Whether it brings snow, drought or a downpour, winter will wreak havoc on your lawn, no matter what kind of grass or plants you have.
Yes, a well-maintained yard does fare better against the wrath of winter.
Yet, some amount of damage is to be expected. So, once spring arrives, you will have to get to work as quickly as possible. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you scrimp on spring lawn care, your yard will suffer visibly through the rest of the year.
But, fret not! With a bit of planning and some early preparation, you can limit the amount of back-breaking work needed for spring lawn management. And you will find all the information you need in this Ultimate Spring Lawn Care Guide.
From choosing the right cold season grass varieties to preparing the lawn for the profuse grass growth of spring and from keeping pests and other problems at bay to the proper use of pesticides and fertilizers, this article covers them all and more.
Continue reading if you want your lawn to be the envy of the neighborhood.
A three-step approach is all that’s needed for a gorgeous lawn. You start with the right variety of grass. Then, you create a thriving environment for it with the right spring lawn care. Finally, you defend the grass against weeds, diseases and the other problems that the year brings along
How do you start your spring lawn care?
Clean up should be the first order of the season and you do that with a round of raking. Yes, I heard the collective chime of- “But we did that in fall”. Folks, that was to remove leaves from a season ago.
What about the filth of winter? Even if you rake deeply in fall, a layer of thatch will show up by spring. And, I can’t stress enough on how important it is to remove this layer of dead matter, which can literally choke the young grass.
Anything more than an inch of thatch is excessive and damaging. Also, spring raking helps to remove matted patches caused by snow mold. These sticky patches of clumped blades hinder the growth of new grass shoots.
Once you are past raking, I am sure you will consider the application of an herbicide next. That would be the most logical order to follow. However, you may need to include one more step, depending on the condition of the soil.
What is aeration, and does every lawn need it?
The best-kept secret of lush, green lawns, aeration is a law care step that’s often ignored by many homeowners. Aerating means moving and removing the soil with tools to eliminate compaction. And to answer the question above, yes, all lawns do need aeration.
However, the frequency of aeration will depend on the lawn and soil conditions. The need for aeration arises because, over time, heavy footfall and lawn maintenance initiatives literally push the soil down. The pressure removes the air pockets from the soil and makes the particles stick together, which dry to form hard clumps.
Grassroots cannot penetrate through compacted soil clumps. So, you will often see visible signs of decline in response to soil clumping. Moss is also a dead give way of soil compaction. And, it’s not just poorly maintained lawns that have this problem.
On average, a well-maintained yard will need one round of aeration per year or even every two years. As opposed to this, if your lawn has visible signs of distress, you need to get more aggressive with your aeration with two rounds a year.
Should soil aeration be included in spring lawn care?
Actually, no! The best time to aerate soil is in fall because right after aeration, you would want to fertilize. The thing to understand here is that aeration is primarily done to increase and improve the flow of nutrients and oxygen. So, it makes sense to fertilize immediately afterward.
Spring isn’t the best time for aerating or fertilizing. However, if you are dealing with ugly bald patches and have to reseed, aeration may be the need of the hour. To be sure, use this simple home test to check for compaction.
Push down a large screwdriver into the soil when the surface is dry. If it’s hard to push, you have a compaction problem because well-aerated soil, even when dry, is loose and allows the metal to easily pass through it.
A few things to remember if you need to aerate your lawn in spring!
• If you have a thatch buildup of more than 1.5 inches, aerate first then rake using a thatch rake.
• Core aerators that remove small soil plugs from the ground are best for cold season lawns.
• Mow the lawn low before using the core aerator.
• Make several passes in different directions with the aerator for the best results.
• Always aerate when the temperature is at its mildest.
• Overseed and fertilize after aeration, if required.
• To avoid damaging the irrigation system while aerating, mark the sprinkler heads before you begin.
• Test the moisture level of the soil before aeration. You need moderately moist soil for aeration. Use a trowel to remove some soil. If the soil sticks to the trowel it is too wet for aeration.
