If you’re looking forward to fun activities and time outdoors this summer in this “City of Trees,” start preparing your lawn in the pre-season. Spring is the perfect time to give your lawn the attention it needs to get off to a healthy start after the winter season.
Here are a few lawn chores to help your Charlotte lawn thrive:
- Ace the (soil) test
- Prevent weeds
- Turn on the sprinklers
- Wait to water
- ID diseases and insects
- Treat weeds
- Aerate, dethatch, and fertilize
1. Ace the (soil) test
The best way to help your lawn is to know what it needs. And the best way to do that is with a soil test.
North Carolina makes this easy for homeowners. Contact the Mecklenburg County Extension office for a small cardboard box and form. Then, take a soil sample.
- Wait until after you take a soil test to add compost or other amendments.
- Get a stainless steel or plastic trowel and bucket.
- Take 5-10 samples from all over the sample area.
- Dig 4” deep to sample a lawn or 6” deep to sample a garden.
- Mix the samples together and put the soil in the box.
- Mail in the box or drop it by your local Extension office.
- Wait a few weeks for the results.
- You’re ready to grow!
From April 1-Nov. 30, the test is free. From Dec. 1-March 31, the test is $4.
2. Prevent weeds
If you already see weeds in your lawn, skip this and go to “Treat weeds” below. If none of your summer weeds have sprouted yet, this information is for you.
Early spring is the time to prevent summer annual weeds, like crabgrass, from sprouting. Timing is critical to making sure your pre-emergent herbicide is effective. In Charlotte, plan to apply a pre-emergent from mid-February to early March, or right before the dogwoods start blooming. If you want advice from other local gardeners, contact the Mecklenburg County Extension office to talk to their staff, or contact a Master Gardener volunteer.
3. Turn on the sprinklers
Getting a sprinkler appointment with your landscaper in late spring is like showing up at opening time to the DMV: If you’re not early, you’re sunk. It’s best to call your landscaper or sprinkler company in late winter to schedule your spring start-up appointment.
Once the sprinklers are ready to go, do an irrigation audit (or tuna can test) to make sure your sprinklers are watering the lawn evenly.
- Grab as many tin cans as you can find. Use at least five cans per zone.
- Turn on the sprinklers for five minutes.
- Do some math.
- Divide the number one by how much water you collected in each can.
- For example, if your cans collected ¼ inch:
1/.25 = 4
- Multiply that number by 5
4 x 5 = 20
- The answer (20, in this example) is how many minutes to run your sprinklers to add one inch of water to the lawn.
Congratulations! You’ve completed your first irrigation audit!
If you find that the spray heads are hitting the concrete, now is the time to make those adjustments. Or, if you have water running onto paved surfaces, your soil may not be absorbing the water fast enough. In that case, set your system to run on intervals to give the soil time to absorb the water and prevent runoff.
4. Wait to water
Establishing a good watering routine in the spring will help the grass grow strong for the upcoming summer season. Don’t turn on the sprinklers just yet: Wait until the lawn is actively growing to start watering, and only water if rainfall is insufficient. When you water, use a screwdriver or other tool to make sure the soil is wet 4-6 inches deep.
Deep, but infrequent, watering is best. This helps the roots grow deep into the soil to search for water and increases the drought tolerance of your lawn. So, if you do have to water your lawn, try to apply a week’s worth of water in a single day.
Another tip is to wait until you see signs of drought stress to water the lawn. In other words, let the grass tell you when it needs water rather than putting it on a set schedule. Grass that wilts, curls, or folds is telling you it’s time to water.
|Grass Type||Water Needs March-May*||Tips|
|Tall Fescue||1-1 ¼ inch per week.This grass is an exception to the “deep but infrequent” rule. This grass does best with a few waterings per week.||If you have sandy soil, try watering ½ inch every three days. If you have clay soil, run the system at intervals so the soil has time to absorb all of the water.|
|Bermudagrass||1 inch per week||Sandy soils benefit from ½ inch of water every three days.|
|Centipedegrass||1 inch per week||Sandy soils benefit from ½ inch of water every three days.|
|Kentucky Bluegrass Mixed with Tall Fescue and/or Fine Fescue||1-1 ¼ inch per week||If you have sandy soil, try watering ½ inch every three days. If you have clay soil, run the system on intervals so the soil has time to absorb all of the water.|
|St. Augustinegrass||1 inch per week||Sandy soils benefit from ½ inch of water every three days.|
|Zoysiagrass||0.5 to 1 inch per week||Sandy soils benefit from ½ inch of water every three days.|
**To see watering info for the rest of the year, click on the hyperlink in the Grass Type column to see NCSU’s full lawn maintenance calendar.
