Lawn Reform

Enlightened Lawn Care for Spring


I’m sure you’ve noticed the barrage of ads every spring telling us to “green up” our lawns with fast-acting fertilizer, and don’t forget the pesticides! Sadly, the Internet, where search results are dominated by click-bait sites from dubious sources and even from known quacks, isn’t much better.

That makes me crazy! It also motivates me to try to combat the high-maintenance, damn-the-environment misinformation about lawn care by finding the best advice on the subject, what I’m calling “enlightened” lawn-care advice for spring. A big thanks to Extension Associate Lori Brewer, author of Cornell’s excellent turfgrass info for the public, for her help in compiling this guide, which applies only to cool-season grasses only like fescues and Kentucky Bluegrass, not to warm-season grasses like Zoysia.

What does your Lawn Really Need this Spring?
Ignore the old lawn care advice. Now eco-conscious experts are fine-tuning their advice for different levels of performance, which probably doesn’t need to be golf-course quality. Yet, the best lawn care for the environment is NOT doing nothing. Bare soil causes erosion; it’s lawns that are thick and healthy that provide the most eco-services, like retaining stormwater.
SusanBare soil causes erosion, and thick healthy lawns perform the most eco-services, especially retaining and cleaning stormwater.

According to Cornell and others, for the regular homeowner seeking a good-enough or “low-maintenance” lawn, simply raking in the spring and one application of Nitrogen yearly in the fall (in addition to leaving mowed-grass clippings on the lawn to provide Nitrogen) is probably enough.

If your lawn needs a lot of help – a total renovation – follow these steps. If your lawn is thin, weedy or has bare spots, definitely take action this spring to improve it (see videos below), and then switch to a fall-only feeding and seeding regimen.

Maintaining a highest-quality, highest-maintenance lawn requires feeding in late spring and then twice in late summer/early fall. But that’s optional, folks, with low-maintenance, good-enough lawns finally getting their due.

Raking and Dethatching in Early Spring

In “HOW TO GET STARTED ON YOUR LAWN IN EARLY SPRING Paul Tukey shows how to assess winter damage and then rake, including with power rake for large lawns.

As for dethatching, Cornell tells us that “It is not until thatch thickness increases to nearly 1 inch that it might compromise the ability to maintain a dense canopy of grass blades and vigorous growth.” (Source.)

Feeding and Seeding

Don’t waste seed, water or your time planting and fertilizing it when it’s still cool; wait until you see new growth in the lawn. Then both seed and fertilizer can be applied on the same day. But which fertilizer? Only a soil test will tell you for sure and the test is another important eco-friendly step in combating the run-off of excess lawn-care fertilizer into our waterways.

How much fertilizer? The U. of Missouri says that IF you feed in the spring, apply 1/2 to 1 pound Nitrogen per 1,000 square feet,  preferably with a slow-release fertilizer. Cornell adds that “Standard recommendations are for full-sun lawn areas, shaded lawn areas need much less nitrogen. Also consider alternatives to lawn in shade.”

Top-Dress with Compost? While compost can improve soils, many are high in phosphorus, difficult to apply at low rate and can wash off into water. (Source.)

Add Lime? If a soil test indicates that lime is needed, it’s easiest before planting when material can be mix into the upper 4 to 6 inches of soil. For established lawns, scatter material on top and water in. Source.

“FERTILIZING LAWNS” is an excellent video sponsored by the organic fertilizer Milorganite. In it, horticulturist Melinda Myers recommends skipping spring feeding if following the “low-maintenance plan.”

“SPRING FERTILIZING TIPS FOR LAWN CARE” is a recent video by a county in Northern Virginia. It recommends fertilizing in the spring only if a soil test says it’s needed and you didn’t do it in the fall.

SPRING LAWN CARE” by a Maryland horticulturist demonstrates raking, liming if needed, adding an organic fertilizer at the same time, then seeding, then applying a thin layer of compost and finally, a daily light watering for at least a week.

“SPRING LAWN CARE” by Boston-area horticulturist Dave Epstein demonstrates using organic fertilizers with beneficial microorganisms.

ECO-FRIENDLY LAWN CARE” from the U. of Maine agrees that it’s best to feed around Labor Day, adding that lawns 10+ years old may not need added nutrients at all. Also, it warns against using weed/feed or other combination products.

“HOW TO OVERSEED” from Kansas State recommends overseeding for thin lawns, especially in the transition zone between cool- and warm-season grass regions (e.g., the Mid-Atlantic). See also “Overseeing your Lawn” by a Boston-area garden center.

Repairing Bare Patches

“PATCH WEAK OR BARE SPOTS IN YOUR LAWN” by Cornell demonstrates a very easy method: mixing seed with soil/compost, and no straw needed.

HOW TO PATCH A PROBLEM LAWN WITH SEED OR SOD by horticulturist Dave Epstein of Growing Wisdom recommends focusing on a healthy lawn, not a perfect one, and clearly demonstrates patching bad spots with seed or sod. The advice is for fall but the technique applies equally well to spring.

Posted by on March 10, 2017 at 6:56 am, in the category Lawn Reform.

8 responses to “Enlightened Lawn Care for Spring”

  1. Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

    That was in reply to Rachel. Our comment system is so screwed up! (Sorry, commenters).

  2. Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

    Thanks for the input. So as not appear to be saying thick turfgrass is the best of all possible options, I’ll change it to: “Bare soil causes erosion, and lawns that are thick and healthy are the best at providing eco-services like retaining and cleaning stormwater.”

  3. Martha says:

    This sentence bothered me from an eco-friendly perspective: Bare soil causes erosion, and thick healthy lawns perform the most eco-services, especially retaining and cleaning stormwater.

    1. The roots of turf grass are mere inches, compared to native grasses and forbs with roots that reach down many feet. In a natural area, 25% of stormwater infiltrates shallowly and another 25% infiltrates deeply. Thick healthy lawns may encourage some shallow infiltration, estimated at about 10-15%. It is definitely not THE MOST effective at retaining and cleaning stormwater.

    2. Turf grass is an ecologically sterile monoculture. It is “food desert” for our native pollinators, butterflies and birds. Small patches are useful for children, pets and as a design element.

    Point 2 is a hard sell as vast swathes of turf is the cultural norm, especially in suburbia. So you are providing real value in giving homeowners the first steps to think about their land (not their lawn) differently.

  4. M Stangl says:

    I would not use any inorganic N – P – K or other,, thought you might like this video, Dr. Elaine Ingham

  5. Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

    These are all eco-friendly ways of gardening, which is why we’re calling it “enlightened.” Is there something in them you’d consider to be not eco-friendly? Susan

  6. Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

    You bet! From the introduction to the post:
    “this guide, which applies only to cool-season grasses only like fescues and Kentucky Bluegrass, not to warm-season grasses like Zoysia.”

  7. Perry Mathewes says:

    I think first and foremost, you need to know what kind of grass you have before you do anything. Most of this advice is good for cool season grasses, but does not apply for warm season grasses such as centipede, bermuda, etc. because fertilization rates and times are different. This is especially true if you live in the transition zone where both types of lawns can be grown. It drove me crazy when I lived in coastal NC to see the ads for fall fertilizing when everyone around had warm season grasses.

    Cornell’s advice is great, but does not truly pertain to those maintaining a lawn in south Georgia, so I truly encourage folks to contact their local extension office for advice that applies to their area.

  8. Rachel says:

    I’m opting for an organic lawn care and looking for more eco-friendly ways of gardening. Thanks for the link on ” ECO-FRIENDLY LAWN CARE”, I’ll definitely check this out.

Leave a Reply