Naked branches twist up from the ground where there once stood rows of hydrangea and wildflowers. Thatch and twigs litter the lawn that is also pocked with dog-spots. You begin creating a seemingly endless to-do list in your head wondering where to begin and what to focus on first.
Each year, we find ourselves in this same position. We thought it would be helpful to shed light on the tasks that we recommend tackling in the early days of spring to prepare your lawn and garden for the summer.
Growing up, whenever faced with a complex project or a long to-do list, my mother always reminded us to take care of the elephants before the mice. This means to knock out the large tasks before worrying about the smaller ones. This article will first address the elephants of raking, weedmanagement, seeding and mowing. Later, we will take a deeper dive into those smaller details like herbicide use, fertilizing, and pruning specific ornamental plants and fruiting crops.
Raking and Thatch Management
Additionally, raking your lawn removes thatch that has built up from the previous year. Thatch is a matted layer of dead plant matter including stems, stolons, and rhizomes that form between the green vegetative portions of your lawn and the soil and roots below. This thatch layer inhibits the penetration of water, air, and nutrients to the root zone of your lawn and can harbor harmful insects and fungal diseases that lead to poor lawn health.
Mowing and Mower Care
Before it is time to begin mowing regularly, it is necessary to do a pre-season check-up on your mower to ensure it is operating properly and is in safe working condition. A basic tune-up involves changing the oil, spark plug, and air filter. While the spark plug wire is disconnected, lift your mower deck to inspect the blades for damage, nicks, or dents. If necessary, remove the blades to be sharpened or replaced.
If the mowing deck was not properly cleaned before winter storage, remove any dried grass that may be caked to the side walls and ceiling of the mower housing. Ensure that all discharge or bagger doors are clear of debris. Lastly, if your mower was stored with gasoline still in the tank and lines, carefully drain any old gas from the fuel tank. Fill the tank with new gas so that the mower is ready when needed. On many mowers, the fuel lines are easily accessible and can be temporarily disconnected to aid in draining gas from the system. Care should be taken when working around, handling, and properly disposing of gasoline in accordance with local regulations.
If you have a gas-powered weed-wacker, it is ideal to change the air filter and spark plug. Additionally, remove the string housing to take off old string and clear any debris that might inhibit the proper functions of the spring and coil. Add a new line to the coil so that it is ready for cutting when the time comes.
Battery-powered trimmers are similarly priced to gas-powered trimmers, but do not require the same care and maintenance. Unlike gas-powered motors, electric motors do not require a pull-start and tend to start the first time, every time.
Many of us tend to put off mowing until it is absolutely necessary, thinking that if we let the grass grow extra tall in the spring, it will carry through the summer. While there is some truth to this, the ideal mowing plan for spring growth is to set the mower deck at its highest setting—approximately three to four inches—and to regularly trim the top edge from the grass.
In the early springtime depending on rainfall and temperatures, mowing can be done as regularly as every four to five days. The high deck height allows the grass to maintain a large blade-length promoting strong overall growth, while the regular stress of mowing will induce root growth. Healthy root growth in the spring will ultimately sustain the lawn during drier summer months and will help your lawn grasses out-compete weeds.
Overseeding and Fertilizer Use
Determining a proper plan for seeding, fertilizing, and applying herbicides for weed management can be a dynamic exercise. Ideally, lawn seeding should be done in the fall as fall frost will knock back weeds such as crabgrass, giving your grass seed a competitive advantage. In the practical world of lawn-care, it is often necessary to address bare patches in the spring from snow-damage, run-off, or dog-spots. Spotseeding is referred to as overseeding, as it involves seeding over an existing section of lawn. Overseeding is best done after the thatch-layer has been raked, and if possible, the grass has been mowed short. This will allow the seed to penetrate the existing lawn so that it settles into the soil and has good exposure to water, airflow, and sunlight.
When overseeding portions of your lawn, it is beneficial to use a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer, such as Milorganite Slow Release 6-4-0. This will provide a steady source of nutrients for your new grass ensuring stable, healthy growth. Five to seven weeks later, after the grass has germinated and begun to grow, apply a quick-release nitrogen fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro Lawn Food. This will provide a boost of nitrogen to the freshly-seeded areas of lawn that will help it to fill out.
While slow-release and controlled-release fertilizers such as StaGreen Lawn Fertilizer Plus or Pennington UltraGreen can be used across the entirety of your existing lawn, quick-release nitrogen fertilizers should be limited to areas where new lawn is being established. Quick-release fertilizers result in rapid green growth but decreased root growth. Early root growth is critical to sustaining the health of your lawn through the summer months.
