Traditional Spring Lawn Care is Done Wrong

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Robert Pavlis

Lawn care is an important part of a gardeners job but there are several myths surrounding this work. What should you do, and not do, to your grass in spring?

In this post I will look at lawn maintenance for temperate climates that grow cool growing types of grass.

girl pushing a lawn mower
Mowing height is important for proper lawn care, source: Depositphotos

Spring Lawn Care – Don’t

The sun is shining, the snow is gone and you want to get outside and do some gardening. It is only April 1 but I know the gardener inside of you is also tugging hard to get going.

Here is a simple rule for caring for your lawn in spring – DO NOTHING!

At this time of year the ground is wet and the soil compacts easily. Stay off the grass so you don’t compact the soil. The best thing you can do for your lawn in zone 5 is to stay off of it until mid May. In warmer zones you can walk on it a few weeks sooner, and in colder zones stay off even longer.

Raking Thatch

The first job many people do is rake their lawn to get rid of grass thatch, but in many cases that is a bad idea.

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Some thatch is good for a lawn. It keeps the roots cool in summer, and helps maintain moisture in the soil. Too much thatch can be a problem since it prevents water and air from getting into the soil.

How much thatch is too much? A thatch layer of less than 1/2 inch (1.5 cm) is not a problem and should be left alone.

Raking small amounts of thatch with a rake causes several problems. Walking on the grass while you are doing it compacts the soil. Raking damages the grass roots. And removing small amounts of thatch exposes grass roots to more heat in summer.

If you really do have a thatch problem rent a dethatcher to do the job properly, or get a professional to do it for you. It should be done in fall – not spring. Rakes and dethatching blades for lawnmowers are not very effective.

Liquid Biological dethatchers have become more popular recently. They are easy to apply by the homeowner, but they don’t work.

To learn more about lawn thatch have a look at Dethatching Lawn Thatch.

Rolling The Lawn

You are probably thinking that the lawn is very irregular and it really needs to be rolled while the ground is still soft. This is a very common myth. Rolling will flatten out the irregularities and make it look better, but it also compacts the soil, making it harder for grass to grow.

Compost Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

An existing lawn should never be rolled.

What do you do about the irregularities? One option is to do nothing. Small irregularities will work themselves out on their own and will less visible once the grass has grown more.

If you want to fix the problem, follow these rules. For spots that are slightly low, add of soil on top of the low spots every year. Over time your grass will become flatter.

For high spots and major low spots, it is best to use a flat bladed shovel to dig up a section of grass that is about 1 inch thick. Then either add soil or remove soil. Replace the piece of grass, and keep it well watered until new roots form.

For more information about rolling the lawn have a look at Lawn Roller – Should You Use One?

Fighting Weeds

The best way to fight weeds in a lawn, without using herbicides, is to grow thick grass by fertilizing in spring and fall, watering when needed and doing a core aeration at least once a year.

Corn gluten can be used to control weeds and it does work provided it is done at the right time, and the correct amount is used.

Fertilizing

When selecting your fertilizer make sure the middle number is zero (eg 15-0-3) so that you are not adding unnecessary phosphates to the environment. Most soil does not need more phosphorus and many soils do not need more potassium – the third number.

Learn more about fertilizer numbers here: Fertilizer NPK Ratios – What Do They Really Mean?

It is common practice to fertilize in early spring, but that’s not the best time. Roots grow best in cool weather, and in early spring you want your grass to grow roots – not leaves. Adding nitrogen to the soil in early spring causes leaf growth instead of root growth.

Don’t fertilize until mid May in zone 5; sooner in warmer areas, and later in colder areas. You can even skip the spring fertilizer and only fertilize in fall. If you do fertilize in spring, don’t add more than 1 lb/1,000sq ft of Nitrogen.

Synthetic or Organic Fertilizer

Synthetic or organic fertilizer – which is better?

The reality is that plants can’t tell the difference between a nitrate molecule from a synthetic or organic source. As reported in What is Organic Fertilizer?, they are exactly the same.

The difference in the two forms of fertilizer is that synthetic fertilizers provide the nutrients quickly, and organic add them slowly over time. Both work on lawns. Organic material will also improve soil structure whereas synthetic fertilizer will not. For most non-lawn gardens organic would be a better choice, but for lawns we do want a quicker feed, especially in the north where summers are short. Synthetic fertilizers are also easier to apply since you can’t add a thick layer of something like compost or manure all at one time. A thick layer will kill the grass.