• Keep the soil plugs pulled out by the core aerator on the lawn.
• Once the plugs are dry, mow the lawn with a low cutting blade, making two passes in opposite directions.
• Water the lawn after mowing; this speeds up the integration of the dried plugs into the soil below.
Over-seeding the lawn: When should it be done and when is it absolutely required?
Typically, you would over-seed the lawn to increase lushness or to tackle bald spots. To improve the thickness of the turf, over-seeding is best done in the fall. The plunging temperatures stop weeds like crabgrass in their tracks and give the young grass enough time to thrive in a non-competitive environment.
However, if you want to cover bald patches that emerge at the end of winter, you will have no choice but to over-seed in spring. And, don’t be too hard on yourself if your lawn does sport these bare areas because everything from dog spots, heavy traffic, salt damage, excess shade, and soil compaction could be the reason for them.
Having said that, if you are wondering what this over-seeding business is all about, it is simply the application of grass seeds to the soil. Regardless of when you are over-seeding, always aerate and fertilize before to provide the young shoots with all the nutrition they need.
I recommend that you use a good seed mix that is appropriate for your lawn conditions and your region for over-seeding. Also, don’t forget to water the over-seeded patch every day because the seedlings have shallow roots.
Is spring a good time to fertilize the lawn?
I cannot give a simple answer to that question because it depends on the type of lawn you want. If you fertilize in spring, the growth will no doubt be luxuriant and deep green, but you will get it at the cost of root system development.
This means your lawn will be more susceptible to diseases and pests. Plus, when you fertilize the lawn in spring, you inadvertently also supply nutrients to weeds like crabgrass. I am sure you have already reckoned that this means your lawn will need a lot of maintenance.
In contrast, if you fertilize in fall, you will bypass both these issues and will have a comparatively low maintenance yard. That said, when fertilizing cold season yards, nitrogen should be the primary nutrient that you supply because most cold season grasses are gluttons for nitrogen.
What if you absolutely need to fertilize in spring?
I would strongly recommend that you wait till the end of the spring flush when the grass is out of the growth stage to apply fertilizer. This would be somewhere around the end of spring, in May.
Because hot weather is just around the corner, you don’t want to stress the grass too much. So, limit your use of the fertilizer to one-half of fall usage. Ideally, use nitrogen at 0.5- 1 lb/1000 sq. ft. at this time.
Half of this should be in soluble form while the other half should be in the slow-release form. This way you provide some amount of nitrogen for immediate uptake while the time-release fertilizer will continue to supply nutrition for almost 6 weeks after application.
A few things to remember when fertilizing your lawn
• Time-release fertilizers don’t act immediately but offer more sustained results.
• If using fast-release chemical fertilizers, carefully follow the quantity requirements because too much will burn the grass.
• Bone meal, fish meal and blood meal fertilizers are likely to be gobbled up by your pets, and they can be toxic.
• Never mix starter fertilizer with a weed control product because the later will stop the seeds from germinating.
• As far as possible, use organic fertilizers, which are easy on the plants and the environment.
• Don’t go overboard with your fertilizer application. It is best to not fertilize more than twice a year.
• Don’t allow fertilizers to enter the storm drains.
What about the different types of herbicides? When should they be used?
The use of herbicides depends on the type of problem your lawn has and its condition. Typically, herbicides can be classified into two categories:
• Pre-emergent: These kill the weeds before they raise their ugly heads. They work by preventing the germination of the seeds.
• Post-emergent: They burn the weeds even if they are thriving in your spring-summer lawn.
When you read about their mode of action, you are bound to wonder, why not use pre-emergent herbicides the minute spring hits? Well, as it happens, these herbicides are not just hazardous for weeds but also for grass.
This means if you have re-seeded your lawn in spring, you cannot use a pre-emergent herbicide. However, if you’ve over-seeded and fertilized in fall, you have given the seedlings enough time to grow. In this case, you can use a pre-emergent herbicide to control weeds before they turn into an issue.
