11 Spring Lawn Care Tips for Pittsburgh

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man mowing his lawn using a red riding mower

After the rough Pittsburgh winter, it’s time to thaw out and get out of the house. Spring in the City of Champions means it’s time to sit back and enjoy some Pirates games — not time to labor over your lawn. Start planning now so you can enjoy all the local springtime events and have a winning lawn this season.

Here are 11 lawn care tips to get your spring lawn into shape:

  1. Maintain your equipment
  2. Overseed for lush grass
  3. Test your soil
  4. Aerate to let your soil breathe
  5. Do post-winter cleanup
  6. Fertilize
  7. Get rid of grubs
  8. Say goodbye to weeds
  9. Treat lawn diseases
  10. Dethatch
  11. Get ready to landscape

1. Maintain your equipment

Garden shed with lawn care equipment
Arty Guerillas | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

After your lawn equipment has been locked in the shed for the past six months, it needs a little TLC. You don’t want to go for your first mow to find out the mower doesn’t start. Avoid the unexpected by prepping your equipment for the spring season.

Here are some ways you can prepare for yard work ahead of time:

  • Sharpen dull mower blades.
  • Check the gas levels of your gas-powered tools.
  • Check the battery levels of your battery-powered tools.
  • Replace the spark plug, filter, and change the engine oil on your lawn mower.

Why sharp blades are important:

Think of the blade on a mower like a blade on a razor. If you shave with a dull razor blade, it can cause cuts and irritation on your skin. The same happens on the blades of grass. Mowing with dull blades can damage your grass and cause bruising and discoloration. It also can make the grass more vulnerable to disease.

How to tell if your blades are too dull:

Cut a patch of grass and look at its condition. Does it look uneven? Do blades of grass appear torn? If so, it’s time to sharpen your blade.

DIY mowing prep: Sharpen your own blade. 

  • Disconnect the spark plug.
  • Grab a wrench to remove the bolt on the blade. Take off the blade.
  • Get a paint scraper to remove the built-up gunk on the blade.
  • Put the blade in a vice and use a file to sharpen the edge.
  • Hang the blade on a nail to make sure it is relatively level. If one side leans too much to one side, take off more metal to make the blade hang level.
  • Use an air compressor or paint scraper to remove built-up debris from underneath the deck.
  • Put the blade back on the mower.
  • Reconnect the spark plug.

You’re ready to mow! 

Don’t forget to check the blades, batteries, and oil of other pieces of equipment, such as hedge trimmers, leaf blowers, and weed eaters. Keep in mind that you should be changing the oil in your mower every 20-50 working hours. 

2. Overseed for lush grass

Overseeding is a great way to prepare your lawn for the spring. If you use cool-season grasses, the best time to overseed is late summer and early fall. In the fall, the best time to overseed your Pittsburgh lawn is between August and late October. However, if you missed this deadline do not fret: You won’t have to wait out spring and summer with a dry, patchy lawn. Once the snow melts and daily temperatures start reaching 60 degrees, you’ll be able to plan when to overseed bare patches. In Pittsburgh, this is usually the end of March or beginning of April. 

Why overseed?

Overseeding makes your lawn grow thicker and helps to fill in patches where grass has died. Filling in these bare patches will save you money in the long run, preventing a costly full lawn replacement. 

Steps to overseeding your lawn:

  1. Note patchy areas
  2. Test your soil
  3. Get the right kind of seed
  4. Mow to an even height
  5. Aerate
  6. Evenly spread seeds
  7. Rake grass
  8. Fertilize

Make sure you’re overseeding with the right type of grass. If you overseed with a grass that is not the same type or isn’t complementary, your lawn could end up with two completely different-looking grass types. Kentucky bluegrass blends well with most cool-season grasses, especially perennial ryegrass. To spread seed, you can either use your hands or you can rent or invest in a tool to help, such as a rotary spreader or a drop spreader. 

It’s not recommended to overseed with cool-season grass seed as summer approaches. Without enough time to establish before the weather gets too hot, the grass will likely wither and could even die — counteracting your attempt at beautifying your lawn. However, it is still possible to overseed in early spring if the timing is right. The following table shows some of the most popular grass types in Pittsburgh. Use the following chart as your guide to determine the best time to overseed.

