As I’m writing this, most of the lawns in my neighborhood consist of dull, dormant yellow-brown grass. If you live anywhere like Alabama, winter has a bad habit of sucking the vibrant colors out of your surroundings and replacing them with drab and dreary grays, browns, whites … and yellows. Lawns are no exception to the whitewashing effect of winter, but we can always count on spring to put a little brightness back in our lives. Still, sometimes Mother Nature needs a little nudge, especially in the case of thin patches or bald spots. Bringing the lawn up to standard is the first big project of the season for many homeowners, and EHT takes a look at some tips and techniques to bring your yard back to a thick, lush, green turf.
Breathe Life into the Lawn
After the cold season, many lawns are in fair condition, meaning grass is established, but it has thinned or browned. Many grasses will naturally wake up and become green with the spring, but that’s not the case for bare spots. Those areas require a little tender loving care. A tried-and-true method to jumpstart a healthy lawn is to aerate and over-seed the yard.
Aeration and dethatching fights thatch and soil compaction. Over time, built-up thatch and tightly packed soil can choke off nutrients from the grass. More than 3/4-inch of accumulated thatch can lead to lawn disease, insect infestation and ultimately drought. Soil compaction, due to traffic, rain and erosion, can do the same. An aerator is a machine that minimizes compaction by thinning the tightly packed soil while also removing built-up thatch. In lawn maintenance, aerating literally means “to supply with air;” it allows air, water and nutrients to enter the soil and nourish the lawn.
Aeration should be done after the lawn has been mowed down to about 2 inches high. The most effective type of aerator is a “core” aerator, which uses hollow tines to remove “cores” or plugs of soil, leaving them laying on the lawn’s surface to return nutrients to the grass as they dissolve. Many homeowner-type aerators use spikes that simply poke holes in the soil, but these types aren’t quite as efficient. Some aerators are available as walk-behind or ride-on gas models, while other versions can be towed as an attachment behind a lawn tractor.
Keep in mind that core aeration should only be done to correct problems of soil compaction and thatch buildup. It’s a great way to wake up an unkempt lawn at the first of spring, prior to fertilizing, but shouldn’t be a part of routine maintenance. If you’re thinking of purchasing an aerator, know that the machine will see a lot of downtime. And gas-powered models are expensive for most consumers, on a cost per application basis. So, for this reason, if you don’t want to invest money in the machine or store it during its lengthy off season, you might consider renting one.
Seed and Fertilize
With a freshly aerated lawn, you’re ready to over-seed the turf. Make sure you’ve chosen seed that grows well in your area and matches the pre-existing lawn to avoid a patchy appearance. The type of grass appropriate for your area depends on latitude, elevation and exposure. If you’re unsure, then inquire at a local garden center as to what works in your neck of the woods.
Over-seeding can flesh out bald or thin spots of the lawn.
Two things are important when seeding: quantity and coverage. You want to use plenty of seed. For a brand new lawn, 6-8 pounds per 1,000 square feet is not excessive. For an existing lawn that you want to “thicken up,” 3 or 4 pounds per 1,000 feet should be plenty. Check the seed package or ask your local professional for specific instructions. Spread the seed in a criss-cross pattern, using some sort of seed-spreading device to achieve even coverage. Spreading seed by hand does a lousy job. Using a dedicated seed spreader—even an inexpensive handheld model—gets the best results.
Prior to spreading the seed, remove all loose thatch and lawn debris and work the soil of bare spots and thin areas to a depth of 1/4 to 1/2 inch. This can be done with any sharp garden tool or rake. This may not be necessary if you’ve used an aerator. But if you haven’t, then cultivating the soil gives the seed a place to lodge. Then, after spreading the seed, use a rake to work the seed just below the surface of the soil. This also helps break up any soil cores the aerator has left on the lawn.
Next, spread fertilizer. Some products are available as a mixture of seed and fertilizer. Otherwise, follow the seed with a good “starter” fertilizer with a high middle number (phosphorous), such as 20-27-5 (most common starter analysis found at retail). Keep the new seeds moist. Water your lawn twice a day, 10 minutes per watered area. The idea is to keep the top 1 inch of soil moist, so water often rather than deeply. The seeds should germinate in 2 to 3 weeks.
A dedicated spreader achieves much better coverage than spreading seed or fertilizer by hand.
Once the new grass has grown to about 3 inches, mow the lawn at the highest mower setting. After about a month, the grass should be established and may start to turn pale green, indicating it needs more fertilizer. Spread a quality lawn fertilizer, containing slow-release nitrogen. Most lawn fertilizers have a high first number (nitrogen), such as 29-3-4 (most common lawn fertilizer found at retail). Use this fertilizer on a regular schedule, with applications about two months apart. Give the lawn plenty to drink with a watering regimen and maintain it with a routine mowing cycle.
Note: During the winter there’s no benefit to fertilizing dormant grasses, since the plant’s systems have shut down and are no longer taking in nutrients.
Weed growth, if left unchecked, does not a pretty lawn make. However, there’s a right way and wrong way to fight this problem. There are two types of weed killers: pre-emergent and post-emergent. Pre-emergent products mainly control seeds before they germinate. Because these products are formulated to inhibit seed growth, applying grass seed at the same time is not recommended. Post-emergent products mainly kill existing weeds. When using a post-emergent weed control product, make sure you choose a selective herbicide. Selective herbicides can distinguish between grass plants and lawn weeds. Apply selective weed control products to your lawn anytime weeds are actively growing. Always read the label to make sure the herbicide you choose is right for your lawn.
A quality weed trimmer is also a must-have yard tool. And remember, as unexciting as the job is, pulling weeds by hand allows you to remove the roots, killing the weeds for good and keeping your lawn looking clean and green.
Killing weeds and grooming will pay off in an attractive, uniform appearance.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to John Mollick, lawn care expert with Vigoro. Check out “Helpful Tips from Vigoro” at www.vigoro.com.
SIDE NOTE 1
Green in the Winter
I live in Alabama, an area rife with St. Augustine, Centipede, Zoysia and Bermuda. These types of grass go dormant in the winter and turn an unbecoming yellowish brown. To solve this problem, many southern homeowners (but not enough) over-seed their lawns in early fall with a cold-season grass to keep the lawn green throughout the winter. When doing this, make sure to choose a cold-season grass that will die in the spring, such as Annual Ryegrass. Otherwise, when the warm-season grass awakens from dormancy, the two types will compete for nutrients.
SIDE NOTE 2
Fertilizer: What Do the Numbers Mean?
Every fertilizer mix is assigned a three-number label called the “guaranteed analysis,” such as 18-24-12. These three numbers rate the amount of active ingredients in the fertilizer. The first number indicates the fertilizer’s nitrogen (N) level. Nitrogen is vital to a plant’s growth and greening. The second number represents phosphorous (P). Phosphorous is a key nutrient in root development that aids in producing blooms and fruit. The last number, potassium (K), helps strengthen plants against such stresses as cold temperatures and disease.