If the weed problem, particularly with perennial weeds like crabgrass, is an every-year issue, you can combine fertilization with the application of a pre-emergent herbicide. Post-emergent herbicides can be applied once the weeds turn into an eyesore.
A few tips for keeping weeds away from your lawn
• Don’t use core aeration after the application of pre-emergent herbicides, as the coring will break through the anti-germination shield created by the herbicide.
• If you must re-seed in spring, use a pre-emergent herbicide that does not affect grass seeds (Tupersan is one such product).
• Deal with perennial weeds like dandelion and crabgrass in spring. So, you don’t give them the time to grow stronger.
• If using, post-emergent herbicide, use it in fall, particularly if you have a problem with broadleaf weeds like dandelion.
• For weed control without the use of herbicides, keep an eye out for the shoots and pull them out consistently.
• Even if you cannot pull the weeds out by their roots, do snap off the flowering stems to prevent seed propagation.
When should you water your lawn in spring?
Actually, in early spring, you don’t need to water your lawn at all. In fact, if you live in the north, your lawn will not need watering in spring, unless you have re-seeded a patch. If that’s the case, only water the overseeded area and not the rest of the yard.
When it comes to watering the lawn, you need to remember three rules:
• Provide only the required amount of water.
• Only provide water when it is needed.
• It is better to water deeply and less often than to water lightly and frequently.
I recommend that you hold off the watering at the beginning of the season because this will force the grassroots to go deeper in search of moisture. Deeper roots will put your grass in a better position to survive drought conditions.
But, you certainly don’t want the grass to be parched. A tell-tale sign of this is a droopy lawn. If you walk on the grass and the blades do not spring right back up after you lift your foot, it is time to water them
A few tips for watering the lawn
• As long as the weather brings frequent rain showers and cold temperatures, you don’t have to water the lawn.
• Although spring droughts are rare in the northern part of the country, if you have a dry spring this year, do water the yard once a week.
• Cold season grasses will go dormant during extreme drought and will turn yellow but they will regain their verdant look once the rain and cooler temperatures return.
• Early morning is the best time to water the lawn. So, schedule your watering between 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.
• For deep coverage, wet the soil up to 6 to 8 inches. This equates to about 1-2 inches of water per week. You should get this level by keeping the sprinkler on in one position for an hour at the least.
• The first visible sign of dehydration can be seen in the form of wilting or a bluish tinge on the blades.
• To test soil moisture, try to make a ball with the soil extracted from the first six inches of the ground. If you get a moist, but not drippy, soil ball, the moisture level is just right.
When should you start mowing the lawn, and how often should it be done?
The most common cold season grass varieties like Kentucky Bluegrass and Tall Fescue both need mowing one to two times every week. I would ask you to hold off the mowing till you have given the grass enough time to grow to a height to 4 to 5 inches.
Generally, you should keep the grass at a height of 2.5 to 3.5 inches. This gives it significant drought and heat resistance. Also, this height leads to deeper rooting, which will help you to save water and fertilizer.
A few more tips to remember when mowing cool-season grasses are:
• Mulch the grass clippings for natural and organic lawn fertilization.
• Sharpen mower blades regularly to prevent stressing the plants.
• Sharp blades also help against fungal growth.
• Don’t remove more than 1/3rd of the total blade length at one time.
• For longer blades, mow once on high setting and a second time a few days later at a low setting to prevent going over the 1/3rd limit.
• Scalped or short trimmed grass has a smaller root system and is more susceptible to heat and drought damage. So, don’t go overboard with your mowing.
How do you counter springtime lawn diseases?
Lawn diseases don’t just emerge overnight, although it may seem so. Actually, three conditions have to be met for the disease-causing pathogens to create trouble:
1. The critters have to exist in and around the soil and the environment.
2. The grass type should be susceptible to the type/types of critters that live in the soil.
3. The environmental conditions should be right for these critters to multiply.
Now, you don’t have control over the first condition. I mean it’s called dirt for a reason! Soil almost always has an abundance of these pathogens. So, you have little control over this condition and only marginal control over the second.
