Spring Tips for Lawn and Garden

Spring Tips for Lawn and Gardens

February is really early spring in parts of Zone 7 and most of Zone 8. It’s time now to begin to work on things that will make your garden bloom or produce much better than last year. And a lawn needs attention to inhibit new weed growth in the late spring and summer.

It’s tough to even think about working outside when it’s cold, but you shouldn’t wait too long because weeds will be growing actively soon enough if they have not already started growing. By getting out there as soon as possible, you can hopefully head off many potential problems before they get well rooted into the soil this year.

First I’ll talk about lawns.

Every lawn is susceptible to weeds, and they’re a giant pain in the neck to get rid of too. A lawn that has a lot of weeds like crabgrass, dandelion, and perennial rye has problems. Mine has all those in addition to chickweed, burdock, purslane, and henbit. I finally did something about it though, and last year many of these weeds were gone. This year I’m waging an all-out war on these nasties.

Every lawn needs feeding, and lots of lawn fertilizers and a lot of weeding, have a weed inhibitor and also some pre-emergents mixed in. Got to Home Depot and take some time to look around, read labels, and talk to some of the sales helpers. It pays off. I got a Scotts product that both fed my lawn and had a pre-emergent in it for crabgrass. It says it will also inhibit other weeds, but crabgrass was the focus. I didn’t want to get a push seed spreader, so I just bought a cheap, hand-held version that you fill and crank as you walk off squares of the lawn.

Most of these combinations are not supposed to be used but twice in the year, so read instructions and do just as they say. Lawn grass can be killed if too many chemicals are put down in a season. Fertilize only a couple of times a year as well, if you do it separately. It may take two or even three seasons to get a lawn back to its pristine state, but it’s worth it because once a lawn becomes thick and healthy, it’s less susceptible to any further weeds.

In your lawn, get out and look for patches of bare soil where the grass has died over winter. If you are having trouble with this, it helps to know that if your lawn is getting 3 or more hours of direct sun per day, chances are good that there are places where the grass is thinning because it doesn’t have enough sunlight. Other likely areas where bare spots might be lurking are near trees or shrubs, under telephone poles or outdoor lighting fixtures, or around garden beds or other structures.

Once you’ve located the problem areas in your lawn, you need to decide what do to about them. While they could simply be left alone so they can fill back in by themselves without any help from us, I prefer to help them along with some good soil amendment, organic fertilizer (manure or compost), or grass seed.

If the problem area is only an inch or two in diameter and it’s not very noticeable yet, you could simply scratch the soil with a rake to loosen up the bare dirt and make it look better to your eye until the new grass grows in. If it’s more visible than that or several inches across, I would definitely recommend trying one of these options:

Soil amendment/fertilizer

Spread about 1 cup actual nitrogen for every 100 square feet of lawn area on top of each year-old spot in February. If the bare areas are less than 6 months old, you can simply scratch the fertilizer in. If they are older, use a broadfork or spading fork to mix it into the soil about 6 inches deep. Then water well to activate the nitrogen so it will begin breaking down the dead grass roots and mix itself throughout the soil for good root development for new grass growth.

You can also elect to just rake very lightly over this year-old turf that hasn’t greened up yet with your lawn rake without scratching in any amendment at all because spring is just too soon to amend. That way you don’t have to worry about being careful not to damage new shoots if there are any coming up already from a recent seeding. In either case, you probably want to reseed these bare areas by late spring because they are too sunny for cool season grasses like tall fescue to grow well at this point.

Grass seed

If you want to try seeding these tiny bare spots yourself, get an organic mixture of ryegrass and fine fescues (fine leafed) that is labeled as a “cool season” grass. This will be only used to fill in the thin spots until something better gets established there, so it doesn’t matter what kind of seed you pick for this purpose. Don’t bother with anything else like bluegrass or tall fescue because they won’t establish themselves before the really hot weather arrives later in summer where I live. I’d recommend “Scotts” brand seed for this application because it is very inexpensive (cheap) and usually works well.

If the bare areas are larger than about 6 inches in diameter or if they were seeded last fall and did not green up yet, you can use a different type of grass seed labeled specifically for seeding lawns in early spring. This won’t be an organic mixture because it will need to grow fast while it still gets mostly cool weather before hot summer returns. You can look under the “turfgrass” selection at your local garden center for choices here. I’d go with one of the expensive fescues such as “Tiffany II” grass seed if you can afford to spend the money. “Tiffany II” germinates and establishes itself well through spring and early summer, dies back as the weather begins to get hot in July where I live, and is followed by taller fescue types such as ‘Kentucky 31’ growing into late summer.

Regular bluegrass does not grow enough before heat comes along later in summer to be a good choice for this situation here. You could use a mix that contains half or more of annual ryegrass because it germinates fast and grows a little bit higher than regular bluegrass before getting too warm, but it will also die off at the end of the season with no way to overwinter in your area.

“Kentucky 31” tall fescue is the only type of grass I would consider using for this situation because it survives summer heat and drought well and can be overseeded in August with winter ryegrass to provide a dense cover next spring through fall, even if there is some annual bluegrass mixed in here and there. Kentucky 31 will die out by January where I live, but it reseeds itself very well when watered well during germination. This means you don’t have to do any additional seed work next spring (unless you want to). You would then overseed lightly again that same year (or the following spring) with clover or other cool season grasses to help control erosion and add to the beauty of your lawn.

