different different needs different levels of what they can do. Sports fields, you know, schools, some schools have a lot of money, they can have a nice sports field, some schools have limited resources. So it's kind of a interesting because people are coming at this from all different areas and levels of the care that they can put into something the amount of money they have to do something.

Linda: With a going concern over issues like pollinator health and climate change, it seems that there's a drumbeat against having loans at all, you seeing more people turned to native naturalized landscapes, like converting grass lawns to meadows to shrink the size of the existing lawn.

David: I think there's a lot of interest in having less turf grass. And you know, I'm supposed to be a turf grass guy. But I'd be the first one to say we have too much lawn. If you drive through parts of suburbia, these big houses with acres of lawn, why do they have all this lawn? I go to parks and see areas that should be taken out of mowing. So I'm a proponent of this kind of whole idea of mowing less, of having more flowering plants for native insects, songbirds, the whole food web, we're very concerned about this. So yeah, there's a tremendous amount of interest. Now, we are at the point where we have to get from the interest level into the implementation level. And I feel like we really need more good examples. We're going to be working on planting patch of meadow at our demonstration garden at the Robert C. Parker School in North Greenbush in New York. And it's it's a lot of work to try to get rid of the existing non native weed population and try to get native plants to grow. That's going to be a challenge. So I think the desire is there, I think we are just starting to learn how to get to where we want to go. So it's an interesting journey. I think we need more demonstration plots. I'm very big on that. So I would like to see, you know, Cooperative Extension, botanical gardens, golf courses, parks, whoever, document how can we do this. And we have to share that with the regular population, because they're still way behind. They don't know this is going on. So yeah, I'm very excited by that subject of alternatives. But books show pictures, but we don't have enough real life examples, I don't think.

Tim: So if I am a landowner, and I want to try this out, like do you have any suggestions for something that's really carefree? I mean, I started trying out wild strawberries as a kind of ground cover that you can walk on. I read about that, or sedges is, you know, are there like what would be an easy thing to try to start with as an alternative with a little patch?

David: Well, I think I think they're all are good alternatives. And I think you have to start small. I think some of the sedges will work. I know I've seen pretty nice sedge plantings at New York Botanical Garden as alternative sort of ground cover. But if you have five acres, you're not going to do five acres right? You're going to do Are start small with maybe an area of buy your house or some corner that you don't want to mow anymore. And, you know, research some of these sedges. I've planted some of them, I think they're really good. We do have a lot of good ground covers, they take a while to get started, they need some nurturing, but once you get them going, they're better. Those are all on the small scale. I like the low mow grasses, some of the fescue grasses. I have a patch planted at my house of Beacon hard fescue. I only mow it twice a year. It's a very dark green carpet, it looks kind of like shag carpet from the 1970s, which I think is really cool. What I want an acre of that, probably not, but I could use a bigger patch of that. I would mow that two or three times a year. And that would be kind of low maintenance.

Linda: And what was it variety again?

David: Oh, the one I have is called Beacon hard fescue. So, so these hard fescues and some of the other fescue grasses have been really the forerunners of the low maintenance lawn movement. They are grasses that will tolerate drought, they can tolerate sort of poor soil conditions, need very little fertilizer, there's very slow growing. So that's why we can mow these just a couple times a season, they're not going to look like the picture on the bag of fertilizer at the store, they're not going to be beautiful short or dark green grasses, they're going to look a little unkempt, they're going to look a little shaggy. But this is different. So that's what we have to get people interested in. And I think that's kind of a cool thing. And I'm really hoping that we're going to see more of those sorts of things.

Tim: So is gras seed grass seed? I mean, if I if I'm looking to plant a new lawn, or looking to kind of seed an area that isn't doing well, how do I even start? Like it seems, there's so many different seats out there, do I go to my local Agway and just ask, like, how do I start with that?

David: Well, of course, it's not easy, right? I always feel like we don't make things easy. Because the more we know that the more details we know, right? I always like to think about the use of the site. Okay, am I going to use this lawn as a place where there's going to be kids running on it and dogs? Then I'm gonna have to get a grass that is more where tolerant or traffic tolerant, something like tall fescue is a good one there. Or is it a grass I'm not going to walk on, then I can grow some of the fine fescues. And then I don't have to mow them so much. Is it going to be grass and shade, then we again we want to use fine fescue, because that is the most shade tolerant grass. Do I want the picture perfect front lawn, high end high quality, then I'm going to maybe think about Blue grasses and rye grasses because those are the ones that are the darkest green. They mow very well. They look very beautiful. So think about your uses, all right. Then think about your site. And again, do I have fairly good soil? Do I have poor soil? All right, do I have a lot of shade, because you're going to choose the grass that fits in there. And then you know we have Kentucky Bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, and then the fine fescue group, those are the four major groups. And each of those has pluses and minuses. And each of those is going to fit in to that sort of matrix of your desire and your site. So I don't know if it's fair to go ask somebody at a hardware store what seeds to plant because, you know, they know 5,000 other things, and they're not going to be really an expert on that. So I would do some reading, I would do some research. And you know, look at Cooperative Extension recommendations, and do a little digging to get sort of this idea of of matching my grass to my site and what I want to plant

Tim: And kind of what are the ABCs of when you're say you're planting a small area? Do I have to put straw down? Do I need to water it every day? What's kind of the general rule of thumb?