Whether to fertilize your entire lawn and what type of fertilizer you choose to apply will depend on the type of grass you are growing and if your lawn was fertilized in the fall. Cool-season grasses, such as Kentucky Bluegrass, Perennial Ryegrass, Fine Fescue, and Tall Fescue should be fertilized in the fall and lightly dressed with a fertilizer feed in the spring and early summer. These grasses are commonly grown in the upper third of the United States from New England through the Upper Midwest to Northern California where climate shifts from frigid winters to hot summers.
In southern climates and the transitional belt, warm-season grasses such as Bermuda, Centipede, St. Augustine, and Zoysia grasses should be fertilized in the spring and throughout the early summer. This is due to the fact that toward mid-to-late summer, it is important to let these grasses begin to harden off in preparation for cooler weather.
When using lawn fertilizers, follow all manufacturer instructions related to safety, handling, and application rates. Over-fertilizing your lawn can lead to accelerated growth that will ultimately cause plant stress and can increase weed problems.
Chemical and Physical Weed Management
When addressing weeds in your lawn, treatments can be divided into chemical or physical treatments. The first line of defense against a wide range of common weeds is pre-emergent herbicides. These chemicals inhibit weed seeds from germinating, effectively knocking out weeds before they develop. It is important to note that some pre-emergent herbicides, or pre-M as they are commonly referred to, are broad-spectrum and will also inhibit the germination of grass seed. If you are spot-seeding or overseeding your lawn, it is important to select a targeted pre-M that is safe for use around grass seeds. If a broad-spectrum, pre-emergent herbicide has been used on your lawn, sod is a great option for dressing or repairing damaged areas of your yard. Sod is already a mature grass not subject to the impacts of pre-emergent herbicides.
One of the most common targeted pre-emergent herbicides for seeding is Siduron, the active ingredient in products like Tupersan. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, is working to phase out Siduron by the end of 2020.
Products containing the chemical Mesotrione will become the best viable option for safe seeding and weed management. This chemical is safe for use on lawns of Bluegrass, Ryegrass, Tall Fescue, and Fine Fescue, and is effective for combating Chickweed, Henbit, and Crabgrass as a pre- and post-emergent herbicide. This means that it will inhibit seed germination and will combat established plants.
Additionally, this chemical has been shown to manage broad-leaf weeds, such as Dandelion, Clover, and Plantain for up to six weeks after application. Seeding-safe, pre-emergent herbicides can be found in the Scotts Turf Builder line of Weed and Feed, Halt, and WeedEx products. While these products are commonly used for spring weed prevention, fall applications aid in managing winter-weeds such as poa annua, henbit, and chickweed.
While spring application of the above products can aid in combating a variety of broadleaf weeds, some weed such as dandelions are more effectively treated with fall applications of these sprays. This is due to the fact that as the weed enters dormancy, it begins to pull nutrients and energy resources from its leaves down into the roots. Certain chemical herbicides will be translocated as well, introducing them into the core of the plant where they can more effectively kill the weed.
During the springtime, these perennial weeds are using the resources stored in their root structures to promote vegetative growth. This means that even if you successfully knock back the visible parts of the plant, the root is still capable of recovering and sending up new growth. For this same reason, physical measure may need to be taken against certain broadleaf weeds.
Physical treatment involves digging up weeds by the root using a dandelion fork or stand-up puller, such as Grandpa’s Weeder. When digging up a weed, it is crucial that the main root system be removed from the ground, as deep roots store enough resources to regrow the plant from even a small portion of root stock.
In the physical fight against broadleaf weeds especially dandelions, regular mowing ensures that flowers are not standing long enough to produce seeds. This allows you a head-start on managing weeds that might develop the coming year.
Wrapping your head around various grass species, application times, herbicide types, and fertilizer strategies can be dizzying. The majority of us are looking for simple solutions to maintaining lush, greatlooking lawns. Weed-and-Feed products such as Bayer Advanced 3 in 1 Weed and Feed, and Scotts Turf Builder Triple Action, contain a mixture of pre- and post-emergent herbicides and controlled-release fertilizers for easy application. Many of these products are sold at local hardware stores and are tailored to the regions in which they are sold. This makes them a simple starting point for general lawn care.
Flower Bed Edging
First, proper edging keeps lawn grasses and creeping weeds from encroaching into your flower beds. Many grasses and weeds such as ground ivy grow upward as they spread outward by using their boveground stolon and underground rhizome runners. Additionally, bed edging provides an established border against which to mow and weed-wack.
Spring is a great time to address bed edging projects for a number of reasons. The plants in your flower beds are smaller and more contained decreasing your risk of damaging them during the process, and your lawn grasses and weeds have not had the chance to gain a foothold and spread aggressively into the beds.
There are two classes of bed edging that are commonly implemented: structural edging and trench edging. Structural edging involves the use of an edging material such as metal or plastic banding, masonry bricks or stones, or wooden timbers to construct a physical barrier between lawn grasses and flower beds, driveways, or walking paths.
