Written with the help of Extension Associate Lori Brewer, author of Cornell’s excellent turfgrass info for the public. This guide applies to cool-season grasses only – fescues and Kentucky Bluegrass. Care of warm-season grasses like Zoysia is very different.
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.
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 feed in late spring and then twice in late summer/early fall. But that’s optional, 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.
“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.