Spring Lawn Care for Homeowners

Tom Fritz —  May 1, 2013 — 4 Comments

With spring’s arrival, one can’t help but daydream about greener pastures, or in my case, lawns. Now is the time for spring lawn maintenance.

The main purpose of spring lawn care is to get the turf through the summer months. Cool-season grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass, perennial rye grass, and the fescues need to develop a strong root system to survive summer’s heat and dry conditions. There are a number of things you can do to ensure that your lawn gets off to a good start in the spring. Listed below are some things to do in April and May.

Spring Lawn Tips

Rake up debris from the lawn with a stiff metal rake.

Rake up debris from the lawn with a stiff metal rake.

1. Rake

Using a stiff metal leaf rake, go through your lawn and rake up any trash, debris, and fallen branches. This is a good time to asses your lawn to see if there has been any damage from the long winter months. Examples would be salt damage or dead spots, as well as any physical damage from animals or plows. Ideally, compost the leaves, stems, and other plant debris you rake up.

Core Aeration Machine

Aerating is by far the most important practice that you can do to help improve the quality of your lawn.

2. Aerate

Core aerating is the process of inserting hollow tines into the lawn and removing plugs of soil using specialized equipment. This practice will help reduce soil compaction and thatch. It also opens up the soil to let in nutrients and oxygen, and improves soil drainage. This practice should be done at least twice a year — once in the spring and again in the fall. If you can only do it once in a season, I would recommend early to mid-September.

Seed Spreader

A seed spreader works well for seeding large areas of lawn.

3. Seed

Once you get a chance to inspect your lawn, you may find a number of areas that need to be filled in. Inspect the area that you are going to work on and determine if it is in full sun, full shade, or a combination of the two. This is very important when choosing the correct type of grass seed to use in the area. When working in a full-sun area, a blend of Kentucky bluegrass and turf-type perennial rye grass works best. For a full-shade area, a fine-leaf fescue works best. If your area is a mixture of part shade and part sun, then you would want to go with a mixture of the three types of grasses.

Scratch up the area so that you get all of the debris off of the soil. You want to have exposure to bare soil. Sprinkle on a light-to-medium layer of seed over the top of the soil, and very lightly rake it into the top 1/4 inch. It is very important that the seed come in contact with the soil. Cover the seed with about 1/8 inch of a very fine compost or peat moss and water with a fine spray. You will need to make sure that the seed stays moist every day for about two weeks, or until the seed begins to germinate. Then you can slowly back off on the watering.  

PHOTO: an expanse of green turf grass.

Write down your lawn’s square footage so there’s no guesswork in fertilizer purchases.

4. Fertilize

Fertilization is a very important part of a lawn care routine, as it influences the color of the grass and its ability to recover from the stress of the long season, and helps prevent weed infestations and disease. There are some very important features to consider when you travel to your local garden center to buy your fertilizer.

Knowing the square footage of lawn that you have on your property will enable you to purchase the right amount of fertilizer for your home and prevent multiple trips to the garden center. Once you have figured out the square footage, write it down for future reference.

Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) are the three major nutrients needed by your lawn. Nitrogen is the nutrient needed the most, although you do need to be careful because excess nitrogen can lead to abundant top growth and sometimes even kill the lawn if applied improperly.

On a bag of fertilizer you will see three numbers, such as “21-3-20.” The first number is nitrogen, the second is phosphorus, and the third is potassium. They are all in percent by weight. For example, the 21-3-20 fertilizer contains 21 percent nitrogen. This number is important because it determines how much fertilizer is needed. In most cases, a rate of 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet is suggested for each fertilizer application to your lawn. Recommended ratios of N-P-K for lawn fertilizers include 3:1:2 or 4:1:2.

I recommend a controlled-release nitrogen source for your fertilizer, which would be indicated on the label of your fertilizer bag. With a slow release, you will see a more uniform grass growth. It is unlikely to burn the grass or cause losses through the soil and air.

I recommend at least three fertilizer applications per season for best results and to help out-compete most weeds.

PHOTO: mower blade height check.

Check the height of the mower blade with one wheel on a path to avoid cutting grass too short.

5. Mow

As soon as the grass needs cutting, mow it. Do not wait. Most cool-season grasses should be cut at a height of 3 to 3 1/2 inches in height. When you cut the grass at this height, it develops a thicker and denser stand of turf, and can out-compete most weeds. In addition, it will help conserve water by shading the bare soil and reducing evaporation during the heat of the day.

Always use sharp mower blades. I recommend sharpening the blades every week. Keep a spare blade on hand so that you can quickly change them out.

Don’t collect your grass clippings — let them fall back into the soil to decompose and add some nutrients back. Contrary to popular belief, they do not contribute to a thatch buildup in the lawn. Purchasing a set of mulching blades for your mower will help. They are available at most big box retailers.

With these few tips, you should be off and running to having the best lawn on the block. And remember, the grass is always greener in your yard.

Tom Fritz

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Tom Fritz is plant healthcare specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

4 responses to Spring Lawn Care for Homeowners

  1. William Jones May 4, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I appreciate the lawn care tips but you should really recommend phosphorus-free fertilizers, or minimally, mention why most established lawns don’t need phosphorus and how phosphorus is the primary cause of lake eutrophication.

    • Thank you for the Comment Mr. Jones. Yes phosphorus is a big concern for the health of our lakes, ponds and all of our waterways. I will defeniteley make it a point to mention that in my next lawn care blog.

  2. Great lawn care tips Tom! Thanks for it. I wanted to know what if I do not use phosphorus in fertilizers. Please provide me the information about it.

    • Hello,
      Sorry for not getting back to you in a timely manner. It has been a very busy spring here at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
      In response to your question about not using Phosphorus in your fertilizer. Most soils in north eastern Illinois have sufficient amounts of Phosphorus already in the soil. The best thing you can do is to have a soil test done to see if you are lacking phosphorus in your soil. You will probably not see a significant change in the vigor or growth in your lawn by not using phosphorus. Phosphorus is mostly used when you are trying to establish a lawn from seed, as it aids in strong root growth and development.

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