You know spring has sprung when your lawn wakes up from hibernation and ditches its ugly brown sweater for the pretty green one.
So what comes next?
The hardware store sells a million different products that promise to make your lawn look like a golf course, but knowing which products to use, or if you actually need to use them, isn’t always clear cut.
We asked Freddy Zahn, owner of Lawn Thumbs in Provo, Utah; Jenn Stumer, owner of Appalachian Creations in Northampton, Pennsylvania; and Kellie Houghtaling, PR coordinator at Swingle Lawn Tree and Landscape Care in Denver to mow through the weeds of spring lawn care.
Zahn: Early March and April, I always recommend core lawn aeration while the ground is still moist from the snow. When the plugs get removed from the lawn it allows air to enter the soil, therefore allowing air to reach the roots of the grass. When the core plugs break down and dissolve back into the soil, they infuse the soil with rich nutrients that your grass roots enjoy.
Stumer: The first thing to do is evaluate the lawn for winter damage, bare spots and wash-outs. One of the recommendations for spring lawns might be to dethatch the existing turf if necessary, making sure to clean up and remove the thatch debris. Leaving the thatch debris defeats the purpose of dethatching. It will lay in clumps and as it decomposes, it will kill any turf beneath it.
Any lawn treatments (crabgrass pre-emergent, fertilizers) should be applied after dethatching, as the products will gain access to the root system easier without the thatch obstruction. Typically, pre-emergents are granular and last about 3 to 4 months. Keep in mind that the crabgrass pre-emergent will not allow any new seeds to germinate, including grass seed, which causes a catch-22 situation if your lawn requires repair and reseeding. If you apply a pre-emergent, planting grass seed is just throwing money away.
Houghtaling: Aeration: This is a must with any lawn care regimen. It’s important in helping to maintain a healthy, beautiful, green lawn. Aeration supports weed control, improves soil structure, creates growth pockets for new roots and helps to maximize water and fertilizer absorption to your lawn’s roots.
Zahn: If you want to get a head start on managing the weeds, then I recommend applying a pre-emergent herbicide. Pre-emergents work best when you are ready to start watering your lawn, so your sprinkler system should be turned on and ready to go for the season.
Pre-emergents can come in liquid or granular form. After your lawn has been treated with a pre- emergent, it should be watered heavily within 24 hours. The way pre-emergents work is they seep into the soil and cover the weed seeds, ultimately killing them. This is why it is important to water heavy, so the herbicide can cover as many weed seeds as possible and as deep as possible.
Stumer: In my opinion, a slow-release granular fertilizer is the best choice for spring. The best time to apply it is when soil temperatures have reached the optimum temperature of 50 degrees or above consistently (for more than a week).
Keep in mind this is soil temperature, not air temperature. Soil temperatures tend to lag behind air temperatures in rising during the spring. The air temperature could be 70 degrees but the soil temperature might be 40 degrees. You can check with your local farm bureau or cooperative to find out when soil temperatures have reached optimum levels for fertilizing and reseeding.
Houghtaling: A pre-emergent fertilizer is recommended in the spring - from March to mid-April. It’s best to work with a professional to have a split application applied to your lawn. A split application will help to suppress crab grass and some weeds. Professionals are able to use commercial grade lawn care products that will provide better results for your lawn.
Zahn: Spring is a good time to turn on your sprinkler system and check one station at a time to make sure your lawn is getting good coverage, so that your grass grows evenly from the start of the season. Once you do that it would be good to reseed or start working on dead spots. This insures the newly planted seeds are getting watered.
Stumer: Evaluate the lawn for possible repair spots in early spring. Then, monitor the areas as the soil temperatures rise and climate conditions improve. Grass needs three main conditions in order to germinate or repair: warm sunny days, cool nights and regular watering. My recommendation is to be patient, wait for optimum soil temperatures and then still give the lawn a few weeks to repair itself. You might see the lawn repairing itself as these three conditions continue throughout the spring weeks.
