Pay no attention to the man behind the screen, or should I say on the screen. Commercials for lawn fertilizers show up on the airwaves this time of the year promising the perfect lawn if you apply this product or that. In fact, keeping a healthy attractive lawn is not that complicated if you maintain good habits; and this does not necessarily include spring fertilization.
I think we would all agree that an attractive lawn is one that has a thick stand of turf with good color and is relatively weed free. To maintain this trio our habits throughout the season can do more good than an application of nitrogen in the spring. High-nitrogen, fast-release lawn fertilizers are like steroids for grass- they accelerate growth, leaving the turf more susceptible to stress and disease.
Chemical fertilizers do little to improve the soil; they instead provide a quick dose of nitrogen that needs organic matter to be taken up by the plant’s roots. Since some homeowners have poor, clayey soils this actually ends up depleting the soil in the long term. Instead, we should be more concerned with improving the amount of organic matter that is available. Plus, over feeding can cause thatch build-up, further restricting nutrient uptake.
Too much nitrogen in the spring also encourages disease later in the season. “Red thread” and “frog’s eye”, for example, are two common lawn diseases in Kentuckiana, and both are more prevalent in lawns that have been over fertilized. Combine excess nitrogen with a wet, cool summer and we are likely to see red streaks on grass blades (red thread); or a humid summer and we will see little brown patches with tufts of green in the center (frog’s eye).
You can fertilize your lawn but just wait until fall and be sure that you use a slow-release formulation. Fall fertilization is ideal because the grass is beginning to go dormant so the nitrogen application will be used to develop a stronger root system that will improve the turf for the following season of growth (instead of being spent quickly on rapid growth).
One way to feed the lawn throughout the season is cheap and easy. Leave the grass clippings on the lawn. Most mowing equipment today does this mulching action. This is a natural dose of nitrogen that will continually feed the lawn. However, for this to be optimal you need to follow other guidelines that include mowing high and not letting the grass get too high between mowings. It is best to mow at no less than 3 inches (I do 3 ¾”). Taller grass can out compete weeds and weed seed; it maintains a deeper root system (so less drought stress); and it looks thicker.
Leaving the grass clippings on the lawn also helps reduce thatch build-up, contrary to popular belief. Microbes and earthworms will raise to the surface to breakdown the green clippings thus working on any thatch that may be present and aerating the soil in the process. (And then, the moles show up- a good sign of a healthy ecosystem, unfortunately!)
Spring is the time of the year that you can use a preemergent herbicide to help control annual weeds like crabgrass but just don’t couple it with a fast release high dose of nitrogen. Corn gluten meal, a natural preemergent herbicide that restricts seedling development is a good organic alternative and provides a small amount of nitrogen; or just rely on your grass clipping to add a little nitrogen snack throughout the summer, it will reduce the need to fertilize in the fall by about fifty%.
Also, be mindful of the amount of water you offer your lawn. One inch of water a week is enough to maintain a healthy lawn in Kentuckiana; if you have a sprinkler system don’t have it on every day. Once a week, if Mother Nature doesn’t deliver, will do the trick. Automatic, daily sprinkling actually does more damage than good and may be the cause of some of your landscape problems. Try to mimic nature as much as you can, and you will be rewarded with a healthier lawn and landscape.
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