No matter your weather, this is peak time for spring yard cleanup! From pruning to crabgrass prevention, here are 10 tips to cover all you need to know now. There’s a right way to care for your yard, lawn, and garden beds.
Lawn and yard care is all about being proactive. We put a lot into our home and property, so it’s time to refresh our memory on what’s next.
Do Not Fertilize Too Early
The best time for fertilizing is autumn; this helps build turf given grass plants the food that they need to build up their root systems.
However, many folks will also fertilize in the springtime. Do not make the mistake of fertilizing too early in the spring. This will divert the plant’s energy into leaf development too soon. Instead, the grass needs phosphorus for root development.
When you fertilize grass in the spring, apply lightly. Heavy nitrogen (N) fertilization is not good for the grass and can also lead to disease problems. A healthy lawn is a light, bright green color; if it’s darker, that means too much nitrogen (which will also run off into our water supply). Remember that you can always start lightly and add more until you get the right color.
If you haven’t already done so, cut off any broken or badly disfigured branches caused by winter’s snow and ice in late winter.
Unwanted lower branches on all evergreen shrubs and trees should also be removed in late winter.
Most shrubs and trees are pruned in late winter or early spring but not all. Got flowering shrubs? When to prune a shrub depends mostly on when it blooms and whether it flowers on growth produced in the same or previous years.
* Prune summer-flowering shrubs hard at end of winter or very early spring BEFORE any new growth starts! They form their flower buds on “new” wood (i.e., wood that will grow this spring). Examples include butterfly bush, smooth hydrangeas, panicle hydrangeas, and roses.
* Prune spring-flowering shrubs after spring flowers fade. Since they bloom on the growth of previous season (“old” wood), you will be cutting off their buds and flowers if you prune too early. Examples are: azalea, forsythia, mophead hydrangeas, lilacs, and wisteria.
Even if you cleaned up some leaves in the fall, there are many trees (such as oaks) that shed leaves (and broken or fallen branches) over the winter and well into spring. Now let’s not go crazy as if we have to clean up every single leaf off our lawn to compete for the neighborhood beauty pageant. A little leaf litter helps our pollinators and wildlife survive the winter.
Remove any debris or heavy piles of leaves or any layers of leaves. This invites mold and disease and decay. However, don’t rake into wet ground. It’s best to wait until temperatures are reaching the high 40s or the 50s. If you have a compost pile (or want to start one!), add those leaves to the pile. Otherwise, just mow any thin layers of leaves in with the season’s first cut, and they’ll also break down and add organic matter and nutrition to the soil.
If you have perennial beds, wait to cut down those spent perennial stems until the weather has definitely warmed and it feels like spring is here to stay. So many beneficial insects (ladybugs, native bees) and predators (lacewings, parasitic wasps) are still “hibernating” in leaf litter or hollow plant stems. They will “wake” up as the weather warms and daylight increases. If you just can’t stand to wait, cut those spent plant stems and simply set them at the edge of your property or the woods. The native bees will thank you!
Deal with weeds in early spring. Invasive or aggressive weeds will only get worse as daylight hours increase during summer. As they grow, their roots will strengthen and they will be very difficult to pull out.
The best way to minimize weeds in your lawn is through good cultural practices:
* Do not mow too short
* Allow mow clippings to return to the lawn
* Skip spring fertilization
* Do not over- or underwater
* Devote some of your lawn to wildflowers
You may also choose to apply an organic or traditional “pre-emergent” herbicide. The best time to apply a pre-emergent is when the temperature in the top 1 inch of soil has been 55 degrees F for five consecutive days (often in March and April). Once the soil temperatures reaches 55 degrees, annual weed seeds begin to germinate. Once you can see weeds in your lawn, a pre-emergent herbicide is not effective.
If you see weeds emerge in the spring, spray a post-emergent herbicide (traditional or organic). Wait to apply broadleaf weed killer until late spring, after the weeds have flowered. (Often this is 6 to 8 weeks after a pre-emergent herbicide.) Weed killers are most effective when applied evenly over the entire lawn.
Winter can reveal some damage to your yard from pets, snow plows, and traffic. You may wish to re-seed some spots.
The conundrum is: If you’re using a pre-emergent herbicide in the spring for crabgrass, it’s nonselective and will deter grass seeds from growing, too; this is why fall is a better time to seed grass. However, if you just can’t stand those bare spots, try spot-seeding bare patches as early as possible (by April) before you apply any pre-emergent for crabgrass control.
Give seeds enough time to germinate and somewhat establish. If this is not possible, don’t skip the pre-emergent weed control. It is better to take care of the bulk of your yard; wait until fall to perform any turf repairs.
Before seeding, use a steel rake to scuff up the area. Loosen the soil. Scrape some compost into the area. Sprinkle grass seed on the spot. (Use a sun/shade premium mix, unless the area’s heavily shaded.) Keep the soil moist. Cover the seeds with straw matting or another material. Even grass clippings will do. You just want to cover the spot with some sort of material to hold seeds in place.
If you’re then applying pre-emergent herbicides, we would also fertilize any spots in the lawn early; in a few weeks shoots will grow and fill in the brown spots. If the brown patches are too big or you just can’t wait, sod is the better option.
