At the end of winter, homeowners face the daunting but exciting prospect of getting their lawn ready for the warmer months ahead. From cleaning it up to putting down new grass seed, proper spring lawn care encompasses a range of responsibilities – and all of them are important. Remember that cutting corners now could mean that at the peak of summer, you’ll be spending your weekends making up for spring lawn care oversights rather than swimming in the pool. So resist the urge to break out that hammock and relax just yet. You have some work to do.
First and foremost, you’ll need to find out what type of grass you have – is it a cool-season or a warm-season grass? Spring lawn care depends on the type of grass you are growing, so here are some tips to help you figure this out:
Cool-season grasses include fescue, bluegrass, and rye. They have two growth spurts – a moderate one in the spring, and a big one in the fall. They go dormant and can struggle in hot summer months, so the focus of spring care is strengthening the plants for summer.
Warm-season grasses—such as Zoysia, St. Augustine, centipede, and Bermuda—thrive in the heat and go dormant during winter. They begin growing after the last spring frost and really get going by midsummer.
Understanding the type of grass you have and when its peak growing season is will help you address any lawn care tasks at the correct time.
Dethatching & Clean Up
Thatch is essentially dead or dying grass shoots and a little bit (less than 1/2 an inch) of it is actually good for your lawn, but too much thatch can suffocate and therefore prevent germination of new grass seed. It can also promote fungus growth and pest infestation. In other words – yuck.
For warm-season grasses, early spring is the perfect time to rake away this
debris that can encourage pests and disease. An intense removal of thatch can be rough on your lawn, so make sure you do it at the beginning of a growth period so your lawn can recover properly. For heavy thatch removal (more than one-inch thick), consider a power rake. Otherwise, a stiff yard rake should do the trick.
Next on the spring yard clean-up checklist is to rake out fallen leaves and dead foliage (which can smother plants and foster disease), pull up spent annuals and toss it all. Once the threat of frost has passed, you can also remove existing mulch to set the stage for a new layer once spring planting is done. Push heaved plants back into flower beds and borders, tamping them down around the base with your foot, or use a shovel to replant them.
Now is also a good time to spread a pelletized fertilizer tailored to existing plantings on the soil's surface so that spring rains can carry it to the roots. Add a 5-10-10 fertilizer around bulbs as soon as they flower to maximize bloom time and feed next season's growth. Use pins to fasten drip irrigation lines that have come loose and a square-head shovel to give beds a clean edge and keep turf grass from growing into them.
Where tree or shrub branches have been damaged by cold, snow, and wind, prune back to live stems; use a handsaw for any larger than ½ inch in diameter. Shaping hedges with hand pruners, rather than electric shears, prevents a thick outer layer of growth that prohibits sunlight and air from reaching the shrub's center.
Growing That Grass
To grow grass successfully, you need the right soil. Most varieties thrive in conditions that are neither acidic nor alkaline. Methods exist to raise or lower soil pH, but you’ve got to know what you’re dealing with. Purchase a soil test kit for around $10 from your neighborhood garden store to find out what the pH of your soil is.
A healthy lawn needs soil with a balanced pH level, usually between five to seven, depending on the type of grass. If the pH level is too high (alkaline), you can add sulfate with a broadcast spreader. If your pH level is too low (acidic), you can add lime the same way. Be sure to read the directions on additives to make sure you don’t over- or under-treat your lawn. Once adjustments have been made, water the lawn and test the soil pH again in 30 days. Don’t you feel like a lawn scientist now??
Compacted soil keeps your lawn from thriving, so aerating it helps to loosen the soil so the water and nutrients are better absorbed.
There are lots of ways to go about aerating, depending on the size of the job. Snazzy aeration shoes (see above) or manual push aerators are perfect for small lawns, but if your yard is considerably larger, consider renting a gas-powered aeration tool. Late spring is the perfect time to aerate warm-season grasses like Bahia, St. Augustine and Bermuda, so the grass has time to heal from the process.
