Start lawn off on right foot

By Dennis Patton

Spring’s arrival will soon be evident with birds singing, bulbs bursting into color and lawns wakening from its winter slumber into a delightful spring green.

Starting the lawn off on the right foot helps ensure it can withstand the harsher summer conditions. Simply stated, what you do now impacts how the lawn survives the dog days of summer.

Mowing – don’t scalp
Mowing has the most significant impact on the lawn’s health. Extension recommends not scalping the lawn for the first mowing. Scalping is the practice of setting the mower blade low to start the season. Some people believe this cuts away all the winter debris and allows the lawn to grow faster.

This practice removes the winter debris but also opens the turf up, allowing sunlight to reach the soil surface. The result is a bumper crop of summer weeds. Low mowing could also damage the grass crowns, making them susceptible to a late spring freeze and setting back the lawn.

Start the mowing season off at the same mowing height as fall, or one notch lower. For example, if you cut the lawn at 3 inches last fall, go no lower than 2 1/2 inches. You will remove some debris, but there will still be a nice cover for the soil and no harm to the crowns.

Fertilizer – go easy
Are you tempted to apply an application of fertilizer in the early spring? Do you hope this food will energize the lawn for a wonderful green color and become the envy of the neighborhood?

What really happens is just the opposite. You will see a green response, but at a cost to both you and the lawn. Spring applied fertilizer is quickly converted to green top growth. This means you will need to mow more frequently as the fertilizer only supports top growth, not the roots. The key to early spring green-up is a November application of fertilizer.

Because of the rapid shoot growth after applying spring fertilizer, the grass depletes any food reserves needed later in the summer during the onset of heat and drought. Growing grass is not about top growth. Growing grass is about developing strong and healthy roots, which in turn, results in a nice dark green lush lawn. We tend to only focus on the tops at the expense of the roots. Instead, grass should be fed based on when the crown and roots
need feeding.

Cool-season turf, like bluegrass and tall fescue, craves food in the fall months of September and November. For warm-season turf, like zoysia, March is far too early to fertilize as the only thing growing in March is the weeds. Zoysia does not need fertilizer until May to give it a kick.

Weeds – gain control
The arrival of spring brings with it unwanted visitors to our lawn, the weeds. There are two weed issues in March. The first is the spring flowering weeds, such as dandelions, henbit and chickweed. These weeds germinated last fall and spent the winter as seedlings, waiting for warm conditions to burst into flower.

The ideal time to treat these is in the fall. We passed that window so the solution this spring is to spot-spray the weeds, helping to bring them under control. Be careful when applying herbicides in the spring as they easily drift in the air and damage landscape plants, causing the leaves to curl and become deformed. Fall applications do not cause this problem as the plants are dormant, not experiencing rapid growth. Treat weeds using a liquid spray that showers large droplets, applying low to the ground on a calm day.

Grassy weeds are the other spring concern. These weeds are treated with a preemergent – a chemical applied prior to weed seed germination, halting their development and establishment. The optimal time to apply preemergent is from late March through early April. Ideally, these products would not contain fertilizers, but purchasing preventers without fertilizer is difficult to find. As a result, you may be forced to apply a fertilizer, breaking the
no-spring fertilization rule. If so, do not apply additional spring fertilizer.

Caring for a lawn is just one of the many chores as a homeowner. Whether you do it yourself or hire a service, it is still good to understand your lawn needs. Lawns takes time, energy and money, but by following these tips, you can easily remove some of the stress and enjoy the results.

Dennis Patton is horticulture agent at the Johnson County K-State Research and Extension Office.

A man with grey hair pushing a lawnmower.