David: Well, we have this time period of the year I call it the magical time period to start a new lawn and starting a new lawn would be best done August 15. We used to say August 15 to September 15. I'm willing to push that back a little bit because we have a lot of warm weather in the fall now. So you want to maybe do some soil preparation, maybe do a soil test that would be a good thing, know what your pH is. Start that in July, and then get your soil ready. Buy your seed in a timely fashion and be ready to plant it about I like Labor Day. Okay, I know everybody wants to go to Cape Cod or go on vacation but you got to stay home and work on your lawn. So that magical time really works because, a) we have cooler wetter weather we usually have some rainfall and the weed population weed seeds don't germinate as well that time of the year. If you start a lawn in the spring, you're going to be battling crabgrass and all the other weeds but later, that's a better time period. And then it's kind of a long process, we have a fact sheet that outlines the steps, but you put your grass seed down, you do have to water it, because you're starting seeds just like anything else in horticulture. And you want to keep that seed bed slightly moist for a couple of weeks. The old straw is fine. Don't use hay, because that contains weed seeds. And then you're going to grow it in. I like starter fertilizer, I've done a lot of plots where the starter fertilizer did give it a boost. If I didn't do my soil test, I would use the good old starter fertilizer. And then hopefully you're going to have some decent weather and it's going to regrow in that fall. And then if you got to reseed those patches, I would be thinking I could probably put grass seed on into maybe the beginning of October and have some success.

Tim: So thanks so much, David for joining us. It's really been great. We want to thank you and we also want to thank our listeners until next time

You're listening to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Stay tuned for Trekking the Trails.

Heidi: Welcome back to Trekking the Trails. I'm Heidi Bock, Director of Land Stewardship and Community Partnerships with the Columbia Land Conservancy. And this month we'll be visiting Borden's Pond Conservation Area, a 62- acre property on Route 66, just outside the Village of Chatham. This site has nearly 1.6 miles of forested trails, a small wetland meadow and a seasonal stream board and is home to a variety of wildlife that inhabits the forest and seasonal stream. At the right time of year there are Catskill mountain views from the top of the Tamarack trail. For this track, we'll be walking along the stream side trail, which follows an unnamed stream and takes us through a deciduous forest consisting mostly of oak and maple, and shagbark hickory trees. But we won't be looking at the trees so much is looking down as board ins is an excellent place for spotting spring ephemerals. These are early woodland wildflowers that show up sometimes when there's even still a little snow left on the ground and offer a much needed pop of color after a long winter. Even though they are only around for a short time, they play a critical role in the forest ecosystem. They thrive on the forest floor where there is a lot of moisture from melting snow and decomposing leaf litter. Many insects that are waking up around the same time, use the spring flowers and seeds as an important food source, especially some of our native pollinators and ant species. Many of these flowers have been up since early to mid April, but are still flowering now, especially depending on the weather. If it's cooler, the flowers will hang on longer, but you'll want to get out there soon so you don't miss them. I'll talk about the common species will find it Bordens and we'll link to some identification resources in the show notes.

Heidi: The first one is red trillium. This is a common red flower in moist deciduous forest. It has three petals that poke up above three diamond shaped leaves. It's usually crimson red, but some patches have white or yellow green flowers. The solitary flower has an unpleasant odor that attracts carrion flies that act as pollinators. Next we have the wood anemone, which has small pink or white flowers that are about four inches tall, that poke up above their leaves. They can form patches along woodland borders and their flowers can appear to tremble in the breeze, giving them the nickname wind flowers. Next we have trout lily, which can be found in sizable colonies and is one of the most recognizable species. It's leaves said to look like the markings of a brook trout and often appear about the same time as trout fishing season. They have a noding yellow flower, which doesn't stay around as long as their signature leaves. Next we have Jack in the pulpit, which has three leaflets often found in wetter areas along floodplains or wetlands, and can get up to two feet tall when fully grown. The blossoms appear at the same height as the leaves with a large cylindrical hooded flower that is green with maroon stripes. The flower mimics that of a pitcher plant, but is not carnivorous. And finally, we have wild geranium. This is well known for its large, deeply lobed leaves and showy pink or purple five petaled flowers. They can grow in dense colonies, about 18 to 24 inches tall, and are also known as the spotted cranesbill because of the seed capsule which resembles a crane head and beak.

Heidi: For more than 30 years, the Columbia Land Conservancy has worked to inspire our community to more deeply connect with, respect and protect the natural world. We collaborate with partners and volunteers to improve the health of the land, ensure a thriving farm economy, create environmental education opportunities, and provide access to the outdoors. We also support municipal leaders and conservation minded decision making. To learn more visit or find us on Facebook and Instagram.

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That concludes another episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. We'd like to thank Sandra Linnell and Devin Connolly from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene counties for production support. And a special thank you to our listeners for joining us on this episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. You can find links to any of the topics mentioned in this episode at our website at Comments and suggestions for future topics may be directed to us at or on the CCE Master Gardener Volunteers of Columbia and Greene County's Facebook page. For more information about Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene counties, visit our website at CCE Columbia or visit us in Hudson or in Acra. Cornell Cooperative Extension provides equal programming and employment opportunities.

Last updated May 19, 2022