Let’s face it, your lawn has seen better days…
There are bare spots everywhere and the greenish color you see appears to be coming from all the weeds popping up rather than your grass. While you thought the high-priced lawn service you hired last year would fix the problem, it just wasn’t the case. So there’s only one thing left to do – take matters back into your own hands.
Before you get started restoring your lawn this spring, take some time to develop a plan of attack. With the proper knowledge, a little patience and a trip to your local Ace Hardware for needed supplies, in no time your lawn will be well on its way to recovery.
The good news is that your lawn can probably be restored without starting from scratch. While there are steps you can take to correct your lawn’s problems, chances are it won’t be a quick fix. It took some time for your lawn to get to the state it’s in, and it will more than likely take an entire season to bring it back to health.
Your work begins with a thorough cleanup of your lawn (raking and removing sticks) and a good thatching so fertilizer and new grass seed can penetrate the soil. Thatch is a fine layer of tightly woven, decomposed grass, and it will have to be removed before applying fertilizer or planting grass seed.
The easiest way to remove thatch is by renting a thatching machine from your local Ace Hardware or garden rental center. Ongoing aeration of your lawn using a core aeration machine (also available for rent) can help prevent thatch from taking hold in the first place. There is really no easy way to remove thatch by hand except raking it out with a thatching or garden rake. However, this process is very labor-intensive and is not recommended for large yards.
Once the cleanup is finished, it’s time for some information gathering. Before applying that first application of fertilizer or spreading new grass seed this spring, you need to know the characteristics of your particular lawn, including the type of grass that you have, your soil’s pH level and if your soil has a high clay content and is too compacted or if it has more of a silt or sandy consistency. The best way to determine this is to have your soil tested by a professional testing service or take a sample of your soil and grass to your local county extension agent for evaluation. They will be able to tell what type of grass you have, if your soil is too acidic and needs attention and even the types of pests that might be invading your lawn.
If your soil’s pH needs adjusting, this will be the next step after removing thatch. To adjust pH levels in soil, you will need to add lime or sulfur to correct the problem. How much you need to add of one or the other depends on the actual pH level and whether your soil has more of a clay or sandy consistency. Be sure to follow the recommendations that come with your soil test.
Another beneficial step, especially when planting new grass seed, is to build up organic matter in your soil by spreading a mixture of compost and topsoil (a 40/60 mixture respectively) as a top dressing, followed by a thorough core aeration of your lawn. This will build up the number of microbes, which are beneficial in digesting dead grass clippings and providing nutrients to the soil. For more information on overseeding your lawn or seeding bare spots, see the sidebar on page 9.
After this preliminary work has been done, consult your Ace retailer on starting a fertilizer application process to help keep your lawn green and healthy for the entire growing season. If you have neglected to use a multi-step fertilizer application process for the past few years, your lawn is probably starving itself for the proper nutrients.
The main ingredient in fertilizer is nitrogen, and any lawn requires a lot of it – about 1 pound per square foot every two months. The other main ingredients are phosphorus, which stimulates root and seed development, and potassium, which helps prevent disease and makes your lawn more drought resistant. The ratio of these ingredients varies for different types of fertilizers, so consult with your local Ace expert on what ratio is right for your soil’s characteristics.
Today’s turfgrass hybrids require regular fertilizing to do what they were designed to do. The good news for time-pressed homeowners is that most multi-step fertilizer programs are created to control weeds and prevent bugs throughout the season.
But remember, all grass types are unique and need different types and amounts of fertilizer at different times.
Step by Step
The first application in most multi-step fertilizer programs includes a pre-emergent herbicide that is applied in late winter or early spring. This step prevents the seeds of annual weeds, such as crabgrass, from ever germinating. For most areas of the country, a pre-emergent application should be applied between late February and early April, before perennials begin to bloom.
The only exception in starting the process with a pre-emergent herbicide is when you are planting new grass seed in the spring because the herbicide will actually prevent the seed from germinating. Most fertilizer manufacturers have an alternative first-step application when seeding. If you have already applied a pre-emergent herbicide and are thinking about reseeding, you should wait at least three months, which is how long most pre-emergent chemicals remain active in the soil.
The second-step application generally includes a post-emergent herbicide designed to control perennial broadleaf weeds, such as dandelions, clover and ground ivy. In a multi-step fertilization process, the herbicide is in granular form. When applied to the leaves of weeds, it kills them in several days.
The best time to apply fertilizer with granular herbicide is when the grass is wet, such as after a rain or in the morning when there is plenty of dew on the grass. If the grass isn’t wet enough, the herbicide grains won’t stick to the leaves of the weed, which is key to its effectiveness. Don’t apply contact herbicides if there is rain in the forecast for the next 24 hours. Likewise, avoid lawn traffic for 24 hours after application to avoid knocking the granules off the weeds.
