April 30, 2014
By Phil Bull
It is always exciting when that first hint of spring hits the air, the winter snow begins to melt and your lawn finally starts to emerge from beneath a blanket of white. Those first signs of green can be invigorating after the dark, cold winter months; so invigorating that it is almost impossible not to run right out and get started on your lawn. For some, it might be the one time of year when they truly look forward to a little yard work.
While the urge to get a jump on things is strong, it is important to exercise a little patience when it comes to your lawn. Rushing in without a plan can actually do more harm than good. The key is to have a well-designed approach to lawn care before you ever head outside. The following to-do list will ensure you can revive your lawn and keep it healthy as you head into the summer months.
If your lawn feels like it has thick, spongy underpadding, dethatching may be necessary. Thatch is a tightly interwoven layer of roots and dead or living stems that develops between the growing grass plants and the soil surface. It is usually formed as a result of infrequent cutting, over-fertilization or excessive irrigation. Contrary to popular belief, mulching your grass clippings will not contribute to thatch in a healthy lawn. Thatch can harbour many lawn-threatening diseases and pests, while also preventing nutrients, moisture and grass roots from reaching the soil.
When dethatching, it is always best to use a fixed blade dethatcher, which removes thatch by cutting and gently lifting it out of the lawn. These machines, also known as vertical mowers or power rakes, are readily available from most rental shops; dethatching may also be a service offered by your local lawn care company. Fixed blade dethatchers cause a minimal amount of stress to the turf, leaving your lawn with a raked appearance afterwards. These machines will also raise a little bit of soil to the top of the thatch layer; this soil contains microbes that will help to break down even more thatch.
Avoid using any kind of spring tine dethatcher, as it can cause significant harm and place added stress on the lawn, during which it will be more susceptible to pests. Spring tine dethatchers use flexible metal tines that literally flail the lawn to tear out the thatch. While it is true this equipment can remove a large amount of thatch, they can also cause severe damage to your lawn in the process.
You can think of aeration, the process of removing soil plugs from your lawn, as a good back massage for your yard. It is one of the most important things you can do to promote the overall health and vigour of your grass.
Soils become quite compact over time and the winter freeze-and-thaw cycles tend to leave lawns looking uneven and bumpy. Aeration relieves compaction in all types of soils (this is especially true in the case of clay soils). It also allows air, moisture and nutrients to reach the grass roots and promote growth.
Aeration can also stimulate the growth of soil microbes that help break down thatch and make nutrients available to the lawn throughout the season, while also allowing for increased root growth. This will help the grass better feed itself and survive extended periods of hot, dry weather.
When aerating, it is best to leave the plugs on the lawn, as they are filled with beneficial microbes that reproduce readily in the presence of increased oxygen. If you have a thick thatch layer, these microbes will digest the thatch and help decrease its density.
Topdressing, the act of spreading a thin layer of compost on top of the lawn, can greatly improve a lawn’s heat and drought tolerance, as well as improve the soil’s overall quality. It can be combined with aeration or dethatching as part of your lawn care regime.
When topdressing, stay away from products such as triple mixes (often a mix of topsoil, peat moss and compost) or topsoils, as they are often heavy and can smother your lawn. These types of soil are also typically stored in large piles throughout the season, where weed seed can continually blow into them. In fact, bulk triple mix and topsoil can have up to one million weed seeds per cubic yard of soil. As a result, once spread, they promote the growth of a new crop of weeds—hardly a great payback for all of your efforts.
Comparatively speaking, certified compost, which is full of beneficial microbes, is a much better choice for topdressing. It will help reduce thatch layers, thanks to those hungry microbes, which turn it into nutrients that feed the turf. The composting process also destroys weed seeds.
If using traditional compost, spread it over your lawn in a layer no thicker than 6.35 mm (0.25 in.) There are also granular compost products that make topdressing a quicker and easier process. These can be applied using any fertilizer spreader, saving you hours of hard labour. 
While fall is the best time to do this particular task, it is still a good idea to overseed your lawn in the spring if it has dead patches or is very thin. After all, any spot where grass isn’t growing is one where a weed will soon make itself at home.
When overseeding, be sure to choose a certified seed blend for the best possible results. Beware of inexpensive buys with marketing gimmicks that use the words ‘premium,’ ‘ultimate,’ ‘supreme’ or other fancy superlatives. Despite the names, these brands are typically common blends with low germination rates; they also often contain weed seeds. Instead, pay a visit to your local garden centre, which likely carries certified seed blends. These have the highest germination rate of any grass seed and, as an added bonus, won’t contain any weed seed or annual grasses.
Certified seed blends also often include ‘endophyte-enhanced’ seed varieties. Endophytes are naturally occurring fungi within certain types of grass, which, according to studies, make grasses more resistant to attacks from insects, such as chinch bugs, and environmental stresses, such as drought.
Pre-emergent weed controls can also be used as part of your lawn’s spring wake-up routine. In cooler climates, pre-emergents are best used when weed seeds are actively germinating. A good rule of thumb is to time your pre-emergents with the blooming of forsythia, one of the first plants to flower in the spring.
In areas with a pesticide ban, the only pre-emergent weed control approved for use is corn gluten meal, which must be applied at a rate of 97 g per m2 (20 lbs per 1,000 sf) in order for it to have any effect. Four to five days of dry weather are required for the application process, so check the local weather forecast and plan ahead as best you can.
Once applied, the corn gluten should be watered in to allow its root-inhibiting proteins to be released into the soil. The corn gluten functions as a weed control by stopping the growth of seedling roots. During the dry weather, the young seedlings cannot obtain water from the soil and die as a result.
Corn gluten can last for six to eight weeks on your lawn and can also interfere with grass seed germination, so it is important to decide whether an overseeding or a corn gluten application will be the best course of action before proceeding.
When it comes time to take your lawnmower out for its first run, make sure to keep your cutting height at 63.5 to 76.2 mm (2.5 to 3 in.) and maintain this for the entire season. This is the height most of the grass species on your lawn prefer. The old adage that it is better to cut the lawn shorter in the spring and leave it longer throughout the rest of the season is, to put it simply, a myth.
One rule that does stand up, however, is that you should never remove more than one-third of grass growth at any one time. During the spring, grass can go through periods of intense growth. As a result, it may be necessary to cut the lawn twice a week in order to keep it at the optimum height without breaking the one-third rule. Of course, always ensure your lawn mower blade is sharp so that it cuts the grass cleanly rather than tearing it, as dull blades are apt to do.
Adopting even a few of these practices will not only revive your lawn after winter, but also help it survive the heat and harsh conditions summer often brings. Following some of these suggestions can reduce the number of problems you battle during the season and leave you with more time to enjoy your beautiful lawn.
Phil Bull, a certified horticulturist with 23 years of experience, works for Turf Revolution, a company that manufactures organic fertilizers for the lawn and garden. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at (800) 823-6937 or via www.turfrevolution.com.
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