It’s too early to talk about thatch, but we need to do it now because many folks do it way too early. When we say “thatch,” we’re talking about the matted areas which have died out; they can harbor snow mold. You don’t want more than 1/2-inch of thatch on the ground. A good raking will promote air flow throughout the grass, prevent disease, and help germination. It’s essential the ground and grass is dry enough or you will do more harm than good, raking up grass seeds.
Rule of thumb: If footprints remain after walking, then it’s still too moist to de-thatch. That said, rake as soon as it’s dry and the grass is still brown; raking too late will harm healthy roots.
Loosen the Soil—If It’s Compacted
A grass lawn also gets compacted soil, especially if people walk on it. If you see patches of moss or signs of decline, we would advise aerating the lawn; this allows water and air to reach the root zone faster, resulting in new growth and increased root development. However, this is usually best done in the fall. Plan to rent a lawn aerator at your local home improvement store. If you aerate in the spring, it is important to core aerate before the soil temperature reaches about 55 degrees F. As it warms, you’re simply making room for, and inviting, aggressive weed seeds to find a home.
SPRING: you’ll need to apply a well-balanced complete fertilizer (organic or synthetic). There is a debate about when to apply fertilize. Some experts start with a quick-release fertilize in early spring (late March/April) to give a boost to the turfgrass and stimulate recovery after a long winter. Other experts advise waiting until late spring (May/June) and apply a slow-release fertilizer to restore the carbohydrate reserves in the roots, which may be running low. Either way, your lawn will appreciate a light application in springtime. Just don’t overdo it!
In late spring, you also may need to dethatch your lawn if your thatch is thick and keeping grass roots from getting air and water. One indication of too much thatch is a spongy lawn. Or, if you poke your finger into the soil, the soil will be to hard to penetrate. Wait until late spring because dethatching is very rough on tender young grass shoots.
SUMMER: In late summer (September is fine), fertilize to promote your lawn’s recovery from summer stress. This will help develop your root system for the winter. It also helps prevent disease and injury over the winter.
* Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, and fine-leaf fescue are common cool-season grasses.
* Apply high-nitrogen fertilizer (at rate of 0.5 to 1 pound annual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet).
Raising the mower’s blade to 3 or 4 inches and leave clippings on the lawn results in a healthier, greener front yard. Longer grass allows the grass to grow stronger roots and not tap its food reserves. Mowing high and less also prevents sunlight from reaching crabgrass and weeds. Once you’re used to not seeing your yard shorn, you’ll probably find you like the longer lush grass, too!
Mowing every 2 weeks versus every 1 week gives a big boost to pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and birds but also to beneficial insects that get rid of pests! If you ever wonder why the bees and butterflies dying out, look at your lawn. The so-called “perfect” lawn which has no food, shelter or biodiversity. Fortunately, this has been changing to return to the older days when folks had natural clover and grass lawns and were more regularly aerated
A lawn with slightly longer grass length is also more drought-tolerant, shading the soil and keep it cooler, preventing it from drying out quickly. Growing grass uses a lot of resources, especially water. The EPA estimates about 9 billion gallons a day goes to landscape irrigation! A healthier lawn needs less pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer which saves you time and money but also will benefit the environment.
Of course, not mowing means you’re saving yourself gas money but also cutting back on air pollution. Something as small as mowing less frequently can help reduce carbon emissions. The EPA estimates that hour-for-hour gas-powered lawn mowers spew 11 times more pollution than a new car! And that does not include noise pollution.
Dead, Dying, Broken, or Diseased Branches:
Any branches or stems that are dead, dying, diseased, or broken should be pruned. This can be done at any time of year—and the sooner, the better. At the very least, prune branches or stems before the plant produces new growth in spring so that it doesn’t waste energy on damaged areas. Removing dead or dying branches will not only help to prevent the spread of disease to other parts of the plant, but it will also help the tree or shrub to focus on producing new, healthy growth.
What and how much you should prune also depends on the age and size of the plant.
When pruning shrubs, try to maintain the natural shape of the plants by removing individual branches. Using loppers or hand pruners, remove dead, damaged, crossing, and crowded branches back to the base of the plant. Avoid shearing flowering shrubs with hedge shears.
Cut back to a bud that faces out, away from the central stem or trunk. New growth will emerge from this bud, so you want it to grow outward, not inward.
Leave about 1/2 inch between the bud and where you make your cut.
Cut at an angle that slants down and away from the bud in order to discourage water from collecting on the wound and running towards the bud.
When pruning larger branches, cut back to a lateral branch—i.e., where a smaller branch emerges from the branch you are pruning.
Early Spring: Prune evergreen shrubs or hedges in the spring before new growth emerges. Plants that are used in formal hedges and foundation plantings such as yew and privet can be trimmed with hedge shears to shape and to spur new growth. Arborvitae (Thuja spp.), juniper (Juniperus spp.), and boxwood (Buxus spp.) are other examples. Trim evergreen shrubs like junipers from the bottom up. Shorten branches that are expanding beyond the desired length by cutting them back to a lower branch beneath an overhanging branch. This provides a cleaner look, with the cuts hidden by the branches above.