More serious weed problems will require follow-up applications with liquid herbicide and even manually pulling or digging weeds and their roots out of the ground.
So when is the proper time of year to apply herbicides? For most of the country, the best time is in late April through early June in conjunction with a fertilizer application. Weeds can also reappear in the fall, at which time spot treating with herbicides can be helpful. Again, check with your local Ace retailer for the proper times to apply herbicides in your area.
Other steps in a multi-application fertilizer program will help kill insects that can do more damage to your lawn than you can possibly imagine, including insects that do their damage above the surface and others that work below ground.
The best way to tell if insects are becoming a problem is if you can see an infestation of flying bugs when walking across the lawn. Controlling these pests can be as easy as applying the proper fertilizer with insect control application at the proper time, which is generally from early June through August in most parts of the country. In addition to a fertilizer application with insect control, your Ace retailer will have a variety of other products to help combat problem lawn insects.
More Common Problems
Other than controlling weeds and insects, your lawn might be suffering from an abundance of lawn moss or diseases such as snow mold, brown patch, leafspot and dollar spot – funguses that weaken your lawn and result in thinning turfgrass.
Most fertilizer manufacturers have products specifically designed to attack and kill common fungus problems, either by spraying a fungicide directly on the leaves of the grass plants or by systemically “medicating” the lawn to battle the disease and prevent future outbreaks.
If your lawn contains moss, especially in early spring, you might consider starting with a fertilizer that contains moss control or applying lime to your lawn to decrease soil acidity. If moss is left unchecked, it can eventually take over a lawn, killing healthy grass in the process.
If you notice the presence of moss or fungus, the underlying problem could be improper drainage or too much shade, conditions in which moss and fungus thrive. Aeration is perhaps the best way to avoid moss and fungus in the first place since it breaks up compacted soil and improves drainage.
Overgrown trees may cause too much shade for the variety of grass that was originally planted. In this case, pruning to let in more light or overseeding with a more shade-tolerant species of grass can help. Remember, even the most shade-tolerant turfgrass species need some light to remain healthy.
Like all living things, water is a key ingredient to maintaining a healthy lawn. On average, a lawn needs 1 inch of water each week, whether it comes from rain or by manually watering the lawn. A simple rain gauge is the best way of keeping track of the amount of water your lawn is receiving weekly.
However, before aggressively watering your lawn, keep in mind that some watering methods are more effective and conservation-friendly than others. For example, if soil is compacted, water is more likely to run off before being absorbed into your lawn’s root system, where it is most beneficial.
To help conserve water and eliminate wasted run-off, soaker hoses or low-flow sprinklers are good options. These devices release water more slowly than traditional sprinklers, helping to control the amount of water being applied. This promotes a slower, deeper soaking, which is more effective than more frequent surface watering. Since most weeds grow only in the first 2 to 3 inches of soil, the deeper the water penetrates, the more water will actually sink to the grass roots.
A good watering tip is to determine how long it takes your sprinkler system to distribute an inch of water to your lawn, and then to water for that amount of time with each watering.
Watering during the early morning hours is more beneficial to your lawn than during the evening hours. This helps avoid fungus problems that can occur when water remains on the grass leaves for an extended period of time. Also avoid watering on windy days to avoid water droplets being blown away before reaching your lawn. When too much water is the problem, breaking up compacted soil by aerating is usually a good fix to promote better drainage and deeper absorption.
Believe it or not, mowing can make or break a lawn, even if you do everything else right. Most lawns should remain at a height of at least 2 inches. Anything below this is considered “scalping” and can severely hurt a lawn. However, each grass type has different ideal heights. For example, tall fescue, a cool-season grass, needs to be cut no shorter than 3 inches. Bermudagrass, on the other hand, is a warm-season grass that can be cut much lower (between 1 and 2 inches is ideal).
A good rule of thumb is to mow more frequently to avoid removing more than one-third of the total grass blade height at one time, no matter what type of grass you have. This means if you let your lawn grow too high at one point during the season, you shouldn’t cut it back to your regular mower setting. This would remove more than a third of the grass blade, which can shock the grass.
Another benefit of frequent mowing is that the grass clippings will not need to be removed from the lawn. This will actually help add nitrogen between fertilizer applications since grass is mostly water and returns approximately 20 percent of its nitrogen to the soil.
Beyond making sure your mowing equipment is in good condition and following proper operation techniques, mow in different directions each time to avoid compacting the soil in the wheel ruts and to prevent the grass growing in the same direction of the cut.