It took a beating last summer, but don’t despair. There are steps you can take to return your turfgrass to its former glory.
Your spring lawn will likely be an enchantress, ready to comfort you in green balm and lull you into forgetting the unattractive persona she wore last August. If you can think back and recall the brown patches, crabgrass, broadleaf weeds and general heartbreak of last summer’s lawn, don’t be fooled into thinking that all of your problems have gone away.
Why Your Lawn Looks Good Right Now
• The main reason your lawn looks good in spring is that lawn grasses are cool-season plants that green up and grow best in cool weather. They are naturally greenest in spring and fall.
• Another reason is that your broadleaf weeds may not have come up yet. Yes, dandelions will pop up early, as will winter annuals such as purple henbit and common chickweed, but many broadleaves will not show up until the ground gets much warmer.
• And remember that the crabgrass will appear in June or July, fungal infections will no doubt crop up, and you will soon be back to square one.
Soil Comes First
So, what can you do to prepare for the inevitable? Lots, actually. Rebuilding the health of the soil and tuning up your cultural practices come first. The first thing you can do is spread an application of organic fertilizer, such as Milorganite, before Easter. Why organic? Because we are trying to build the soil, and organics do not kill biological activity (soil microbes, earthworms, etc.) the way chemical applications of nitrogen will. Be sure to give the lawn a vigorous raking first to remove old, dead material and allow the fertilizer to make soil contact.
The next thing to be addressed is the application of crabgrass preventer — if you had a crabgrass infestation last year. Putting down crabgrass preventer when you have not had a crabgrass problem is like applying a Band-Aid where you might get a cut. But if you had a lot of crabgrass in 2012, there will be a gazillion seeds waiting to pop up when the soil temperature hits 65 F. Crabgrass preventer should be put down in April, when the forsythia blooms.
Photo: Stacey Mollus
Dandelions and winter annuals will present themselves early as well. When possible, I find it best to hand dig dandelions. Although spot spraying will weaken them, it rarely kills them down to the roots, so I prefer to skip the chemicals and weaken them by keeping them pulled or dug until the root dies. Winter annuals are annuals that drop seed in the summer. That seed then germinates in the fall and winter, producing robust plants when the snow recedes. Purple henbit and common chickweed are the most commonly known of these. These are easily pulled, which will prevent them from seeding again.
When To Seed
It is not surprising that most of the grass seed sold in this country is sold in the spring. That’s when most stores stock up on seed and most folks are ready to tackle the lawn. The problem is that in our region, we go from winter to summer, barely stopping at spring.
The seed will germinate and come up nicely when sown properly in April or early May, but the young plants will not have enough time to put out deep, strong roots before the weather turns hot and these cool-season grasses shut down photosynthesis. They may then easily weaken and die during heat and drought.
But when grass seed is planted in the fall, it has a couple of months to make roots, go dormant over the winter and come back ready to produce food March through May. That leaves the newer grass in a much better position to survive summer.
The other reality that complicates spring seeding is the use of pre-emergent herbicides to control summer crabgrass and other summer annuals. If we put down crabgrass control in April, it will not permit grass to germinate either. The herbicide can’t distinguish between bad grass seed and good grass seed.
If you must patch bare spots, go ahead with the knowledge that you will need to forego pre-emergent herbicides and baby the grass all season, watering, removing weeds and feeding lightly with an organic fertilizer when you plant and again in the early fall.
Cultivate Good Habits
You can do a lot to keep your lawn in good shape throughout the high summer season by using good cultural practices. Watering deeply and infrequently is paramount. When the spring rains wane and the heat starts to make the grass go dormant, water only every two weeks or so, but water deeply and slowly, letting the water penetrate the soil.
Set your mower at 2½ to 3 inches. Mowing high keeps the grass thick and tall. This will shade out a lot of weed seeds and keep them from sprouting, but it will also promote tall green blades for maximum photosynthesis. This is what feeds the roots.
As summer progresses, you may notice late perennials, such as plantain and hot-weather weeds such as knotweed or purslane, joining the party. Avoid the temptation to treat the entire lawn with chemicals and just spot treat or hand dig these weeds. I like to scoot along on my behind after a rain has softened the ground and pop out weeds with a forked weeding tool. It is effective, immediate and cheap; as well as being good exercise.
I have also used spot control, hitting some stubborn patches of weeds with a broadleaf weed control that has a foam marker so that I can see where I have already sprayed. Weeds should be treated on a warm, dry day when there is no wind to cause drift, and in the morning so the herbicide dries easily on the foliage.
Above all, remember that the lawn is a carpet of living plants that needs good, nutrient-rich soil to do well. Take any opportunity to add organic matter to the soil and avoid chemicals that will kill soil microbes.
Choosing Grass Seed
When you buy grass seed, don’t go cheap. Check the seed analysis on the label to look for the following. You want a blend of perennial seeds, such as creeping or red fescue, perennial rye and bluegrass. The fescues will creep, weaving the lawn together; the more clump-forming rye is strong, hardy and disease-resistant while the bluegrass gives a fine appearance. Named varieties of these seeds (e.g., PennGreen Rye) indicate that the seeds were developed by a university and chosen for particular characteristics such as drought or disease resistance.
One reason some lawns die out completely during a hard summer could be the owner’s use of a single variety of seed. An all-bluegrass lawn, for example, can be very vulnerable, whereas a mixed culture of grasses will generally guarantee that at least one type survives.
The mixture should contain less than 10 percent annual rye, if any. The only reason annual rye is used is that it germinates quickly, offering protection for the slower seeds.
No noxious weed seeds or gratuitous fillers should be in the mix. You need to choose carefully these days because so many companies are offering jazzed-up seed that is heavy on coatings, fillers, annual rye (beware the words “quick start”) and fun-looking purple lint. I saw one bag that actually contained less than a half-pound of seed in a 2-cubic-foot bag. This may be okay for patching, but stick to plain, high quality seed for re-seeding a lawn. I like to spread grass seed with a hand-held whirly bird-type spreader for best control. You just walk along and turn the handle. Then set up some sprinklers and prepare to keep the surface damp until the grass is up — well into fall. If you’re seeding in fall, don’t do this too early. The ideal time is early October, but you can usually get away with seeding here as early as September 15 and as late as November 1.
From Chicagoland Gardening Volume XIX Issue I.