You could choose a type of grass that can withstand the attack from a particular type of pathogen. But this would involve getting to know those critters well and that is hard to do. However, you have almost complete control over the third factor.
So, that is how you can stop those pathogens from hurting your lawn. However, instead of giving you generic solutions, I am going to discuss the three most common lawn pathogen-linked diseases that afflict cold season grasses.
What is the best way to deal with leaf spots?
Helminthosporium or the leaf spot disease actually starts in winter but lays low till the right conditions appear in the cool and moisture-rich environment of spring.
• The symptoms: Starts as purple spots of about 1/4th inch. Eventually, the spots grow and the center turns tan. If conditions are conducive, the spots grow larger and towards the crown of the blades. Eventually, the grass turns yellow from the tip down and dies.
• The patients: Ryegrass, Tall Fescue, Kentucky Bluegrass
• The treatment: Don’t over-fertilize the lawn and keep an eye out for the appearance of the spots in early spring. Only use slow-release nitrogen fertilizer (0.5 lbs or less/1000 sq.ft.) in spring.
Do not irrigate unless required and don’t water in the evening or at night. You want to keep water retention to the bare minimum. This is best accomplished by watering the yard in the morning before the dew has dried.
If your lawn has suffered from this disease before, starting in early spring, begin washing the heavy dew from the blades every day. Dewdrops contain natural sugars that are food for disease-causing critters.
Avoid the use of herbicides (except for spot spraying) when the disease is active. Use fungicides only if the disease progresses past the stage of purple spots.
How do you tackle red thread and pink patch diseases?
These occur together and as you may have guessed, they involve the growth of pink fungal filaments on the grass surface. Mild winters cause an uptick in the appearance of these diseases.
• The symptoms: Pink patches appear after the winter snow begins to melt. If you examine closely, you can see the thread-like, gelatinous fungus covering the grass blades.
• The patients: Kentucky bluegrass, ryegrass, fine fescue, and bentgrass.
• The treatment: The disease affects nitrogen-starved grass, so implement a disciplined fertility regimen. But, don’t over-fertilize. Moisture is crucial for the growth of the fungus, so don’t overwater the lawn. In fact, avoid irrigation in the evening to lower exposure to water.
How do you handle the notorious powdery mildew?
The disease thrives in cool and humid weather. So, your yard may suffer from it in spring as well as in fall. Although it does not progress as aggressively as some of the other fungal infections and it never gets to the roots, it will eventually kill the grass by blocking sunlight and starving it of nutrients.
• The symptoms: A dusting of white powder on the grass blades.
• The patients: Kentucky bluegrass is most susceptible followed by fescue.
• The treatment: The disease tends to take root in shaded areas. So, prune low hanging branches if possible. Avoid excessive watering and fertilization. You may have to use fungicides to control this fungus, but these can be expensive. An alternative is to remove the infected grass.
How do you tackle grubs?
There are two problems with these worm-like creatures, apart from their yucky looks. First, they feed on the roots of the grass and starve the plants. Second, they are an open invitation to other pests like moles and raccoons.
Treatment is both number and species-specific when it comes to grubs. So, if you have ten or more larvae per square foot, it is time to kill those suckers. Preventative herbicides against these critters work best in spring while curative measures yield best results if incorporated in fall lawn care.
What are the best cold-season grasses for your lawn?
The name must have given you a gist that these grasses grow sensationally even in the chilly weather. In fact not only do they thrive in the mild conditions of fall and spring but also perform exceptionally well in frigid winters and moderate summers.
A temperature range of 65 to 85 degrees F works best for them. Cold season grasses are particularly well suited for the top half of the United States (Cold season Zone). They are also frequently used in the transition zone that stretches across the middle of the country.
