Preparing Your Lawn for Spring
Over the next several weeks, temperatures will gradually warm and attention returns to home lawn care. It's still very early for actual activities, but plans for spring lawn care can be made now. Spring lawn care is important, as early season care has a big impact on lawns.
One of the first things that should be done to the lawn in early spring is removal of debris that has accumulated over the winter. Wait until the soil has dried out somewhat, however, as working on a soggy turf can be detrimental. Raking the turf will remove matted accumulations of dead grass, but will do little for thatch problems. True thatch cannot be readily raked out by hand, but requires power equipment.
This year winter's conditions, with over 80 days of continuous snow cover, have been ideal for the development of gray snow mold disease on turf. Dirty white to gray mats of fungal mycelium, along with dead matted turf, are being found on infected lawn areas by many eastern Nebraska homeowners. Avoid walking on the lawn where snow remains or if additional snow falls. When soil has dried and temperatures are warmer rake out the matted turf in affected areas. A light application of fertilizer, as described below, will help the grass grow out of the damage. No fungicide applications are necessary or recommended.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not helpful to apply large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer first thing in the spring. While fertilizing turfgrasses in spring is beneficial, it needs to be done in moderation. Heavy nitrogen applications in spring can cause serious lawn problems. March is not the time for fertilizing, wait until the lawn has been mowed a few times before fertilizing, typically very late April or early May.
Lawn fertilization products available to homeowners usually offer a 4- to 5-step program, with two spring and two fall fertilizer applications. However, fewer fertilizer applications can 1) be sufficient to maintain a vigorous, healthy turf, 2) reduce lawn watering & mowing needs, and 3) result in less phosphorus runoff in lakes and ponds. For a lower maintenance lawn, make only two fertilizer applications each year with one-third of total annual nitrogen applied in early spring (April 20 to May 10) and two-thirds total annual nitrogen in late fall (October 15 to November 15). A spring application is necessary just before the turfgrass begins its largest growth period of the year. Fall fertilization promotes deep, healthy root systems and lawns with shallow root systems can struggle during harsh winters or summer drought conditions.
Choose a quality lawn fertilizer that contains controlled release, slow-release, or water insoluble nitrogen. All of these terms refer to nitrogen sources that will release small amounts of nitrogen to the turf over an extended period of time, which leads to more uniform and healthy lawn growth. These materials are especially important to use in spring.
Another common question in spring is when to apply crabgrass herbicides to the lawn. Crabgrass generally begins germinating around the middle of May, so a target date of about May 1 is usually accurate. If early April is warmer than normal, move this target date up into late April. Preemergence crabgrass herbicides need to be put down prior to crabgrass germination to work, so it's better to apply slightly early rather than too late, but don't put them on in March. Many preemergence crabgrass herbicides come mixed with fertilizer.
Spring also is a popular time for seeding new lawns, although it is not the most favorable time. If it can be delayed, early fall is actually the optimum time because fall weather conditions are more favorable for the new turf and weed pressure is much less. Spring seeding can certainly work out very well, but oftentimes hot weather sets in before the new lawn is well established. If starting a new lawn in spring, try to seed it by mid-April.
By Don Janssen, UNL Extension Educator in Lancaster County