Type of GrassBest Temperatures for Planting
Tall Fescue60 – 65 F
Perennial Ryegrass68 – 77 F
Fine-Leaf Fescues60 – 75 F
Kentucky Bluegrass50 – 65 F

Once you overseed, make sure that you pay careful attention to the newly seeded areas. Take care to provide enough water and fertilizer for the new grass to grow. 

3. Test your soil

One step that you can’t skip on your spring lawn care checklist is testing your soil. Soil testing lets you know what elements are missing in your soil and enables you to pick the right fertilizer. Your soil may be lacking nutrients, be too alkaline, or too acidic. 

What influences soil acidity?

  • Rain: Rain carries acids from the atmosphere down to the ground. Carbonic, nitric, and sulfuric acids seep into your soil. Metropolitan areas, like Pittsburgh, have higher levels of acid rain. Pittsburgh receives about 38 inches of rain per year. A high level of rain can leach nutrients from the soil and increase acidity. 
  • Fertilizer: Fertilizers can help balance acidity levels, but if you choose the wrong type it can counteract and increase levels. Fertilizers containing ammonium will lower the soil’s pH level at first; however, it will eventually increase levels of acidity because after it is added to the soil it converts to nitrate. 
  • Microbes: The job of microbes is to help decompose organic matter. This leads to carbon dioxide being stored in the soil and can lead to higher levels of acidity. 

It’s best to keep your soil’s pH levels between 6.0 and 7.0. Having soil that is too acidic can damage your plant’s roots and make it difficult for them to grow. 

How to test your soil:

Generally, the best time to test your soil is between August and Labor Day. This ensures that you’ll have enough time to make amendments before overseeding and fertilizing. However, if you didn’t test earlier in the year, it’s still a good idea to test your soil in the spring as the ground is thawing from the winter. 

There are two testing options: a soil test kit you can use at home, or send a sample to a soil testing lab. Soil test kits are easy to use and inexpensive. They let you know your soil’s pH level and whether or not the soil has nutritional deficiencies. However, outside of that, they don’t provide much information. If you’re looking for a full soil analysis, it’s a good idea to send a sample to a soil testing lab. You can contact the Penn State Extension office to find out more about inexpensive soil testing options. 

After getting your soil tested and making necessary amendments wait at least a month before you add fertilizer to avoid any counteractivity between the amendments and the fertilizer. 

4. Aerate to let your soil breathe

If your lawn experiences a lot of thatch buildup, foot traffic, or grows in a dense type of soil, you should definitely plan on aerating. After a lot of foot traffic and time, the ground becomes too compact, making it difficult for nutrients to soak into the soil. Aeration allows for the soil to breathe and makes room for nutrients to seep into the ground. 

Benefits of aerating:

  • Helps soil absorb nutrients and water
  • Helps establish newly planted grass
  • Reduces thatch
  • Stimulates growth
  • Limits weeds
  • Smooths out bumps in your lawn

There are two aeration processes:

  • Coring: removing plugs of soil from the lawn
  • Spiking: using spikes to poke holes in the lawn

Professionals recommend coring because it frees up more room than spiking. Coring enables more breathing room, and for nutrients and water to more efficiently seep into the soil. 

If you’re planning on aerating in the spring, the best time is between March and May. If your lawn experiences a lot of thatch buildup and foot traffic, you should plan to aerate every year or two. Otherwise, every two to four years is a good aeration schedule. If you have the time, you can aerate annually without any detriment to your lawn. 

5. Do post-winter cleanup

person pushing a wheelbarrow full of cut tree branches
Nenad Stojkovic | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Winter storms in Pittsburgh can leave a lot of debris laying all around your yard. Take the time to remove branches and other debris to help your lawn get back into shape. Cleaning up debris is important because it lets your lawn breathe and creates space for the new blades of grass to rise when the snow melts. 

It’s also important to remove debris because leaving it is an invitation for pests and diseases to come and destroy your lawn, leading to patchy grass and snow mold. 

6. Fertilize

Strengthen your lawn with an application of fertilizer. The best time to fertilize your Pittsburgh is from late April to early May. This will help your lawn recover from the snowy winter while preparing your lawn for the summer heat. Keep in mind that fertilizer should not be applied until the soil temperature is at least 55 degrees. 

