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Spring Lawn Care

Q. My front and back lawns have been suffering from poor care for way too long; there are brown patches, bare spots and uneven growth. I feel like I should start over, but lawn company quotes are very expensive. How might I be able to solve this problem on my own; and what time of year would be best to start? Our family is originally from India and learning to maintain lawns the "American Way" has been tricky! Thank you,

    ---Tanya in Randallstown, Maryland
Mike: We had a very hot, dry summer a few years back, and my once luscious Kentucky bluegrass lawn was a casuality—probably because the original owner never prepared the ground; they just threw sod on bare dirt. I need to re-establish the yard. I can procure several large loads of cow manure from a feed lot; if screened, would it be adequate as a tilled in base? And can you suggest a seed that would create a lawn as pretty as bluegrass, but that needs less water and can handle full sun? Thanks,
    ---Bob in Fort Collins, Colorado   P.S.: I love your show; it's a breath of fresh air!
A. Hey! Careful with that "Fresh Air" crack, Bob! Terry Gross will be after me with that big stick of hers again!

Anyway, if either of you are willing to lay sod, you may proceed this Spring. Completely composted cow manure could work well as a base, but it has to be nice and crumbly, otherwise it could cause mischief as it composts under your expensive new turf. Finished compost or aged mushroom soil are my top choices. Till them in, level the ground, apply the sod and keep it watered till the roots have grown into the subsoil.

But sod is expensive. Great for small areas, it's impractical for large ones if you're a regular feller and not a Rockefeller. That's why most people prefer to spread seed. But you both live where winters are cool to cold, and so want a cool-season grass, which should NOT be sown in the Spring. It can take as long as a month for seed to germinate in the cool soils of Spring, then those widdle baby blades of cool-loving grass get burned to a crisp when the weather heats up.

Wait till mid-to-late August to seed. That grass will be up and growing in a week, then thrive in the cool air of Fall. By the time it has to take summer's heat, your new lawn will be close to a year old and ready to fend for itself. So till up what you have in early August, let all those dormant weed seeds sprout and then hoe them down. Then have a big load of half compost/half top soil delivered, level it out, rake in the seed, water if it don't rain, stand back and watch the show. Bluegrass in sun; fescue in shade.

You won't have to worry about sun and heat as much if you keep your bluegrass lawn cut nice and high (that's three inches high after you mow); it will simply go dormant during the worst of the dry spells and quickly green up again afterwards. Cut it short, however, and it will go dormant for a much longer time, like forever.

And what about alternatives to bluegrass? If this winters aren't really severe, our Colorado listener could try a tall fescue instead. It should be more heat tolerant, but it's a clumping grass that won't fill in its own bare spots the way bluegrass does, and extreme cold will kill it.

Q. I usually apply corn gluten meal in spring as a pre-emergent weed killer. But we've had such a mild winter I'm afraid that last year's weeds never died off! What should I do if those weeds are still there—or new ones have already sprouted by the time I usually apply it? I'm dealing with mostly crabgrass and clover. Thanks,

    ---Courtney in Norfolk, Virginia
A. I was worried about the same thing when we got all the way through December and half of January without needing a sweater. Then winter roared back, looking to make up for lost time. But I had already called Iowa State University turf grass expert Dr. Nick Christians (The 'father' of corn gluten meal), who explained that everyone out there should stick with the plan: Be ready to spread ten to twenty pounds of corn gluten per thousand square feet of turf just as the forsythia and/or redbuds begin to bloom or when soil temperatures first reach 55 degrees F. five inches down. (Notes: Folks like Courtney, who are trying to eliminate clover, should go with the higher amount; clover loves to grow in under-fed turf.)

Crabgrass, Nick reminds us, is an annual weed, not a perennial. It dies out over winter, leaving behind lots of dropped seed. And even our most Southern listeners, notes Nick, are unlikely to go an entire winter without at least one killing freeze. (Heck—Southern Florida had a mean freeze this winter!)

And the wacky winter of 2006/2007, he adds, might wind up being especially hard on crabgrass, as any seed that DID sprout during that early warm spell would have been killed off when freezing temps finally did appear, greatly lessening your lawn's crabby load!

Q. Hello Mike, I live in L.A. (that's Lower Alabama), where it's been so warm I have dandelions blooming in my back yard! Should I spread corn gluten meal over my centipede grass now? I'm also considering getting a truckload of mushroom compost delivered; I want to have a chemical free lawn this year.

    ---Norman in Dothan, Alabama
A. No! Your centipede grass has a very small appetite; overfeed it and it will get all filled with thatch! No more than two feedings a year, and no more than a pound of Nitrogen/1,000 sq. ft. either time. If you want to make the first one corn gluten meal, that's great—but wait for the regular time to do so; the first day soil temps reach 55 degrees five inches down. Then feed it again a few months later. Properly cared for, your warm season centipede grass should be able to naturally out-compete crabgrass.

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