Some of the most popular varieties of cold season grasses are:
1. Kentucky Bluegrass (KBG): It has a medium-fine texture and striking deep, dark green blades. Although it cannot stand shade, KBG displays significant heat, drought, cold and foot traffic resistance. With all that, it’s no wonder that it has earned the moniker, “The king of Lawn Grasses”. KBG is an aggressively spreading grass that is used in lawns all across the north.
2. Perennial Ryegrass (PR): Because it establishes itself very quickly, PR is almost always made a part of seed mixes. A bunch-type, non-spreading variety, this grass has a medium-fine texture and bright green color with impressive mowing characteristics. Although it is averse to drought conditions, PR has a very high tolerance for foot traffic and medium cold tolerance.
3. Annual Ryegrass: This is a shallow root system, fast-growing grass with medium green blades. You won’t normally find it in seed mixes because it grows aggressively, killing the perennials in the process, only to die by winter. Although this grass can take moderate foot traffic, it is not very tolerant of heat, drought, shade or cold. I like to call this one the fussy grass.
4. Tall Fescue: Thanks to its deep root system, this almost fine-textured, dark green grass can easily thrive in moderate drought and heat conditions. In fact, it is one of the most popular cold season grasses for the Transition Zone. Although Tall Fescue does not take well to close mowing, it requires less fertilizer and water. So, it’s a common sight in low maintenance yards that get a significant amount of foot traffic.
5. Fine Fescue: This grass is frequently used in seed mixes owing to its rapid growth and exceptional shade tolerance. As the name suggests, the blades boast of fine texture and light to gray-green color. Fine fescues are available in 3 varieties.
6. Creeping red fescue: The most common of the three varieties, this is a deep-rooted and deep green grass. It has high drought and heat resistance and is more tolerant of cold and shade than other fescue varieties. However, it cannot withstand traffic too well and recovers very slowly once damaged.
7. Chewing fescue: A medium to light green, fine-textured grass, the chewing fescue displays remarkable resistance to shade, drought and cold. It also has moderate wearability, which means it can withstand foot traffic quite well. However, it is vulnerable to several fungal diseases.
8. Hard fescue: This is a slow-growing, fine-bladed grass that has moderate tolerance for foot traffic. However, it is impressively resistant to drought and shade. In fact, despite its shallow rooting, it takes exceptionally well even to infertile soil and is one of the only fescues that stays green even through summer.
How do you mix these cold season grasses?
Think of grass mixing as combining the best of all varieties in a way that the strong points of each species make up for the weak points of the others.
For example, a fescue lawn could use the speedy growth of about 15% Kentucky Bluegrass. The latter brings along shade tolerance and rapid growth behavior. The fescue, on its part, offers water and nutrients through its deep rooting system to the blue-green and enhances its ability to withstand drought conditions.
If this is too much botany for you, the easy way would be to simply buy a seed mix suitable for your region. But, if you want to try your hand at mixing the seeds, this is what the proportions should be like:
• For significant foot traffic lawns: 80% Kentucky bluegrass and 20% perennial ryegrass (a blend of 2-3 cultivars of both).
• Medium to high maintenance lawns: 20% perennial ryegrass and 80% fine fescue (a blend of 2-3 cultivars of both and at least one improved cultivar of fine fescue)
• Low maintenance lawns: 80% Kentucky bluegrass and 20% perennial ryegrass (a blend of 2-3 cultivars of ryegrass)
• Shaded lawns (well-drained): 20% perennial ryegrass and 80% shade-tolerant Kentucky bluegrass.
• Shaded lawns (wet): 20% perennial ryegrass/shade-tolerant Kentucky bluegrass and 70% rough bluegrass (Sabre).
And there you have it folks, all the information you need to maintain that emerald green swathe of grass. The most important thing to remember when it comes to spring lawn maintenance is to go easy on both water and fertilizer while judiciously watching out for trouble.
You don’t need to toil for several hours to take care of your lawn in spring. However, you do need to be consistent in your efforts. Diligent sprint lawn care will help you to keep your yard covered in lush greenery all through the year.