The most important components of fertilizer are nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Nitrogen is key to growth and is the main component in most fertilizers. Use your soil test to determine whether you should get a fertilizer that is high in potassium and/or phosphorus. Avoid burning your grass with a slow-release fertilizer. 

Pro Tip: Experts recommend using a spreader to evenly distribute fertilizer instead of doing it by hand. 

7. Get rid of grubs

two birds standing in the grass
marneejill | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Don’t put a ton of work into your lawn just to let grubs ruin it. These unsightly creatures can damage the roots of grass, eventually killing it. Grub-infected lawns are very attractive to other creatures such as raccoons, birds, and moles, who will dig into your lawn and cause more damage.

Grubs are not all bad. They’re known as “nature’s de-thatchers” because they help get rid of thatch that has built up in your soil. Trouble is they also consume organic matter and plant roots. 

Pittsburgh grubs do the most damage in late summer and into autumn. Therefore, the summertime is the best time to apply pesticides to your lawn. You can get ahead of the grubs by applying a product that contains chlorantraniliprole to your lawn in the spring. This preventative measure will help you in the long run.

It’s best to avoid using catch-all pesticides. They are bad for the environment and can kill insects that are actually beneficial to your yard and garden. The best option is to use a selective pesticide that’s specifically designed to target the grub you’re looking to remove. 

Common grubs in Pittsburgh include:

  • Japanese Beetle
    • Japanese beetle grubs are 1/16 inch to 1¼ inch long. Larvae are C-shaped and have an off-white color.
  • June Beetle
    • June beetle grubs are ¼ to 2 inches long and are cream-colored. Their pupae are ½ inch long and brown-colored.
  • May Beetle
    • May beetle grubs are C-shaped, up to 1¼ inches long, have cream-colored bodies, red-brown heads, and three pairs of legs.

How to tell whether or not you have a grub problem:

If you can quickly count 10 grubs, then it’s time to buy pesticides. If you find more than six, then start considering how you can improve the health of your lawn. Less than five? Then there’s no need to worry. 

How to prevent grubs:

The best way to prevent grubs is to keep your lawn healthy and look out for excessive thatch buildup.

8. Say goodbye to weeds

Springtime is when everything green likes to grow, including weeds. 

In early spring, you should apply a pre-emergent herbicide. This will keep weeds like crabgrass at bay. Pre-emergent herbicide is used if you do not see any weeds in your yard and want to prevent them from sprouting. After you have established your spring lawn, if you find any weeds then you would apply a post-emergent herbicide

Annual cool-season weeds will automatically die as the temperature gets hotter. Watch out for the perennial weeds — they are very tough and will return until you are able to kill them with herbicides. 

9. Treat lawn diseases

dark patches called dollar spot, on an area of grass
Scot Nelson | Flickr | CC0 1.0

Humid and wet conditions can lead to fungal diseases in Pittsburgh lawns. The most common signs of many of these diseases are matted grass and fungus growth.

How to minimize lawn disease:

  • Plant disease-resistant cool-season grass.
  • Avoid high levels of nitrogen. 
  • Only water in the morning.

The six most common types of lawn disease in Pittsburgh are brown patch, dollar spot, powdery mildew, fairy ring, snow mold, and red thread. Continue reading to learn more about identifying and treating these diseases.

Brown Patch

What to look for:

  • Brown patch can be identified by the unsightly patches of brown or gray grass. These circular or irregular-shaped patches range in size from a few inches to several feet. Brown patch can form what is called a “smoke ring” — a gray and white band that encloses the patch. Brown patch is a fungal disease that emerges during hot, humid weather. If infected, cool-season grasses can start showing symptoms by late spring. 

How to treat brown patch:

  • Look for a fungicide that includes triadimefon, myclobutanil, PCNB, maneb, thiophanate-methyl, or propiconazole.

Dollar Spot

What to look for:

  • Dollar spot can be identified by silver-dollar-sized dead spots it creates in the lawn as a result of the fungal disease forming lesions on grass blades. You can identify dollar spot by the straw-colored dead spots or through a layer of white growth that appears on your grass in the mornings. It occurs in spring, summer, and fall. 

How to treat dollar spot:

  • Some dollar spot strains can be resistant to fungicide. Alternate between various fungicides to best treat affected areas.

