Making Spring lawns look great without too much attention and expense

Charlie Metz
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

April showers bring May flowers; and weeds, and ticks, and crabgrass, and grubs and lawnmowers and even cicadas.

After enjoying 6 months without having to pay attention to the lawn, here comes spring with its rapid growth of grass. Another 6 months of having to work on the lawn. I am always amazed at the amount of trouble and expense many people go through to acquire and maintain a so-called perfect lawn.

I am one of those people who believe that a lawn should be green (crabgrass is green) and should be mown regularly. I also believe that watering a lawn is a waste of a precious resource. The drought two years ago made my lawn turn brown just like everyone else's. Once the rains returned, the lawn looked just as good as my neighbors who put a lot into their lawn. There is justice.

But since it is my job to give advice about how to take care of a lawn, I will discuss several ways to make your lawn look great without too much attention and expense.

If you really want to know exactly what to put down on your lawn you must first get a soil test. A soil test will tell you where you have deficiencies and excesses. You need to know how acidic your soil is by knowing the pH. Many people add lime every year without knowing why. A soil test may confirm that lime is not necessary, but it is important to know the pH.

An example of a common nutrient excess is phosphorus. Because phosphorus breaks down slowly, soil tests are commonly returned showing phosphorus content 3 times the concentration necessary for a healthy lawn. It doesn't make sense to put down a fertilizer with phosphorus in it if you already have too much in your soil. Excess phosphorus eventually finds its way into the ground water and the Chesapeake Bay.

Nitrogen fertilizer will make your lawn greener. It will also make it grow faster. Spring is the second best time of the year to fertilize. If you fertilized last fall you probably don't need to fertilize this spring. Your lawn got a head start and probably looks great now. But if you must fertilize this spring, make sure you follow the instructions on the bag. Too much nitrogen on your lawn in the spring can mean disaster this summer. Your lawn will be susceptible to several lawn diseases if you have too much nitrogen in the soil.

Crabgrass is easiest to control in the spring before the seeds sprout. Soil temperatures of 54 degrees will begin the sprouting of crabgrass seeds found in your lawn. Pre-emergent crabgrass control must be in the soil before the sprouting takes place. Since most pre-emergent crabgrass chemicals only have an effective window of 3 to 4 weeks, it is important to put it down in a timely manner. Usually this is the first week of April, but weather conditions vary each year. Last year's cool spring temperatures and excessive rain made most applications ineffective. That is why you probably had more crabgrass than ever.

Weeds really bother us because we have been conditioned to believe that we are some sort of social outcast if our lawn has weeds. In reality, weeds are just taking up residence in your lawn. If you want to evict them, there are many hand diggers on the market that can eliminate them safely. My dad used to pay my brother and me a penny per dandelion for hand digging. The dollar we made was difficult to clutch in our hands with blisters all over our palms, but by golly we did make a dollar. Our neighbor discovered broadleaf weed control as a spray, and we didn't see his son out earning big bucks like we were earning. So if you want to have it easier than I remember, you can take care of weeds with a weed and feed formulation or in a post emergent spray. Or you can just tolerate them like I do.

Mowing the lawn on a regular basis is very important to a healthy lawn. Make sure you start the season with sharp blades on your lawnmower. Dull lawnmower blades rip the grass blades and will result in a yellow tinge on your lawn that looks unhealthy. Remember to mow high, 2 to 3 inches. Many weeds will be out competed by lawn grasses with just this simple mowing practice. Regular mowing will eliminate the need to bag the grass. Leaving the clippings on the lawn can reduce your fertilizer needs by up to 25%.

To sum up my way of getting a decent lawn with minimal work and expense is this: Fertilize in the fall, mow high and with sharp blades, lime if you need it and then go sit on the patio.

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