By Bryan Ostlund
As the snow and ice of winter recedes, Americans’ thoughts are turning to warmer months spent outdoors on lush lawns – playing, picnicking and entertaining. Although spring rains and sunshine revitalize dormant turf, initial growth and greenery can give homeowners a false sense of security when it comes to their lawn’s overall health. After all, it may seem that with little effort, yards are thriving. The trick is to keep them in top shape all through spring and summer, and that result comes from the expertise, equipment and attention that landscape professionals can provide.
Keeping yards in fine form involves good mowing and irrigation practices that lawn care professionals already provide. But this time of year also offers an opportunity to address issues that may be in their infancy, before they are full-blown problems that require more time, effort and money to fix.
If property owners are considering retaining professionals to care for their yards, it is important to educate them about the importance of various maintenance measures beyond watering and cutting. By providing clear rationale for each service, professionals can inspire confidence in their ability to keep natural surfaces looking and performing beautifully.
For spring and summer lawn care, important points to cover with property owners include:
Testing soil samples
One of the essentials of a healthy lawn is good, nutrient-rich soil that will encourage strong root development and lush, healthy leaf. Determining the quality of soil is a relatively easy and inexpensive process, and the results will provide landscape professionals with important information about the soil’s acidity levels and which types of amendments may be needed to help create a neutralized bed in which a lawn can thrive.
Knowing the quality of soil is especially important in spring for clients with warm-season grasses. Spring is the time for overseeding to fill in any thin patches or to seed a new or renovated lawn. For those with cool-season grasses, landscape professionals may want to make a calendar note to raise the topic of soil testing with clients later in summer as fall projects get on the schedule.
Understanding the need for aerification
Lawns that are older or heavily traveled can develop compacted soil, which hampers the movement of water, nutrients and oxygen. Over time, the appearance and health of a lawn degrades and becomes more time and cost-intensive to repair.
In the northern U.S., where cool-season grass is dominant, aerification is recommended annually to improve drainage and prepare soil for any seed application. Although warm-season grasses may not require the same regular attention, some situations may prompt treatment. According to Clint Waltz, Ph.D., of the University of Georgia, “To stimulate growth and achieve surface coverage as early as possible, core aerification in late April through mid-May will likely benefit many lawns that suffered through one, or multiple, drought-induced dormancy periods last summer and fall.”
Dethatching for better growth
Thatch is common in lawns, but it’s not always easy for property owners to spot problem areas. A little thatch can help maintain healthy turf, as a thin barrier helps keep weeds from germinating, retain moisture in the soil, protect roots, and fend off frost. However, once thatch thickens beyond about half an inch, professionals should step in with corrective action.
Dethatching can be a laborious process, particularly for homeowners without efficient equipment. The benefits, however, are many. Removing thatch allows for water, air and nutrients to penetrate the soil more easily. Dethatching also helps prevent issues like root rot, pests, fungal growth and drought stress. As lawn care professionals dethatch in mid to late spring, they can also look for problems that have contributed to excessive accumulation, such as overwatering or overfertilizing, and suggest remedies to keep it in check and keep future maintenance costs down.
Planting the right seed at the right time
To achieve success with natural turf, property owners will want to use grass seed that is a good match for their growing region, as well as for their site’s qualities, from the amount of sunlight and water available to soil and slope characteristics.
In general, the ideal planting season extends from April through late October, but it’s good to know if a specific region has an optimal seeding time within that range. Seeding grass early can enable it to develop longer roots before temperatures really warm up. As a result, plants should be able to reach moisture deeper in the soil and be better established and able to overcome any annual summer weeds. To reinvigorate an existing lawn, the best preparation involves raking, aerification and then interseeding.
Knowing when and how to fertilize
In their desire to get their lawns off to the best start, some owners make the mistake of fertilizing too early in the growing season. Grady Miller, Ph.D., of North Carolina State University recommends waiting and applying fertilizer several weeks after the grass turns green.
Additionally, lawn care professionals can help their clients save money by fertilizing naturally. With proper mowing at regular intervals – about once a week during the growing season – a lawn can furnish its own fertilizer in the form of grass clippings. Property owners may not be aware that clippings contain the same nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium as commercial fertilizers, and they will not detract from the appearance or use of the surface if left on the lawn. Miller contends, “Grass clippings decompose quickly and can provide up to 25 percent of the lawn’s fertilizer needs.”
Maintaining good irrigation and mowing practices
The above recommendations are all services that could be added to a regular lawn care program that manages irrigation and mowing. As always, it is important to keep property owners apprised of how regular maintenance practices provide added value.
For example, a common error during the growing season is overwatering, which only adds to homeowners’ utility bills. On average, natural turf needs about an inch of water per week, from rainfall or irrigation. Professionals can help advise when to begin watering or engaging an irrigation system, as timing will depend on the region. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, property owners may want to start irrigation in May and install a rain gauge to help determine if and when additional watering is necessary.
According to Miller, “Proper irrigation may prevent or reduce pest problems and environmental stress later in the summer.” Letting a lawn dry out between waterings can encourage grass to grow stronger, deeper roots in search of moisture. And by allowing grass to grow to the desired length before cutting and being careful to calibrate their equipment to cut no more than a third of the blade length, professionals further avoid stressing natural turf. Grass needs enough leaf to protect the roots from the sun in order to thrive and stifle weeds.
Bryan Ostlund is executive director at Grass Seed USA, a national coalition of grass seed farmers and academic turf specialists with a wealth of experience in studying, growing and harvesting grass and grass seed. The coalition seeks to inform and educate residential and commercial customers about the benefits of grass and best practices for responsibly growing and maintaining healthy turf. For more information, visit www.weseedamerica.com or follow @WeSeedAmerica on Facebook and Twitter.