The Q&A Archives: Lawn Care For Spring

Question: Spring is Springing! It's time for me to get going on my lawn. I took a soil test yesterday, and it says I need lime and nitrogen. How do I add nitrogen to my lawn? I've been working on this lawn for four years. What a challenge! It's been neglected for ages -- I mean NEGLECTED. I'm getting there though. Can you give me some of the steps I should take? Should I aerate my lawn first? Then add my fertilizer, etc.? What steps should I take for the grubs and or cutworms? Should I treat them now with the fertilizer? They've already started to attack the roots of my Perennial garden.

Answer: Wow! You are certainly ambitious tackling this lawn job. But let's not make your job any more work than necessary. For example do you need to aerate? Aeration is an important function if your soil is heavily compacted. Power core aerators do the best job. A professional can come in to do the work in a short time, for a reasonable sum. Or you can rent a power core aerator. Some say they are a bit difficult to handle, like a very large tiller. The non-powered, hand/foot driven aerators are tedious to use, but are sufficient if you are able to use them as directed. A last resort would be a pitchfork, or "aerator shoes" which make holes in the lawn, without removing any cores of dirt.

You will want to verify the presence of a damaging population of insects before adding pesticides to your lawn. Pesticides will not only kill the unwanted insects, but will also destroy the beneficial worms and microorganisms that live in the soil. It's these 'good guys' in the grass that work hard to decompose the thatch buildup in your lawn. If you have a lot of thatch, chances are your lawn may have been over-treated and is not hospitable to these powerful 'thatch-busters'. Further, you need to know what insect you are dealing with. Grubs and cutworms are not the same. The cutworms in your garden are the larvae of night-flying moths. Grubs on the other hand are the larvae of different beetles, most notably, but not exclusively, 'June bugs,' and Japanese beetles.

Using temporary "collars" on transplants can control damage from cutworms in the garden. Encouraging birds in the garden is the best control for many pesky insects.

Grub damage in lawn is noted by a spongy feel to the lawn, and by brown patches and loose sod in spring or summer. Reducing the population of beetles this year will reduce the grub problem next year. Birds, again, are a great free source of insect control. Plant I started mowing high, the few broadleaf weeds that do occasionally pop up in my lawn can be easily hand dug out, without the need for an additional chemical herbicide applied to my lawn! As I said in the beginning, why make more work for yourself than necessary, especially when it comes to lawns? We gardeners would rather spend the day in our flower and vegetable beds, wouldn't we?! trees and shrubs that provide berries and shelter for them.

You can improve a neglected lawn by "top-dressing" it, which is adding a thin layer of topsoil or compost to your lawn in the fall. It adds those wonderful microorganisms that help control thatch, it improves drainage and aeration, and it buries disease spores. A thin layer (3/8 inch) of any material rich in organic matter will do: topsoil, ground seaweed, rotted sawdust, well-rotted manure, or peat moss (although peat would not be good for your particular lawn since it is already too acidic according to your test results). An ideal top-dressing is compost because it contains nutrients as well, and you may not need to further fertilize your lawn.

As for applying nitrogen, that's what the first number in a chemical formula for fertilizer is. For example, 15-10-3 is the Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium ratio in the fertilizer. In this example, the 15 shows a higher amount of Nitrogen that the other nutrients (Phosphorus 10 and Potassium 3). Nitrogen is necessary for green growth. However too much will 'burn' a lawn, browning it out, so don't be tempted to overdo! Different lawns can have different needs, but the Purdue University turf experts recommend two applications of fertilizer per year, one in September and the other in November. Spring applications result in excessive top growth and therefore extra work on your part in mowing! Lime is also best applied in the fall, but spring is OK too. Follow the soil test recommendations.

Another important recommendation from the Purdue experts is to not mow lower than 2 or 3 inches. Measure your lawn to determine this height. You may be surprised at how short you are cutting it! Grass forms its own barrier against many weeds if allowed to develop to this height. Grass cut too short allows weeds seeds to readily germinate. Try it -- it really works! Since

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