Weeding & Feeding
“Weed and Feed” is a spring ritual for many lawn enthusiasts but beware of overdoing it. Late spring is the best time to do this - just make sure you actually have a major weed problem before treating your entire lawn. Too many chemicals can stress the plant's roots, putting your lawn at risk during the intense heat of summer. Consider spot-spraying or pulling broadleaf weeds (dandelions) and applying slow-release fertilizer only if needed.
In the spring, gardeners have to choose between weed control and lawn seeding. Pre-emergent herbicides prevent grass seed from sprouting too, so you can’t do both – the herbicide will be active for up to 12 weeks, which means you’ll miss the spring planting season.
If your focus this spring is on filling in bare spots or establishing a new lawn, time your activities according to the type of grass that you have:
Cool-season grasses can be planted as soon as the air temperatures get into the 60s and soil temperatures are in the 50s. Plant as soon as temperatures allow to give the seedlings a chance to get established before hot weather hits. Fall is a better time to plant cool-season grasses, so use spring planting for patching bare spots, and be prepared to keep your lawn well-watered during the summer.
Warm-season grasses can be planted when air temperatures are in the 70s, soil temperatures are in the 60s, and all danger of frost has passed. Late spring is the best time to plant warm-season grasses.
Is your lawn riddled with bare patches due to dog spots, heavy traffic, or neglect? If so, you may need to apply grass seed only to fill in those bare patches. This solution is known as "overseeding lawns." Apply a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer when you overseed and five weeks after the grass germinates, apply a quick-release nitrogen fertilizer.
However, spring isn't the very best time for overseeding lawns. Fall is the preferred time when the new grass won't have to compete with crabgrass, which is killed off by autumn frosts. So postpone overseeding until fall, unless your situation is dire.
The type of grass you have also influences when and how you should fertilize your lawn:
Cool-season grasses: Resist the urge to heavily fertilize your lawn in the spring. Spring feeding encourages rapid tender growth that will struggle to survive the heat of summer, particularly in drought-prone areas. If your lawn is in bad shape, fertilize lightly in spring with a balanced, slow-release fertilizer. Save the heavier feedings for fall, when cool-season grasses are at their peak growing season.
Warm-season grasses: Fertilize in late spring as soon as the lawn “greens up” and begins actively growing. This is usually in April or May, after the last frost.
Most of us know to wait until your lawn is dry before mowing, but did you know that you should mow in a zig-zag pattern? If you always cut your lawn using the same pattern, your grass learns which direction it’s being cut from and begins to lean in the direction you mow. By varying the mowing pattern, you help avoid forming ruts in the lawn. Plus, grass will stand up nice and tall since it will be mowed from all different directions.
Did you just spread grass seed? If so, it’s best to wait for your new grass to get off to a great start before mowing. New grass seedlings can be cut for the first time when they've reached mowing height, which varies by grass type. No matter what type of grass you have, do not cut more than the top ⅓ of the grass blades. A dramatic cutting can shock and stress new grass plants, slowing down the growth of your new lawn.
Here’s how tall your grass should be before you mow for the first time:
When mowing, leave the clippings on the lawn. Grass clippings break down quickly and return beneficial nutrients to the soil – they’re basically an all-natural mulch for your lawn.
Be sure to inspect all your outdoor tools, including the lawn mower. If necessary, take the machine in for service or give it a tune-up yourself by changing the oil, installing new spark plugs and replacing the air filter. Doing this at the start of spring each year will ensure that your mower will start easier, make cleaner cuts, and slice your clippings without bogging down the mower blades. Also, remember to wash your mower after each use, to help prevent any blockages within the mower itself.
There you have it – the basic guide to spring lawn care. Doing these things will ensure your lawn will be looking good throughout the rest of the year…until next spring rolls around again. Then it’s right back at it. So enjoy those spring and summer days spent in your favorite hammock, swimming in your pool or running barefoot in your grass. After all, you’ve earned it.
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