Core Aeration

Plants need lots of air and water in the soil. In fact, great soil will contain 25% air, and 25% water. The problem with lawns is that we walk on them and compact the soil, squeezing out the air and water. As soil compacts, grass roots have a much harder time to grow, which results in thinner grass and more weeds.

A common solution for compacted lawns is to do core aeration. Core aeration is done with a small machine that pulls out plugs of grass and soil every few inches, over the whole lawn. These plugs are left on the lawn to disintegrate during the following week. They are unsightly for a few days – but they’re very necessary.

The problem with core aeration is that it does not work for home lawns. For one thing, most don’t have enough compaction to worry about and secondly, the science shows it does not work very well.

Although attractive to homeowners, liquid aeration products don’t work either.

Don’t aerate by poking holes in the grass because that only compacts the soil even more. Some companies sell special rake-like devices with prongs on the end for poking holes – don’t use them.

Myth: wearing golf shoes while mowing the lawn will aerate the soil.

All this does is compact the soil even more – don’t do it.

Mole and Vole Damage

These little rodents like digging tunnels in lawns while it is covered in snow. Spring is a good time to deal with these. Moles tend to leave mounds of soil while voles damage results in depressions.

Fill deeper holes with some top soil and reseed. Alternatively, do nothing and the lawn will heal itself over time.

Learn more about these creatures in: Dealing with Voles and Moles.

Overseeding Your Lawn

The benefits of overseeding your lawn is mostly a myth. If you don’t have significant bare spots, overseeding will do very little to make the grass thicker. Seed needs to come in contact with soil to absorb moisture and grow roots. The problem with most overseeding is that the seed lands on either the crown of the plant, or on the thatch layer. In either case it does not touch the soil to get enough water to germinate properly. Instead of overseeding, focus your efforts on growing your existing grass thicker.

Overseeding a lawn that has good sized bare spots does work. In this case the seed is added only to the bare spots and then racked into the soil so that it makes good contact with the soil. This is best done in fall.

A modern trend is to overseed with clover, but it may not be as good a solution as reported by some. If you are going to add clover make sure you select the right kind and seed it correctly.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

25 thoughts on “Traditional Spring Lawn Care is Done Wrong”

  1. What do you think about broadforking? Since you are lifting soil up I figure there is more air in the soil. The proof is that the same mass of soil is taking up a larger volume after you’re done.

    The danger, I think, is lifting too aggressively in a single spot, as too large an air pocket is harmful to roots. I like to lift in layers, a little at a time.

    The other potential sticking point is that it requires some physical fitness.

    Reply
  2. Hello Robert,

    I found your very informative article at the right time!!

    I live in Zone 5 and therefore as per your article, I will wait until early May to apply the spring fertilizer. I have a few questions though.

    1) If I see that I have more than 1 inch of thatch, is it okay to use a regular rake to remove it prior to spreading the spring fertilizer in May? Or should I still wait until the fall season to remove it with my de-thatcher machine?
    2) I have hard compact/clay-like soil. So, should I core aerate in the month of May, prior to spreading the spring fertilizer?
    3) Is it necessary to water the lawn before, or after spreading the fertilizer in spring?
    4) Is it necessary to water the lawn prior to having the core aeration done?

    Thank you for your time and assistance!

    Very much Appreciated!!

    Reply
    • 1) I’d get rid of some in spring.
      2) It is better to aerate early while the ground is still soft enough to allow the machine to take cores.
      3) Follow instructions on the bad. For urea based fertilizers it is important to water them in. Not so much for others.
      4) The soil needs to be easy to dig to several inches. Watering can help on dry soil.

      Reply
  3. What about using a tool like a broadfork to lightly lift the soil for aeration? While the tines of the fork will compact the soil like spike aerators do, it seems to me that this will be more than made up by increasing the volume of the soil while maintaining the same amount of soil.

    The main problem I see is that if you lift too aggressively in one spot, you will create a large air pocket that roots cannot grow into. I think that this is mitigated by proper technique though — not lifting too much in a single spot.

    Reply
  4. What do you make of Linda-Chalker Scott’s post in The Garden Professors blog (“Leave Your Lawn Alone”) about aerators? I find the commercial core aerators don’t penetrate very far into the soil. Is that a problem?

    Reply
    • Not sure what part you want me to comment on. She says “core aeration does not reduce thatch accumulation and does not improve grass coverage.” – which is true. You don’t use core aeration to reduce thatch.
      In heavy soil core aeration needs to be done early in the season when the soil is still wet. Once it dries the soil is too hard for the machines to make much of a core.

      Reply
  5. Excellent website. I found it today, totally by accident. I live in Brussels, Belgium! I think the weather here is similar to where you are, Robert!

    Reply

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