Lawn Care For Your Established Grass
As the sun rises earlier and the ground temperature warms, grass begins to break dormancy. To speed the recovery of your lawn, break up any remaining snow piles along sidewalks, driveways, roof lines and especially along the north side of your house or outbuildings. Rake out the lawn with a stiff metal-tined rake to remove winter debris and grass plant die-back. Pay special attention to areas where snow has accumulated; snow mold (either pink or grey in color) may be seen as matted web-like dead spots. These snow mold spots need to be carefully raked out to promote air circulation. Raking will inhibit the spread and growth of this fungus. Excess nitrogen in the fall application of fertilizer is usually the largest contributor to snow mold. Snow mold will affect the grass blades more than the root system. Chicken feed a little extra fertilizer when you make your spring fertilizer application on the areas where snow mold may have been present. Given a chance to dry out with a boost of extra nutrients, a mature lawn will recover quickly by filling in thinner areas when the temperatures warm up enough to stimulate new growth. Remove any moss by hand raking or power raking. If the lawn is thin or immature, over-seed these areas by dry seeding or hydroseeding as necessary.
Once the lawn is cleaned up, and the ground temperature is 50° or higher, it is time to spread your first application of fertilizer. This can be as soon as early April or as late as the first weeks of May, depending on your location. This first fertilizing should start with a 21-7-14 (or higher concentration of nitrogen) at the rate of 7-10 lbs. per 1000 sq. ft. Most granular fertilizers provide nutrients, especially nitrogen, in a quick-release form to stimulate growth and green up the lawn. This is a great jump-start to the lawn after a long winter.
About a week or two after fertilizing, consider core aerating the lawn, especially if it suffers from issues of soil compaction. Core aerating is the process in which "cores" of soil are pulled from the ground and displaced onto the surface. The ground is softer at this time and will make the procedure easier, as well as enhance the results. Aerating promotes air, water, and nutrient movement into the root zone of the grasses. It also remediates soil compaction issues by breaking the surface barrier and acts as a source of “fresh” mulching of soil for the grass plants to send spreader roots into (and subsequently fill in) the thinner areas of your lawn. If the lawn is especially spongy with dead grass and thatch buildup from the winter, consider a mechanical dethatching later in the spring after the first fertilizing when the ground has begun to dry out. As with aerating, dethatching should be done when the lawn is actively growing, preferably following a lawn feeding so as to ensure a quick recovery of the lawn.
Mow the lawn to a shorter height (2-2 ½ inches) during this time of the year. This will promote root zone development of bluegrass, and ultimately result in the growth of grass plantlets that fill in voids in the lawn, and aid in the suppression of weeds. The best control of weeds is accomplished by maintaining a thick, healthy lawn. If broadleaf weed control is necessary (especially clover), apply 2-4D, either by hose-end sprayer or tank sprayer as per directions, usually 2-3 oz. per gallon of water.
Fertilize the lawn again at a slightly lower rate than the first fertilization. Continue to mow at a lower height, and supplement natural precipitation by watering during the dry periods. At this time of the year, your lawn should receive approximately one inch of water per week. Water in the early morning just before sunrise and cycle your sprinklers to water and soak, so as to not over water and have the excess runoff.
During the heat of the summer, fertilize again, using 21-7-14 or similar (18-10-10 also works well). Raise your lawnmower deck to 3-3 ½ inches, depending on your general maintenance practice. The shorter you cut your lawn the more water and fertilizer it will require. Water in the early morning, efficiently and effectively to reduce stress caused by prolonged summer heat. Bluegrass, ryegrass, and fescues have an active growth period during the spring, early summer, and fall. These cool-season grasses naturally go into quasi-dormancy during the summer. To maintain a good green color in the summer heat, follow these few simple steps: (1) keep the lawn taller at least 3-3 ½ inches; (2) water efficiently early in the morning and for longer periods of time (rather than frequently during the week) to get the moisture down deep into the soil. Grassroots will naturally grow deeper if moisture is present. The top inch or so can easily dry out but the lawn will suffer less if the soil below is moist. Use a shovel to dig down 6-8 inches to expose the soil profile for determining moisture level down deep. If soil compaction is an issue, consider watering 10-15 minutes per station, then cycling through the entire lawn. Water the first section again, allowing the water to percolate deeper. Repeating this process over each section of the lawn helps the water saturate downward. A good analogy would be pouring water over a completely dry sponge. Water is repelled. Once water is allowed to penetrate, then it is more easily absorbed. Once the soil profile is open, deep-water, but less frequently, every two to three days, or as necessary.