One last tip: Set your sprinkler to water between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. This helps prevent fungal diseases.
Before you start mowing, sharpen your mower blade. This is a crucial step if you want your mower blade to cut the grass instead of shredding it. A shredded blade of grass is susceptible to disease, so sharpen your blade a few times per year to help prevent unnecessary risk.
Sharpening your mower blade is fairly simple and requires a few basic tools.
- Paint scraper or air compressor
- Metal file
- Vice to hold the blade
How to sharpen your lawn mower blade:
- Disconnect the spark plug.
- Remove the lawn mower blade using a wrench.
- Remove buildup debris on the blade using a paint scraper.
- Place the mower blade in a vice. Sharpen the edge with a file.
- Hang the blade on a nail. Make sure it hangs relatively level. If one side is leaning, file a little more off of that side until the blade is level.
- Remove debris from underneath the lawn mower deck using a paint scraper or air compressor.
- Replace the mower blade.
- Reconnect the spark plug.
You’re ready for a clean spring cut!
Mowing the lawn at the right height is one of the easiest ways to help your lawn stay healthy. If you cut the lawn at its preferred height, you are helping it produce enough food for itself and grow deep roots.
Follow this mowing chart to mow at the right height for your grass type.
|Grass Type||Time of Year**||Mowing Height|
|Tall Fescue||March-May||2.5-3.5 inches|
|Kentucky Bluegrass Mix||March-May||2.5-3.5 inches|
|St. Augustinegrass||March-May||2.5-4 inches|
Don’t forget the One-Third Rule of Mowing: Never mow more than ⅓ of the blade at one time. This may sound trivial, but cutting more than ⅓ of the blade causes too much stress on your lawn. If your lawn has become slightly overgrown, take the height down over several mowings.
Finally, leave the clippings on the lawn. This is free fertilizer for you, and the grass loves the nutrients. Grass clippings can supply as much as 25% of your lawn’s annual fertilizer requirements.
6. ID diseases and insects
Disease and insect problems can be hard to identify and harder to treat. Contact your Mecklenburg Cooperative Extension office or Master Gardener volunteer for help identifying and treating problems in your lawn.
What to look for:
- Dead patches in the yard, irregularly shaped. Affects warm- and cool-season grasses. White grubs are the immature form (larvae) of the scarab beetle. They look like a small white or clear caterpillar with a red head.
How to treat grubs:
- First, test to make sure grubs are the problem: Cut out one square foot of turf 2-3 inches deep. Pick up the piece of sod and count the grubs. Ten or more grubs per square foot is considered a significant problem. You also can try the “tug test.” Try to pull up some of the damaged lawn. If the turf comes out easily, grubs may be your problem. Grubs destroy grass roots, but diseased turf usually has an intact root system.
- The most effective time to apply insecticides is August to October because of their smaller size, but it is still possible to use insecticides in April or early May. If you have a serious grub infestation, consider speaking with a local Extension or Master Gardener expert before applying insecticides for grubs. A few factors, such as timing and watering, are critical.
- If you prefer a more natural approach, you can try milky spore or nematodes to control the grub population.
Spring dead spot
What to look for:
- Dead patches from 6 inches to several feet wide. Can be in a circle or irregular pattern. Affects bermudagrass and Zoysia.
How to treat spring dead patch:
- Consider aerating the soil to reduce compaction and improve drainage. If your thatch level is above ½ inch, consider dethatching as well. If you want to apply fungicides, wait until the fall.
Brown patch (also known as large patch)
What to look for:
- Dead patches from 6 inches to several feet wide. Can be in a yellowish-brown circle or irregular pattern. Affects bermuda (rarely), centipede, St. Augustine, and Zoysia.
How to treat brown patch:
- Start by aerating the soil in late spring if the soil is compacted to allow for better water drainage. Change your watering time: Set your sprinklers to water before sunrise to help the grass dry quickly. If these methods aren’t sufficient, fungicides may help, but you’ll have to wait until fall to apply.
What to look for:
- Dead or dying sections of grass that seem to be expanding over time. Can mimic other common St. Augustine problems. To identify chinch bugs in the lawn, try the coffee can method: Cut out the bottom of a coffee can, push into the soil, and fill with water. If you have 20+ chinch bugs in one square foot, you know it’s time to treat. Chinch bugs are most common in St. Augustine lawns.
