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Correct Spring Lawn Care
Correct Spring Lawn Care Depends onWhere You Live

Q. Help—our lawn is a mess! Iknow from listening to your show that Spring is not the time to seedhere in the Northeast, but what can we do to get us to the Fall, whenwe can do some real work on the lawn?  I have spread corn glutenmeal the last couple of years, but I'm thinking about not doing it thisyear—maybe green weeds would be better than no green at all.  
            ---Nancy inPottstown, PA

Hi Mike: My forsythia are about to bloom, so I know its time to putcorn gluten on the lawn. But I re-seeded in late September followingsome 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, orthe 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 wouldnot like to leave it until fall. When should I do it, and what seedwould you recommend?
            ---Joe inCherry Hill NJ
A. And our e-mailbox isoverflowing with similar pleas…

I told Tom with the late-seeded lawn to do the gluten and forget aboutseeding till Fall, citing my oft-cited reason that the cool-seasongrasses he'd be sowing simply burn up when summer arrives on eightcylinders. But I decided to also seek the advice of our favoriteturfgrass expert—Dr. Nick Christians, the Iowa State Universityresearcher who discovered that corngluten meal is a chemical-free, pre-emergent weed and feed thatprevents weed seeds from sprouting while providing a natural,Nitrogen-rich feeding.

Nick explains that yes, newly-sown cool-season grasses would burn upwhen the weather turns warm—but they don't get that far. "The annualweed seeds that are lying dormant in Northern lawns right now—likecrabgrass, goosegrass, foxtail, and barnyard grass—germinate at soiltemperatures of 55 degrees. Kentucky bluegrass—the seed of choice for aNorthern lawn in sun—doesn't germinate until soil temps reach 59degrees." Left unmolested by corn gluten, he explains, the weeds sproutfirst 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 allbluegrass. There's just no comparison; weeds will always beat aSpring-sown lawn in the North."

So spread corn gluten if there's still time in your locale (weed seedsbegin 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 Questionof the Week back in February). For instance, its too late inWashington, DC at this point (April 1st),  but there's still timeto spread in Chicago, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, New England andother 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 samesituation recently; I has some construction done and couldn't sow seedin the Fall. So when Spring arrived, I put sod down in the areas Ithought really needed grass right away—on slopes and close to myhome—and then waited for August to sow seed over the rest. Now, sodcosts a lot more than seed, but you can sow it pretty much anytime andit will thrive if you keep it watered. If you have a small to mediumarea and really want to create a lawn right now, you'll get spectacularresults with sod."

Otherwise, "get a big calendar and mark August 15th on it in red ink. Cool-seasongrasses sown at that time of year in the North germinate veryquickly in the warm soil—seven days for bluegrass at that time of yearversus 21 days to a month for the same seed in the cool soils ofSpring. Then they have several months of perfect cool-season weather tobuild up an excellent turf before summer's heat arrives and they getstressed."  

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 forsunny areas in Northern climes; three inches is better. And a solidthree 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 turnbrown and go dormant over the winter in cold climes; a cool season lawnwill be green over winter in the North, but may go brown and dormant inlate summer.)

Oh and Nick adds that our listener with the patchy late-Fall sown lawnmay be in for a pleasant surprise. "If there was some bluegrass in thatmix and it had time to germinate before the weather got too cold, itwill spread out and begin covering those patchy areas—and the gluten(which our listener told me he DID get down in time thanks to thatearly-warning email from yours truly) will help by feeding thatbluegrass and preventing those Spring weeds from out-competing it."

I believe it. Nick told me the same thing about a Fall-sown lawn (sownwith Gardens Alive NorthernTurf seed, in fact) that I thought the remnants of Hurricane Ivanhad washed away. "If there was bluegrass in that mix (there was), I betyou'll be pleasantly surprised with quite a bit of good grass in theSpring," he predicted. And he was right!   

Q. Mike: Every year, it seemswe have more weeds of every kind than we do grass. We have tried weedand feed, and last year I fertilized, but I used so much that I burntwhat little grass we had.  How do we get rid of these endlessweeds 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 perfectwarm-season grass growing time! First, get rid of whatever you have outthere now. Till it up and rake out big clumps of green until what'sleft is mostly whatever kind of nasty soil you have down there. Thenhave 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 willsmother whatever unwanted greenery you have left and give you a nicefertile seedbed.

Smooth it all out and sow your new seedaround the first of May (because you're in the DEEP South; make it moremid-May to early June in the middle South). Bermudagrass is your choicefor sunny areas, says Nick, who calls it "the bluegrass of the South";St. Augustine is the perfect shade grass in your deep South. Nicksuggests that those of you in the more middle South try tall fescueinstead—although technically a cool-season grass, it performs well inshade in the mid-South.

After its up and growing, feed warm-season grasses a pound of Nitrogenper thousand square feet of turf in June, July and August. Use anatural organiclawn fertilizer—or corngluten meal; ten pounds provides that pound of Nitrogen and keepsweed seeds from sprouting. If you go with the fescue in shade, feed itlike the cool-season grass it is; once in the Spring and a heavierfeeding in the Fall.  

Confused? Don't be—just remember that you always feed a lawn based onthe kind of turf it is, not where you live. Northerners growing awarm-season grass like zoysia, for instance, should do the three summerfeedings (but only about a half-pound of Nitrogen each time; zoysiadoesn't like as much food as other grasses). Southerners growing a coolseason grass should feed it in the Spring and Fall. Got it?   

Oh, and Southern grasses get shorter cuts—one to one and a half inchesfor Bermuda; one and a half to two inches high for zoysia; and threeinches for St. Augustine and tall fescue.

You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week  ©2006Mike McGrath

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