Begin mowing at a shorter height (2-2 ½ inches). Fertilize with a low nitrogen (N) high phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) fertilizer (10-20-20) to promote root growth and nutrient storage for winter. Fertilize at the rate of 3-5 lbs per 1000 sq. ft. We recommend the last fertilizing by the middle of September. Before soil temperatures drop below 50°, spray for broadleafweeds. This is an ideal time to eliminate competitive weeds. Spraying in fall allows the herbicide to work effectively, as it is taken in and absorbed throughout the root system. Mow the lawn late into the fall, and always pick up the clipping, leaves, needles and any organic material. The last cutting should be the shortest. Often times, late-season mowing is more a matter of picking up debris than cutting and removing grass clippings.
Inorganic fertilizers are chemically synthesized containing macronutrients of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca) magnesium (Mg), and sulfur(S). Some inorganic fertilizers also include micronutrients such as boron (B), chlorine (Cl), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), magnesium (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), Zinc (Zn), and nickel (Ni). These elements are necessary for plant development. The first three numbers on any fertilizer bag are always nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. They are the main building blocks necessary in the soil for plant growth. Most soils are depleted in these minerals. Slow release inorganic fertilizers are also chemically synthesized; however, they are encapsulated in a polymer (poly coat) which allows for a much slower release. Slow release fertilizers cost more but save money by requiring less frequent applications, and they slow down growth rates, which most often translates into lower mowing rates. Organic fertilizers are naturally occurring from sources like manure, slurry, and worm castings. Another source is from manmade bio-solids. Healthy soils are packed full of microbial life. Organic fertilizers can provide great benefit to your lawn by rejuvenating the microbiologic aspect of the soil. This occurs over the long term, usually 2-3 years, but the benefits are truly astonishing.
Organics provide a slow release feeding which enhances the activity and quantity of micro-organisms in the soil. The health of the soil will increase the vigor of your lawn to rebound from the inevitable stresses throughout the growing season. These biological organisms can be depleted with the use of chemical fertilizers and by the removal of organics from the lawn area in the form of collecting grass clippings when mowed. One part that the biological spectrum plays in your lawn's natural healthiness is to aid in the breaking down thatch buildup and in releasing nutrients held within the soil complex. Organic fertilizers foster turf health by promoting beneficial microbial activity, and greatly reducing weed and disease pressure.
Good sources of organic fertilizers are corn, gluten meal, bone meal, sulfate of potash, and molasses. When considering organic fertilizer, look for well-granulated material that looks consistent and will flow well through a spreader. An “earthy” odor is less likely to burn a lawn than the fertilizer with the “manurey urine concrete floored barnyard” smell. Some professionals prefer meal based products (feature, bone, blood) as well as composted poultry manure (PM). CPM’s typically have a higher analysis of minor nutrients. Worm castings are a great choice as an added supplement to the organic fertilizer diet of your lawn. A combination of organics with conventional “chemical” fertilizers may be the winning ticket. Eventually, you may be able to go organic entirely with fewer applications per year as your healthier soil will be working harder to give you a beautiful lush lawn.
Bagging grass clippings requires more work but leaves a cleaner lawn and a neater appearance. Clippings won’t be tracked and excessive thatch won’t accumulate. Removing grass clippings will aid in drainage and more efficient water percolation; however, more water can evaporate due to less mulch cover. (Note: grass clippings are 80% water).
Mulching grass clippings require less work, but if done improperly can leave a messy appearance. The clippings can be tracked, and the excessive thatch can cause problems, such as reduction in drainage and creation of a lawn with a brown appearance. The key to mulching is using the proper equipment with a consistent mowing schedule. Not all mulching mowers do a good job. Do your research, and make sure the mower deck and mulching blade work as advertised. It is very important to maintain a consistent mowing schedule. The more frequent your mowing schedule, the less grass you will need to cut. For example, cuttingon a5-day schedule instead of a 7-10 day schedulemeans your mower can work more efficiently. Slow release fertilizer can aid in slowing growth surges. If done properly a mulching mower will cut the grass finely, allowing it to filter through the canopy and break down in the soil. This mulch feeds your lawn and helps retain soil moisture, while still allowing good drainage. Maintaining a sharp mower blade is key to both methods of cutting your lawn.
Whether you bag or mulch your lawn, your success will be determined by maintaining your equipment to do its intended job. Follow proper horticultural practices with watering, fertilizing and consistent cutting, and your healthy grass will respond by giving you a beautiful lush green lawn that everyone will notice.