There is one caveat with seeding a dead thatch layer into your lawn: annual bluegrass, which can be very common in this situation, will not germinate and grow through the only slightly decomposed thatch on top unless you remove at least 1/3 of it to get down to soil level where any seed dropped by birds or blown over from neighboring areas can make contact with moist soil. Otherwise all you’ll get is more annual bluegrass (or clover) growing through the old grass roots sticking up right next to nothing but dry dead stalks. “Eliminating” this type of weed seed contamination problem may require application of compost or other organic material to help rebuild the soil’s nutrient level and structure.

Realize that anything you’re doing in your garden at this point will take 3-4 weeks before it shows up as noticeable green growth, so spring is not the best time for seed work if you want results fast. You can further accelerate germination by raking back the dead grass stalks and applying some type of liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion or any other organic lawn herbicide (e.g., Milorganite) just after seeding and watering well but before new grass has a chance to grow up through all that old dead stuff on top. Be sure to wash any fertilizer off the lawn before it rains within a few days.

You will need to reseed your lawn every year or two because you’re trying to stop it from going back into a dormant stage where the only grass growing is annual bluegrass. This type of weed has a very long life cycle and can overwinter here in Georgia, producing new seeds in spring that germinate all summer through fall (if they get enough water), making it impossible to control this type of grass by seeding alone. There are several ways you can go about doing this: You can use pre-emergent herbicides such as “Preen” between March and June to prevent any germination (and fertilizer won’t do much good after applying pre-emergent). Or you could use a pre-emergent and then overseed several weeks later with annual ryegrass (for quick germination) mixed with bluegrass to give you some color through summer.

You can also wait until mid-summer and then use either of the above methods—or both, if you didn’t get enough seed to do everything at one time around March or April. Fall seeding is acceptable here because your lawn will be completely dormant once it becomes cold and stays that way until spring. This works best if you broadcast seed very thin over the entire lawn area in late September or early October, water daily for 2-3 weeks, and mow several times during this period, as short as possible each time. The seed should sprout in spring, when you will need to fertilize again.

A better method would be to apply a pre-emergent in March or early April when the lawn starts coming back to life (so you don’t have to worry about broadcasting seed onto dry ground) and overseed with clover in May. This may work well where your thatch layer is too thin for annual bluegrass seeds to germinate through it, except for right next to old dead grass stalks. Clover can tolerate some shade but tends to turn yellow after being watered heavily by rain or irrigation—it will go dormant if watering stops for just a few days during August or September because of high summer levels here in Georgia.

Now almost everyone has a garden or gardens.

I love mine. But there are things that should be done early every spring to help the plants to thrive and create lots of bloom or vegetables. Clear out all the debris if it hasn’t been done earlier last fall. Remove sticks, old mulch, pine needles and anything that you consider trash. Then lightly rake in some good fertilizer with a ground rake. The first number should not be high because that’s the nitrogen rating and it is for producing mostly foliage.

You want to bloom, so make sure the second number-phosphate–is the higher one. It’s best to do this in February so that you won’t disturb the bulbs beginning to push up their new shoots. If it’s March and some bulbs have shoots coming up, that’s o.k., because you can work the fertilizer in with a hand tool around them. Don’t overdo it, though. After the fertilizer’s on the ground, water it in.

Next, mulch lightly all over the entire area. I use cedar chips, but pine and oak chips work equally well. Spread a layer not more than 1½ inches over everything, and you’re done. I wait until most of the lilies, peonies, and other perennials are just barely showing to mulch, but first I plant any new bulbs I want to add to the collection. Spring-blooming bulbs should be put out in the fall, but summer bloomers, including tulips, can be put out now. This is also the time to separate some packed Lilies and Iris which have become too thick.

Just cut down with a shovel into the middle of a clump and dig out a half, more or less. Set it aside and keep working across the clump till it’s thinned out. Give away what has been separated out. People usually appreciate a gift of some lovely plants. Don’t worry about plant damage. These types of perennials are very hardy and tough and in fact, they do much better if thinned regularly. Now is the time to lay down the mulch.

Late winter is also a good time to prune back some plants like hydrangeas.

Clear out all of the deadwood and trash it. Plants can become infected with diseases and are more stressed if they’re surrounded by the rotting leaves and twigs left from the last winter. Make absolutely sure that whatever you’re pruning will not bloom on old wood, however. Some varieties of plants cannot be pruned in the spring because they bloom from old cane and not from new shoots. Regard each plant separately and prune accordingly. Any good gardening book will tell what plant can or should be pruned when. It may be necessary to wait till next fall to prune some plants.

If planting a new bush or tree, make sure to dig a large hole at least twice the diameter of the root ball and water in well. It’s not as important to plant deep. There are instructions with illustrations on all commercial trees and shrubs which show exactly the planting depth required. One last caveat, however. Make sure that if planting a tree, that it will not make a shade that eventually can shade out a nearby garden. Many people plant trees without realizing how large they can grow.

Never plant a tree too close to another tree or to a house or garage. It’s not good for the tree and can damage pipes and foundations sometimes as well as being simply ugly. A location is everything in planting. Make sure that any trees, shrubs and garden bulbs and plants that are put in are going to have what they need during the growing season-sunlight, drainage, and room to breathe.

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