The most effective structural edges are either hammered or dug unto the ground, protecting the bed from both above-ground and underground runners. Metal bed edging is an ideal candidate for these sorts of barriers. Aluminum is often preferred over steel, as it is less likely to rust and is longer-lasting. Even galvanized-steel edging, if cut or damaged, is subject to rusting and breaking down.
Regardless of the edging material selected, installing edging is a rather simple process. Using a string or garden hose,lay out the desired shape of the flower bed. If constructing a bed with multiple curves, keep in mind the turning radius of your lawn mower,as tight curves can become annoying during regular lawn care.
To avoid damaging the top edge of the metal, use a section of wood as a hammering block resting it on the top of the metal edging before striking it with a hammer. Work your way back and forth along the top of the section of edging evenly moving the entire section into the ground slowly. This will prove significantly easier than trying to hammer one end completely into place while the other end is still above ground. Continue this process down the length of the bed following the manufacturer’s instructions regarding installation and personal safety. Be sure not to lay edging across any shallowburied wiring or hoses.
If soil conditions do not allow for hammering the edging directly into the ground or if plastic edging is being installed, use a half-moon edger or sharpshooter shovel to create a narrow trench along the front of the flower bed. Lay the edging material in the trench so that approximately two inches of the edging is below-ground, then backfill the trench to hold the edging material in place. Ideally, edging material should be buried to a depth of at least two inches to inhibit grasses and weeds from spreading into the beds. Most edging material is four to five inches tall, llowing for two to three inches of the edging to remain above ground to retain dirt, mulch, or stone.
No-dig options include rubber strip-edging, such as Vigoro No-Dig or EasyFlex No-Dig, masonry edging, or wood edging. While these edging materials are good at retaining mulch and provide an above-ground barrier to mitigate some creeping weeds and grasses, these edgings do not provide rotection from underground rhizome runners.
As the name implies, trench-edging involves cutting a narrow trench along the front of flowerbeds. This trench provides an air gap between the lawn and the flowerbed that discourages the below-ground migration of grasses and weeds. While this trench does not provide a structural barrier to inhibit aboveground migration, it does provide a distinguished line that can be easily weed-wacked during general lawn care.
Inspecting and Installing Soaker Hose
To appreciate how to properly service and reconnect soaker hoses in the spring, it is necessary to understand the proper measures that should be taken in the fall preparing them for winter. As earlier noted, soaker hoses should be disconnected from the water source and from any associated equipment.
A soaker hose is commonly buried beneath a mulch layer. This effectively delivers water to the soil and protects the soaker hose from exposure and UV damage. Both ends of the soaker hose are typically exposed to allow the input and end ports to be opened and dried out.
In the fall, I like to remove the caps from the ends of the hose and replace them with only a slight turn. This decreases the chances of the cap cracking from ice while ensuring that no debris or insects will find their way into the hose. Additionally, a rubber cap or small plastic bag can be placed over the input end of the soaker hose in a similar fashion. Some brands of soaker hoses are fitted with plastic discs that allow ater to pass through the hose during operation but mitigate the risk of debris entering the hose when disconnected.
All mechanical controllers such as timers, manifolds, splitters, and back-flow protectors should be removed and stored indoors where they will not suffer damage from freezing. Batteries should be removed from digital controllers during extended storage. Standard hoses should also be drained and stored indoors.
In the spring after the risk of freezing temperatures has passed, backflow protectors should be reconnected to any hose bibs supplying water to soaker hoses. These ensure that dirty water is not drawn backward into water supplies. If digital controllers are being implemented to automate the flow of water through the soaker hoses, fresh batteries should be put in the controller. The controller should also be programmed for proper irrigation given the local weather and plant types. The soaker hose should be connected to its water supply, and the end-cap should be tightened.
Once the soaker hose system has been set back up, fully turn on the water supply. Though many soak hoses are regularly operated with the supply valve turned back to lower the operating pressure, it is good to test the system at a higher pressure to check for damage or leaks. Over the course of roughly an hour, walk the garden bed to inspect for areas that are particularly wet, indicating possible damage to the hose or fittings. Set the digital controller or mechanical timer and compare it to your watch or clock to confirm that the system is cycling the water flow on and off properly. If a leak is found in the hose, pull back the mulch in that area, remove the damaged section, and repair it with barb fitting or repair coupling.
If your soil is sandy or well-draining, your soaker hose should be laid in loops approximately 12-18 inches apart. On denser soils such as loam or clay, your soaker hose should be spaced roughly 18-24 inches apart. Metal fabric staples work well to straddle the soaker hose and hold it into place.
