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Correct Spring Lawn Care Depends on Where You Live
Q. Help—our lawn is a mess! I know from listening to your show that Spring is not the time to seed here in the Northeast, but what can we do to get us to the Fall, when we can do some real work on the lawn? I have spread corn gluten meal the last couple of years, but I'm thinking about not doing it this year—maybe green weeds would be better than no green at all.
---Nancy in Pottstown, PA
Hi Mike: My forsythia are about to bloom, so I know its time to put corn gluten on the lawn. But I re-seeded in late September following some construction work, and it's looking a little patchy in places. Would it be better to do the corn gluten now and reseed in 6 weeks, or the other way around?
---Thomas; Haverford, PA
My lawn needs a renovation that I was not able to have done this fall. I would like to have it done this spring. It looks very bad and I would not like to leave it until fall. When should I do it, and what seed would you recommend?
---Joe in Cherry Hill NJ
A. And our e-mailbox is overflowing with similar pleas…
I told Tom with the late-seeded lawn to do the gluten and forget about seeding till Fall, citing my oft-cited reason that the cool-season grasses he'd be sowing simply burn up when summer arrives on eight cylinders. But I decided to also seek the advice of our favorite turfgrass expert—Dr. Nick Christians, the Iowa State University researcher who discovered that corn gluten meal is a chemical-free, pre-emergent weed and feed that prevents weed seeds from sprouting while providing a natural, Nitrogen-rich feeding.
Nick explains that yes, newly-sown cool-season grasses would burn up when the weather turns warm—but they don't get that far. "The annual weed seeds that are lying dormant in Northern lawns right now—like crabgrass, goose grass, foxtail, and barnyard grass—germinate at soil temperatures of 55 degrees. Kentucky bluegrass—the seed of choice for a Northern lawn in sun—doesn't germinate until soil temps reach 59degrees." Left unmolested by corn gluten, he explains, the weeds sprout first and quickly take over.
A pair of lawns near his home tell the tale: "One was sown in Spring,and its 80% weeds; the other was sown in the Fall, and its all bluegrass. There's just no comparison; weeds will always beat a Spring-sown lawn in the North."
So spread corn gluten if there's still time in your locale (weed seeds begin sprouting after forsythia has been in bloom for a few days; that's why I urged Northern lawn owners to be gluten ready in a Question of the Week back in February). For instance, its too late in Washington, DC at this point (April 1st), but there's still time to spread in Chicago, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, New England and other points North of say, Philadelphia.
Then just sit it out—or lay sod.
"I know it can be frustrating", sympathizes Nick, "I was in the same situation recently; I has some construction done and couldn't sow seed in the Fall. So when Spring arrived, I put sod down in the areas I thought really needed grass right away—on slopes and close to my home—and then waited for August to sow seed over the rest. Now, sod costs a lot more than seed, but you can sow it pretty much anytime and it will thrive if you keep it watered. If you have a small to medium area and really want to create a lawn right now, you'll get spectacular results with sod."
Otherwise, "get a big calendar and mark August 15th on it in red ink. Cool-season grasses sown at that time of year in the North germinate very quickly in the warm soil—seven days for bluegrass at that time of year versus 21 days to a month for the same seed in the cool soils of Spring. Then they have several months of perfect cool-season weather to build up an excellent turf before summer's heat arrives and they get stressed."
And be sure and cut whatever you have at the right height this summer. That's no shorter than two inches for bluegrass, the top choice for sunny areas in Northern climes; three inches is better. And a solid three inches for grasses in the shade. That's AFTER the grass is cut. (Not sure which 'season' your grass is? A warm season grass will turn brown and go dormant over the winter in cold climes; a cool season lawn will be green over winter in the North, but may go brown and dormant in late summer.)
Oh and Nick adds that our listener with the patchy late-Fall sown lawn may be in for a pleasant surprise. "If there was some bluegrass in that mix and it had time to germinate before the weather got too cold, it will spread out and begin covering those patchy areas—and the gluten(which our listener told me he DID get down in time thanks to that early-warning email from yours truly) will help by feeding that blue grass and preventing those Spring weeds from out-competing it."
I believe it. Nick told me the same thing about a Fall-sown lawn (sown with Gardens Alive Northern Turf seed, in fact) that I thought the remnants of Hurricane Ivan had washed away. "If there was bluegrass in that mix (there was), I bet you'll be pleasantly surprised with quite a bit of good grass in the Spring," he predicted. And he was right!
Q. Mike: Every year, it seems we have more weeds of every kind than we do grass. We have tried weed and feed, and last year I fertilized, but I used so much that I burnt what little grass we had. How do we get rid of these endless weeds and get some good looking grass in our area? THANKS!
---Charlotte; 20 miles from the Gulf in SE Texas
You're in luck, Charlotte—you Southerners are entering perfect warm-season grass growing time! First, get rid of whatever you have out there now. Till it up and rake out big clumps of green until what's left is mostly whatever kind of nasty soil you have down there. Then have a big batch of new "soil" delivered—ideally a mix of half compost, half high quality topsoil—and spread it an inch-deep overtop. This will smother whatever unwanted greenery you have left and give you a nice fertile seedbed.
Smooth it all out and sow your new seed around the first of May (because you're in the DEEP South; make it more mid-May to early June in the middle South). Bermuda grass is your choice for sunny areas, says Nick, who calls it "the bluegrass of the South"; St. Augustine is the perfect shade grass in your deep South. Nick suggests that those of you in the more middle South try tall fescue instead —although technically a cool-season grass, it performs well in shade in the mid-South.
After its up and growing, feed warm-season grasses a pound of Nitrogen per thousand square feet of turf in June, July and August. Use a natural organic lawn fertilizer—or corn gluten meal; ten pounds provides that pound of Nitrogen and keeps weed seeds from sprouting. If you go with the fescue in shade, feed it like the cool-season grass it is; once in the Spring and a heavier feeding in the Fall.
Confused? Don't be—just remember that you always feed a lawn based on the kind of turf it is, not where you live. Northerners growing a warm-season grass like zoysia, for instance, should do the three summer feedings (but only about a half-pound of Nitrogen each time; zoysia doesn't like as much food as other grasses). Southerners growing a cool season grass should feed it in the Spring and Fall. Got it?
Oh, and Southern grasses get shorter cuts—one to one and a half inches for Bermuda; one and a half to two inches high for zoysia; and three inches for St. Augustine and tall fescue.