The first hints of spring find the aisles of nurseries and garden stores stacked high with pallets of fertilizer, weed killer and plant food. Winter is exhausting both for people and lawns, but it’s best we don’t let premature enthusiasm spoil our dream of a gorgeous expanse of green grass. The hours spent mowing, trimming and pruning will come soon enough. Preparation comes before action.
We humans can barely wait for the sight of a lush and inviting back yard. While we may be filled with manic energy at the very thought of spring, our long-dormant grass is still stretching and yawning. Which means slow and steady is the best policy.
Avoid the Rush
Early spring is a time for basics; intense yard maintenance on wet soil causes damage and compaction. Clean up stones, sticks, leaves and debris. Pick up roofing shingles that blew off during winter storms. Break out the rake and remove rotting vegetation. Spread grass seed over bare spots. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, go ahead and aerate. Avoid being too vigorous too early, though. New grass is beginning to germinate. Opening up the soil and exposing it to sunlight could retard growth and encourage weeds.
Does Your Soil Pass the Test?
Now is also the time to check you soil’s pH level. For maximum grass growth, your soil needs a neutral pH level of approximately seven (rated on a scale of one to 14). Soil scoring below seven is acidic and might require the application of lime. A score above seven indicates excess alkalinity, which is usually cured by the introduction of sulfur.
Testing is achieved by taking soil core samples from several areas of your lawn. Test kits can be purchased for home use, though most agricultural extension offices provide results for a minimal charge.
Contrary to popular belief, early spring is a terrible time to fertilize your lawn. Fertilizing earlier makes grass grow quickly, but it prevents the establishment of a deep root system (helpful during summer droughts). In most locales you shouldn’t even think about spreading fertilizer until late May.
Controlling Weedy Interlopers
Weeds are the bane of the backyard gardener’s existence. But going on the offensive too soon is counterproductive. The rule of thumb is to lay down a broadleaf herbicide (if needed at all), and only after your lawn has been mowed twice.
The exception to this rule is crabgrass. If you had it last year, you’ll have it this year. Crabgrass re-seeds itself (the nasty gift that keeps on giving). Applying a pre-emergence herbicide before crabgrass shows its snarky face should halt germination. Do this by mid-April for best results.
Don’t Drown It
It’s tempting to water your lawn as soon as possible. Don’t. Unless you live in a desert, spring rains provide ample moisture. Keeping the sprinkler system off until summer allows grass to develop natural heat and drought resistance. In most cases, lawns require only an inch of water every seven to 10 days.
The Kindest Cut
Your lawn wants a trim, not a shave. Mow the grass to a height of 2 inches on the season’s first cut (to eliminate fungus), but after that leave it at 3 inches. Longer grass facilitates the growth of deep roots, and the shade it provides is a natural detriment to weed growth.
While many people bag lawn clippings, seeking to replicate the look of the 18th green at Pebble Beach, it is best to leave clippings on the ground. Grass clippings are food for your lawn, providing about 25 percent of its fertilizer needs.