Whether your lawn is the emerald crown jewel of the neighborhood or has more brown spots than a cheetah, now is the time to give your yard a spring cleaning. If you're just trying to get rid of the dead spots or starting over from scratch, here's what you'll need to do to ensure your yard stays lush—or at least alive—for another year.
Know Your Dirt
America is a nation of lawns—we've got enough to cover Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Rhode Island in sod if all were laid side-by-side. But those lush beds of grass simply won't last if the soil underneath is found wanting. Overly acidic (beyond 6.5-7.0 pH) soil promotes weed growth, for example, and those lacking specific key nutrients—or simply enough topsoil—will hinder leaf and root growth. So, to know just what sort of substrate you're dealing with, you'll want to have it tested as soon as the ground thaws.
First, look at the soil itself. Prime topsoil for grass is loose, dark, crumbly, and about six inches deep. Most grasses perform best in neutral to slightly acidic soils. Areas with high rainfall will be more acidic, areas with less precipitation tend to be alkaline. If your soil is mostly clay or overly-sandy and is tightly packed, the grass won't be able to effectively put down roots and will be susceptible to disease. In that case, you may want to consider restarting your lawn entirely—tearing up the existing turf, laying down a sufficiently-deep layer of quality topsoil with a neutral pH and plenty of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash nutrients before reseeding. If, on the other hand, your soil is deep enough and looks fairly robust, send a sample in to your local USDA Cooperative Extension Service office.
The USDA's CES program is a nationwide educational network that provides practical, research-based agricultural information to the public. For a fee of $10 - $18, your local CES will analyze your soil sample and tell you the following:
- levels of major plant nutrients, including phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur
- levels of plant micronutrients, including copper, manganese, and zinc
- levels of sodium
- pH and acidity
- soil class
- percent base saturation
- percent humic matter
- cation exchange capacity
- weight-to-volume ratio
Not only will this information tell you what steps are necessary to amend the soil but the CES will also suggest the grass varieties best suited for your region and soil type.
Prep the Soil
If your CES test has turned up a soil deficiency, you'll need to amend the soil before reseeding. First, add an inch-deep layer of compost over the yard—this can be done over bare soil as well as existing grass—and use a leaf rake to work it into the lawn. For overly acidic soil, add ground chalk or limestone. For overly-alkaline soils, spread sulfer in the form of ferrous sulfate and aluminum sulfate. You may also want to consider applying a balanced slow-release fertilizer to the soil before reseeding as well.
Reseed if You Need
Ideally, the best time of the year to reseed is in the fall, when the weather is still warm and there are fewer competing weeds and diseases, but can also be done in the spring. If you're just reseeding spots on your yard, first add a half-inch of compost to the bare spot, till it into the top inch of the soil, then evenly spread the seeds by hand. If you're redoing your entire yard, using an auto-tiller and spreader will make short work of it. As the seeds take root, make sure you clip the grass around these areas slightly lower than normal and remove the clippings to ensure the new growth receives enough sunlight and soil access.
Nurture Your Plot
As the new grass takes hold, water frequently (ie twice daily—once in the morning and again at noon) for the first month, then dial back the interval to a half-inch of watering twice a week. That is, saturate the top half-inch of soil without creating puddles on the surface (which stymies deep root growth). If you live in a hot climate, don't bother watering when the sun is high overhead, most of the water will be lost to evaporation and the lensing effect of water droplets can singe delicate new leaves.
During these hot months, established lawns with deep roots can even be allowed to fallow to a degree. You can cut back on watering by cutting back on mowing—intact grass blades retain moisture and protect roots better than freshly cut ones. The lawn may tinge brown but should spring back into greenery the next time it rains. For the rest of the spring, mow the lawn once a week with the blades at their highest setting and incrementally lower them through the summer and fall as the growth rate increases. The mower clippings can be bagged for disposal or composting, they can also be left on the lawn if you've got a mulching mower. This mulch acts as a self-feeding compost, returning the nutrients in the grass leaves directly back into the soil that bore them. Just make sure not to let the clippings clump together and block out light to the living grass underneath.
Grass is a living, breathing organism that needs access to both air and water in the soil. Compacted soil—from, say, heavy foot traffic—prevents this liquid-gas exchange, prevents your lawn from absorbing nutrients and hinders its growth. It can also lead to thick mats of dead roots, known as thatch. As such, springtime is a great time to break up this biological gridlock by aerating your lawn. The aeration process is easy, you simply poke holes in the surface of the soil to allow air and water to penetrate.
Plug aerators are the most common type of aeration device and come in many forms depending on the size of the job. For small, urban lawns you can get away with a manual aerator like the Yard Butler or spiked aerator shoes. For larger suburban lawns, a tow-behind aerator or walk-behind drum model will likely be necessary if you want to finish by the Fourth of July.
Once you've opened up your lawns nutritional pathways, it's time to decide how you'll feed it. A walk down the fertilizer aisle at your local home improvement store will reveal a bevy of organic and synthetic fertilizer options in dosages that can last up to six months. During the spring and summer, use a fertilizer high in nitrogen, which helps stimulate leaf growth before switching to a potassium-rich fertilizer to boost root growth ahead of the winter frosts. Be sure to follow the feeding directions on the package precisely, overfeeding will result in weak growth, burned roots, and fungal infections. If you want your lawn to remain totally organic, brew some compost tea and apply it every four weeks during the growing season. A gallon of liquid will cover a thousand square feet of lawn.
Once you've reseeded, watered, mowed, mulched, aerated, and fertilized, there's just one thing left to do—get outside and enjoy your lush new lawn.
[PopMech - HGTV - SafeLawns - The Lawn Institute - Scotts - Top Image: Pakhnyushcha / Shutterstock, dotshock / Shutterstock, Jiri Vaclavek / Shutterstock, tab62 / Shutterstock, Vitalez / Shutterstock]