The window for planting grass seed in Northeast Pennsylvania is typically mid-April to mid-June. Grass seed also needs 50 degree [temperatures] plus consistent soil temperatures in order to germinate. Spreading grass seed before this window could result in the seed being blown or washed away or eaten by birds before soil temperatures are optimum. Also try not to plant grass seed later than June in this region. Typical germination for a grass seed mix is 7 to 10 days. If you plant too close to the hotter summer months, the seedlings won’t have enough time to strengthen, grow or flourish.
Houghtaling: Every lawn has different needs coming into spring. It is best to start caring for your lawn after the last freeze has occurred. Identify what issues your lawn may have in order to determine what repairs your lawn may need. If you are planning on seeding, it is best to use a starter-fertilizer. Working with a professional will help to decipher specific lawn issues such as dog spots vs. lawn insect damage or fungal diseases.
Zahn: I see homeowners applying "green up" type fertilizers to wake their grass up while their lawns are still dormant. The way I try to explain it to homeowners is like this: How would you feel if after a really nice long sleep someone poured a bucket of cold water on your face to wake you up to get ready for the day? This is a mistake, your grass will be in panic mode and use up all of its energy that it has and pull as much nutrients as it can find just to wake up. This will set your lawn up for failure, because your lawn will now need to consume that much energy and nutrients on a regular basis in order to maintain it. Let it wake up on its own, then give it breakfast by watering first, and then after about 2 weeks, apply fertilizers.
Stumer: Planting grass seed too soon or too late in the season. If grass seed is planted too late, the grass seedlings don’t have a chance to strengthen enough before the really hot summer months show up. Along with higher temperatures during the summer months in Northeast Pennsylvania typically comes higher humidity. Grass seedlings will continue to require light watering on and off for a few weeks, which means the soil will remain moist. This isn’t a bad thing until you factor in the fact that grass seedlings are more susceptible to lawn fungus and diseases than established healthy lawns will be. Wet soil, high heat and humidity are good breeding grounds for lawn fungi. You could carefully loosen soil in bare spots and plant grass seed only to have a lawn fungus show up and totally annihilate the grass seedlings in less than a week.
Houghtaling: There are many mistakes that homeowners can make. First and foremost, homeowners’ lawns can be set up for failure by not knowing what their lawn truly needs. Lawn care is not a one-stop-shop with using a single bag of product that can take care of all lawn issues. If homeowners opt to use products from a lawn and garden center, it’s important to read the instructions on the product and understand what is on the label. Another issue homeowners may face is using the wrong equipment to fertilizer or aerate the lawn. If a homeowner is uncertain about the care their lawn needs, it is best to seek a licensed professional to get a turf expert’s opinion.
Zahn: Power-raking or dethatching too early or while the lawn is wet is a mistake. The way the power rakers or dethatching rakes work is the blades penetrate into the grass crown layers just above the soil, so when the blades lift up they grab onto the dead crowns and essentially bounce off the soil surface. If the lawn is wet, then the crowns get compacted onto the soil, which makes it very difficult for the blades to catch anything, and while the soil is wet the blades no longer “bounce” off the soil and instead rips into the soil cutting grass roots, which is very harmful to the overall health of your lawn.
Stumer: The worst thing that can be done to a lawn during the spring season would be to over-fertilize. I always recommend a soil test be taken to determine just what the soil needs are to support the healthy growth of grass. Soil tests can be procured at your local farm bureau or cooperative for a nominal fee. Or, contact a lawn maintenance professional to perform the test for you. Results typically take 10 days and you will be supplied with a printout of the nutrient and pH levels in your soil along with any recommended remedies necessary to bring those levels up or down to optimum.
Houghtaling: Springtime is the best time of year to get your lawn up and running. Not watering the lawn is one of the worst things a homeowner can do. Power raking in the spring will also hurt the lawn. There is a common misconception that if a homeowner puts down a lot of fertilizer in the spring it will make their lawn more green and healthy.
More fertilizer does not mean a better lawn. Over-fertilizing will hurt the lawn. It’s also recommended not to push your lawn too hard in the spring, as doing so can cause issues down the road. For example, if it has been a wet year with higher temperatures and too much fertilizer is applied, it can cause funguses to flare up. Proper lawn care depends on the correct balance of watering, fertilizing, and controlling soil temperatures.
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This article was written by Mike LaFollette, Angie’s List.
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