Powdery Mildew

What to look for:

  • Powdery mildew is caused by several types of fungi and can be identified by leaves covered in a “powdery” white-colored mold. At first glance, the mold may seem like cobwebs. Infected leaves can turn yellow and wither. It’s caused by humid weather, reduced air circulation, and low levels of sunlight. 

How to treat powdery mildew:

  • Fine fescues and some varieties of Kentucky bluegrass are more vulnerable to powdery mildew than other grasses. Powdery mildew is very difficult to treat, so it is important to take preventative measures, including applying a preventative herbicide. 

Fairy Ring

What to look for:

  • Fairy ring is most commonly known for the ring of mushrooms it forms. It also creates a ring of dead grass as well as a ring of darker green grass growth. These rings can range in size from a couple of centimeters to several feet. Keep pets and children away because the mushrooms are poisonous. It occurs most often during the spring and summer.

How to treat fairy ring:

  • If you only see mushrooms (no dead ring of grass or dark green ring of grass), simply rake them away. However, if there is more damage, you will need to completely remove the infected soil by digging about a foot deep. Refill and re-seed this area of your lawn.

Snow Mold

What to look for:

  • Snow mold has two varieties: pink snow mold and gray snow mold. Gray snow mold causes bleached, circular patches reaching about 2 feet wide. After the snow melts, infected areas will appear matted. Gray snow mold is often surrounded by a ring of white or gray fungal growth. Similar to gray snow mold, pink snow mold appears in circular, bleached patches. The difference is that pink snow mold has a more pinkish tint. 

How to treat snow mold:

  • Rake the mold away, then apply a fungicide. Some fungicides contain active ingredients that can work with both gray and pink snow mold. These ingredients include azoxystrobin, bacillus subtilis, and propiconazole. One active ingredient that works best with pink snow mold is thiophanate-methyl. Be sure to distinguish between the types of snow mold because they will each have different responses to different types of fungicide

Red Thread

What to look for:

  • Red thread can spread across your lawn with irregular-sized red-pink patches. Infected grass blades will die and turn tan. Red thread primarily infects bluegrasses, fescues, and ryegrasses, especially those that are growing in nitrogen-deficient soil. It occurs during warm and humid weather during the spring and fall.

How to treat red thread:

10. Dethatch

What is thatch?

Thatch is an interwoven layer of dead and living grass shoots. It forms when grass grows too rapidly and doesn’t leave enough time for the dead grass to decompose. 

Why dethatch? 

Thatch buildup should be prevented because it can lead to several problems: 

  • It prevents root growth.
  • It keeps nutrients from being absorbed in the soil.
  • It is a home for disease-causing insects and fungi. 
  • It can hold onto moisture, increasing the potential for fungal growth and disease. 

You can spot thatch buildup by looking for dry spots, increased levels of pests and disease, and noticeably weak grass. Dethatching can be done using either a rake or a dethatcher. You should dethatch when the soil is moist but not too wet. 

It’s best to dethatch in early spring, once the grass has begun to grow and the soil is still moist from melted snow. 

11. Get ready to landscape

landscaping with plants and flowers along the edges of a yard
F. D. Richards | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

It is best to start planting in April, once the soil temp begins to reach 65 to 75 degrees. It’s never too early to start planning your flower or vegetable gardens. Plant some indoors to give them a head start, and transplant them once the weather is nice.

How to tell if your soil is ready: 

Use “the squeeze test” — a neat trick where you dig your hand into the ground, remove a handful of soil, and then squeeze it. If the soil is still clumpy and dripping, it is too early to plant. If the soil is crumbly and not so wet, it’s ready for your plants. 

The last snowfall in Pittsburgh usually occurs in March or April, so don’t plan to start planting outside until then. Look at a planting calendar to find out the planting dates for specific vegetables and flowers. 

Love your lawn year-round

If you want a winning Pittsburgh lawn, it takes some preparation in the spring. If you spend the time getting it ready, it will be lush and green year-round. With less lawn maintenance, you will have more time to enjoy the ball games, parks, and other Pittsburgh-area attractions.

Want a beautiful lawn but don’t have the time to do it yourself? Contact a Pittsburgh lawn care expert who is happy to help you grow a lawn you can enjoy. 

Main Photo Credit: Needpix.com

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