Spring: The Lawn and Its Care
Spring is a wonderful time of year. Mother Earth renews her promise with many beautiful sights and sounds, reminding us of the life-giving side her nature; the days are longer, the sun shines brighter, and many organisms re-awaken from their long winter slumber. This is true for bears, butterflies, flowers—ever your lawn.
It can be a sensitive time for your lawn—particularly for those with grass as opposed to fescue. The soil is spongy, the grass is tender, and the weather is unpredictable. The lawn and plants are growing again. As plants re-emerge, depending on the species, they can often be delicate. Nevertheless, spring is the perfect time to begin caring for your landscape so it will be full and healthy in time for the summer months. Your yard will thank you for being gentle this time of year, but it will also thank you for addressing a few important spring tasks.
Avoid heavy yard work in the spring until the soil dries out – foot traffic and hard raking can compact or disturb soggy soil and damage any re-emerging lawn shoots (particularly with fine grass). Once the soil is dry, give your lawn a good spring cleaning to encourage grass growth and discourage pests and diseases. Remove leaves, fallen debris and use a soft rake to gently fluff up and separate the lawn shoots.
Lawns: Grasses and Fescues
It is important to understand which type of lawn you have. There are two major kinds of lawns: grasses and fescues. Grasses have thinner blades and are much softer. However, this means your grass lawn is also delicate, easily damaged and requires more of your attention. A perfectly cared for grass lawn (especially bluegrass) can be very pretty, but is for the homeowner whose purpose for having a lawn is more aesthetic than anything else; otherwise prepare for a lot of maintenance. It will not handle heavy traffic well, is intolerant to droughts, disease, dies almost invariably when exposed to dog urine. Choose your grass carefully according to where you live; it may not do well in frosts (bluegrass and rye both fair better than other grasses), or high heat (except for St. Augustine and Bermuda).
Because grasses aren't as durable as fescues and have to be re-seeded periodically (especially lawns that get a lot of use), there are hybrid blends available to help manage their quality an longevity. For example, in order to get some of the color of a Kentucky bluegrass or the softness of a rye, an 80/20 might be appropriate; that is 80% fescue and 20% grass. Other mixes include a 90/10 or a 50/50. Jefferson Landscape and Design recommends and usually installs an "Enduro" or "Bonsai" dwarf fescue with great success. Its hunter green color doesn't fade, it can handle heavy traffic, doesn't get bare spots, and is more dog resilient than other lawns. Fescue has a thicker blade and is therefore rougher, but it's also as resistant to drought and disease as any lawn. Because we use a dwarf fescue (as opposed to a tall fescue), it grows slower and doesn't have to be mowed as often. We highly recommend it for our clients.
Spring lawn care depends on the type of lawn you are growing. Cool-season grasses such as bluegrass and rye tend to have two (2) growth spurts – a moderate one in the spring, and a faster one in the fall. They can go semi-dormant and sometimes struggle in the hot summer months (depending on which zone you live in). The Bay Area's climate is highly diverse and has many zones; so it depends largely on where you live and how much shade it gets. A fescue lawn will do well in all Bay Area zones. Warm-season grasses such as St. Augustine and Bermuda thrive in the heat, then go dormant during winter. They begin growing after the last spring chill and grow faster by midsummer. The dwarf fescue Jefferson Landscape and Design installs also slows down in the winter.
When starting your initial lawn and yard clean-up be very gentile. Avoid heavy foot traffic and hard raking (especially on grasses) until the soil is completely dry or you run the risk of damaging tender new shoots. Once the soil is dry give your lawn a good raking. This encourages grass growth and discourages pests and diseases. Remove leaves and fallen debris, and gently rake to fluff up and separate the grass shoots.
If you plan to fill in bare spots or establish a new lawn with seed, plan your activities according to the type of grass. Cool-season grasses should be planted in the fall and can be planted as soon as the temperatures reach the 60's. Use the spring for patching cool-season grass bare spots and keep your lawn well-watered during the summer. This gives the seedlings a chance to get established before the hot weather hits. Late spring is the best time to plant warm-season grasses, and once the temperatures reach the 70's.
Keep your seeds watered and a dutiful eye on them as birds have a tendency to eat the seeds before they have a chance to establish roots.
It is a good idea to use a light coat of planting soil to cover the seeds even if you are filling in bare spots, to hide the seeds from birds. Also avoid heavy foot traffic in those areas since new grass shoots are fragile. Jefferson Landscape and Design installs sod 98% of the time. It's rare, but once in a while a client will request it or there's a situation where seed is helpful. Sod is a more successful way to install a lawn and contrary to what people think, not anymore expensive. In fact, some seeding projects can be more expensive; it just depends.
The type of grass you have will influence when and how you should fertilize your lawn:
Resist the urge to heavily fertilize your cool-season grasses in the spring. Spring feeding encourages rapid tender growth that will struggle to survive the heat of summer, particularly in drought-prone areas. If your lawn is in bad shape, fertilize lightly in spring with a balanced, slow-release fertilizer. Save the heavier feedings for fall, when cool-season grasses are at their peak growing season. Warm-season grasses: Fertilize in late spring as soon as the lawn “greens up” and begins actively growing. Warm-season grasses, such as St. Augustine, can be fertilized in late spring.
The best time to prevent weeds when a using a pre-emergent herbicide is before it rains. This prevents weed seeds from germinating.
Best done during your lawn’s peak growing season. For warm-season grasses and fescues, this means early to mid-summer. For cool-season grasses, aeration is best saved for the fall, but can be repeated in the spring if the soil is extremely compacted. Wait until your lawn has been mowed 2-3 times in the season, so you’ll be sure it is growing fast enough to recover from the aeration.
Also best done during peak growing season, right before aerating.
Begin mowing ten says after sod is installed and after dormant seasons, as soon as your lawn needs it. To avoid yellow-tipping, grass blades do best when you cut no more than a third of the blade’s length at a time.
Always water in the evening so the water has time to do its job and can reach the roots prior to evaporation. Once your grass starts growing, you’ll need to make sure your lawn gets at least 1” of water per week. Once established, you can lessen your watering, but use common sense. The hotter months need more water than the cooler ones.
Spring is a good time to address problems with ants. Many other insects may also cause damage to your lawn in spring, but are more effectively controlled later in the summer.
Sharpen your lawnmower blades and tune up your lawnmower. This will make mowing a breeze and resist damaging your lawn. You can begin mowing as soon as your lawn needs it. Grass does best when the blades are cut no more than a third of their length.