Tips to help your lawn bounce back from a rough winter
AKRON, Ohio – Chances are your lawn is looking a bit bedraggled after this rough winter.
That’s not surprising. Between brutally cold temperatures and drying winds, turf took a beating this year.
Probably it will come back just fine, but a little TLC can prevent problems, reverse damage and let your lawn green up faster, lawn care experts Melinda Myers and Joe Rimelspach said.
Here’s what they recommend.
PREVENT SNOW MOLD
Grass in the shade and other places where snow and ice linger is susceptible to snow mold, a fuzzy, pink or gray fungus that can damage or kill grass, said Myers, a horticulturist, garden writer and radio and TV host whose books include “The Ohio Lawn Guide.”
Snow mold likes moist environments, she said, so it’s a good idea to lightly rake grass in those vulnerable areas to fluff it and allow light and air to penetrate. A leaf rake will work fine, Myers said.
The crowns of the grass plants are still alive, so the grass can come back, said Rimelspach, a turf grass disease specialist at Ohio State University. But Myers recommended taking action now, before you see signs of fungus.
“Most people notice it when the grass is dead, which is too late,” she said.
Snowplows, snowblowers and shovels can do a number on grass, especially along driveways and sidewalks.
Those areas may need to be reseeded or sodded, Rimelspach said. He recommended doing that as soon as possible, as long as the soil isn’t frozen or very muddy. You want to give the new grass as much time as possible to mature before summer arrives, so it can better weather the stresses of high temperatures and dry spells, he explained.
Since most pre-emergent weed treatments also prevent grass seeds from germinating, you need to be careful about applying crabgrass killer if you’re doing a lot of repairs, Myers said. She suggested skipping the crabgrass treatment this year or at least avoiding newly seeded areas.
Or you can use a new weed-killer called Tenacity, Rimelspach said. The product, made by Syngenta, is a selective herbicide that kills certain weeds but not turf grass.
FLUSH BURNED AREAS
Deicers are hard on grass. So is dog urine.
The two might not seem to have much in common, but both contain salts that can burn grass.
Because the ground was covered with snow so much of the winter, Myers said, many dogs tended to stick with one potty spot. The salts in dog urine are largely nitrogen, and when they’re concentrated in a small area, they can damage the grass in much the same way excess fertilizer can.
In the case of both deicer and dog urine, the remedy is the same, she said: Water the area well to flush out the salts. Or hope for heavy spring rains that will do the job for you.
If the damage is significant, those areas may need to be reseeded or sodded, Rimelspach said.
LOOK FOR VOLE SIGNS
Trails through the grass are signs of damage by voles, which are rodents that feed on plants. They’re often confused with moles, but voles tend to tunnel along the ground surface in winter, under the snow, instead of going deeper underground.
Myers said you can repair their damage by tamping down the raised areas and reseeding, if necessary.
Voles aren’t a major threat to turf grass, she said, but their presence in large numbers could signal trouble for the landscaping plants they like to feed on. So if you have a lot of surface tunnels, consider it a warning sign that you may need to control the vole population to protect your trees and shrubs.
ROLL WITH CARE
While rolling the lawn to level bumps caused by frost heaving is a practice that has fallen out of favor, Rimelspach said it’s not harmful if it’s done right.
The danger is compacting the soil, so use a lightweight roller and do the job just once, he said. You don’t want to steamroll the lawn or keep packing it down.
MOW LOW, BUT JUST ONCE
Lawn care experts routinely advise homeowners to keep their grass fairly tall, about 3 or 4 inches. Taller grass has more green leaf area exposed to the sun, where it’s available for the photosynthesis process that provides fuel to keep the plant healthy. Tall grass also shades the soil, making it harder for weed seeds to germinate.
But Rimelspach said the first mowing of spring is the one time you can make an exception. Mowing lower removes the brown material, which hinders new growth from pushing through and acts as an insulator to slow the soil’s warming, he explained. Cutting the grass short will probably encourage the lawn to green up faster, he said.
“But only one time,” he cautioned. After that first mowing, be sure to move the mower blade back to its higher position and keep it there.
WAIT AND SEE
While most turf grass toughed out the winter, grass that was stressed or immature when the severe cold hit might not have survived, Rimelspach and Myers said.
You might find dead grass in areas where the lawn typically struggles, such as shady areas. And if you put in a new lawn late last fall, those seedlings may have been too young to survive the extreme cold, Rimelspach said.
Don’t assume your lawn is dead just because it’s brown, however. Exposure to bitter temperatures and loss of moisture from the grass blades may have caused the grass to turn brown, but most grass plants are alive and will rebound quickly, Rimelspach and Myers said.
“A lot of it is going to be waiting and seeing,” Myers said. “... If your lawn was good and healthy (before winter), you probably have nothing to worry about.”
DO THE RIGHT THING
Both Myers and Rimelspach stress that the best way to keep your lawn healthy is to follow good lawn-care practices.
That means not only mowing high, but mowing often. Ideally you never want to cut off more than one-third of the grass blade at a time, so there’s always enough leaf left for photosynthesis to take place.
Myers conceded that can be tough in spring, when the grass grows fast and rain can be frequent. “You just have to do the best you can,” she said.
Keep your mower blade sharp so you produce a clean cut that heals quickly. Ragged cuts leave wounds that stay open longer, making grass more vulnerable to disease.
Leave the clippings on the lawn, unless they’re in heavy clumps. They supply moisture, organic matter and nutrients that are essentially free fertilizer, Myers said.
And follow an appropriate fertilization schedule. Myers said that for many lawns, one fall feeding is enough, preferably around Halloween. If you want to beef up the lawn’s vigor, you can also fertilize around Memorial Day and Labor Day, she said.
Either chemical or organic can be used. Organic fertilizer works more slowly and is often more expensive, but “they can all be fine,” Rimelspach said.