How to treat chinch bugs:
- If your soils are compacted, aerate starting in late spring once the grass is growing well and can recover. Too much thatch can contribute to chinch bug problems. If your thatch level is over ½ inch, you can dethatch St. Augustinegrass as early as June. Be sure to mow at the proper height and water at one inch weekly if there is no rain. Fertilize with ½ pound of nitrogen a few weeks after green-up. If this doesn’t clear up the problem, there are insecticides for chinch bug suppression.
7. Treat weeds
If you see weeds sprouting up in the lawn, it’s too late to apply pre-emergents. You’ll need to look at options for post-emergent weed control.
To prevent grass injury:
- Don’t apply post-emergents until three weeks after your lawn has greened up.
- Be sure the product you use is appropriate for your grass type. Read the label before you buy.
If you’re interested in organic or chemical-free methods, consider a weed torch, which is useful around metal fence lines, driveways, and ornamental beds. Steam also does the trick.
Using torches or steam in your lawn may be a little tricky since you don’t want to kill the grass along with the weeds. For the lawn, there are many OMRI-certified (i.e. organic) products you can buy at big box stores, or you can use horticultural vinegar. Whatever method you choose, treating the weeds as soon as you see them will yield the best results.
Note of caution: If you use horticultural vinegar, be sure to protect yourself. This vinegar is much stronger than household vinegar. If you get this on your skin or eyes, it can cause permanent damage, even blindness. Always follow the instructions on the label.
Finally, you can hand-pull. It’s not glamorous, but it doesn’t cost you anything but sweat equity. You can probably skip the trip to the gym that day, too.
8. Aerate, dethatch, and fertilize
Aeration is like giving your lawn a steam facial: It opens up the pores of your lawn. When you aerate your lawn, the soil gets more air, which helps the grass to better absorb water and nutrients.
Dethatching is like daily face washing: It helps remove excess buildup over time. More than one-half inch of thatch can create a home for insects and increase disease risks. Aeration will remove some thatch, but if you have more than ½ inch, consider renting a dethatching machine.
After you aerate or dethatch, apply fertilizer if your soil test recommends it. Compost is a great natural alternative to synthetic fertilizers.
|Grass Type||When to Aerate||When to Dethatch||Fertilize in Spring?|
|Tall Fescue||Sept.-Nov.||N/A||Can fertilize up to March 15|
|Bermudagrass||Late spring-early summer||Late May or June-August||0.5-1 lb. of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. in April or May, several weeks after green-up|
|Centipedegrass||Late spring-early summer||Late May. Set blades 2-3 inches apart at ¼ inch depth.||No – can use iron (ferrous) sulfate if needed to help the lawn take on a greener color|
|Kentucky Bluegrass Mix||Sept.-Nov.||N/A||Can fertilize up to March 15|
|St. Augustinegrass||Late spring or early summer. If you need to dethatch as well, wait and dethatch and aerate together in June.||June||0.5-1 lb. of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. several weeks after green-up. If you have an iron deficiency, spray iron (ferrous) sulfate.|
|Zoysiagrass||Late spring-early summer||Dethatch in late spring after green-up or from June-July. Remove only a little thatch at a time. Zoysiagrass recovers slowly.||0.5 lb. of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. at least three weeks after green-up.|
Mulch is a humble, often overlooked presence on most lawns, but when it’s not there, your plants know the difference.
Mulch provides a multitude of benefits:
- Conserves water (and money)
- Protects the roots during the summer and the crowns during the winter
- Helps control weeds
- Keeps dirt from hitting the lower leaves
- Enriches the soil as it decomposes
- Helps control erosion
Be smart and choose the right mulch for your lawn. Some mulches provide shelter for pests. Follow these tips to avoid pests in your mulched beds:
- Leave a 6-inch barrier between the mulch and your foundation.
- Rake out the old mulch before applying fresh mulch.
- Two inches of mulch is plenty; don’t over-apply.
Now that you know the basics, let’s get into what types of mulch you can choose from:
- Pine straw
We’ve talked about your flower beds, but what about your trees? In a city that prizes and dotes on its tree canopy, taking care of your trees is a mark of civic pride and responsibility. With trees, keep two things in mind:
- Keep the mulch 2 to 3 inches away from the root flare.
- Don’t apply more than 2 to 3 inches of mulch. That is plenty.
Have you ever seen trees that were piled high with 6 or more inches of mulch? That is called a “mulch volcano” and is not healthy for your trees! Mulching around trees is simple, but it’s important to do it the right way.
One final tip: Wait until after the soil warms up to apply a new round of mulch to your lawn to avoid trapping cold air next to your plants.
If your spring to-do list is already full, contact a Charlotte lawn care professional today to get your lawn off to a great start this spring or any time of the year.
Main Photo Credit: leisergu | Flickr | CC BY 2.0