To determine how long to cycle your soaker hoses each day, run a test to determine penetration rate by running your soaker hose for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, dig a test hole in the bed near the soak-hose and determine the estimated depth that the water has penetrated the soil.For this example, let’s assume that the water from the soaker hose penetrated two-inches deep.
Most flowers and vegetable plants have a functional root zone to a depth of 12-18 inches. Assuming a penetration rate of two inches per 10 minutes, a good starting point for running our soaker hose would be 60-90 minutes per day.
For larger trees and shrubs that have a functional root zone extending down to 30 inches, it will be necessary to run to soaker hose for up to two and a half hours. It should be noted that these times can vary significantly depending on local rainfall, soil health, and mulch material. A proper layer of mulch is key to ensuring that the water from soaker hose penetrates downward into the soil and does not sheet off the surface or quickly evaporate from sunshine and wind.
Mulching Trees and Flower Beds
Like most things around the garden, mulch isn’t just an aesthetic tool. It provides a number of critical functions to keep your plants healthy such as water and moisture retention, temperature control, and weed management. Mulch aids in maintaining soil quality and root health by decreasing water loss fromwind-shear and solar heating, which promotes seed germination, seedling development, and plant growth.
During rain-showers and regular watering, mulch provides a soft casing layer that absorbs water and decreases erosion and soil runoff holding seeds and fertilizers in place. A layer of mulch throughout flowerbeds and around trees and shrubs provides a protective blanket over the ground, keeping soil cooler in the summer and warmer in the fall and winter months. This insulates plant roots from extreme fluctuations in temperature.
Mulching should be done in mid-to-late spring after the soil has warmed and small perennial flowers and young seedlings are large enough to handle the physical abuse of being mulched. Heavily mulching flower beds too early in the year can slow soil warming and inhibit the growth of emerging plantlets and small seedlings.
Determining the proper amount of mulch to be used in a flowerbed depends on the type of mulch laid and the variety of plants being cultivated in the bed. When using an organic or natural mulch such as wood chips, bark, or straw, a depth of roughly three inches is ecommended. When using inorganic mulches such as stone or recycled rubber chips, as little as two inches of mulch may be necessary, particularly if the mulch is underlined in plastic or fabric sheeting.
Plastic sheeting such as painter’s plastic, can be tempting to use as it is inexpensive and certainly inhibits weed growth. However, lining beds in plastic sheeting creates an impermeable barrier that shields water and nutrients from reaching the soil negatively impacting the growth of your plants.
If you intend to use a ground-liner to help manage weeds beneath an inorganic mulch, quality landscaping fabrics made of polyester are preferred. These allow for proper exchange of air, water, and nutrients with the soil. Look for high quality products such as ProMat Polyester Fabric or Sta-GreenPremium Fabric, as cheaper ground-liners made from polypropylene will tear easily and need to bereplaced regularly.Note that ground-liners should not be used with organic mulch. Organic mulchshould be in contact with the ground as it breaks down releasing nutrients back into the soil of the bed.
Similarly, when mulching trees or shrubs, the mulch should not come in contact with the base of the trunk. High moisture against the trunk can rot the root collar just above ground level introducing a variety of pests and fungal diseases that can damage the tree or shrub.
When mulching around trees or shrubs, carefully apply a layer of mulch approximately three-inches deep in a circle around the trunk. The mulch should be tapered so that it is thinnest directly around the trunk and toward the outer edge of the circle. Use one of the bed edging techniques described above to create a defined edge to the mulched circle. This edging will decrease the spread of grasses and weeds that might compete with the tree or shrub. On smaller trees and shrubs, the ring of mulch should extend at least to the drip-line of the canopy. On larger trees with wide canopies, the mulch should form a circle at least 4-5 feet in diameter.
It’s important to note that fertilizers and soil treatments for flower beds, trees, shrubs, and fruit-bearing plants should be done prior to mulching, as mulch has a tendency to absorb nutrients that pass through it.
Pruning and Shaping Shrubs and Trees
The first step to caring for your trees and shrubs is to remove any dead or damaged branches. As these rot, they harbor insects and lead to fungal infections of the plant. In an effort to mitigate the spread of diseases and fungal infections from plant to plant, particularly when addressing dead or decaying growth, it is beneficial to quickly rinse your pruning shears with a disinfectant such as alcohol or a 10% bleach solution. This is a good habit to get into, especially when working around flowering shrubs or fruit trees.
Once the dead portions of the plant have been addressed, prune off any water-sprouts or suckers. Water-sprouts are thin, vertical shoots that grow rapidly from the trunk or branches in the canopy. Suckers are similar shoots that grow from low on the trunk or up from the roots around the main plant. Though these shoots look healthy and the plant might look thinner without them, these shoots take nutrients from the core plant and rarely produce any flowers or fruit.
Removing these sprouts and suckers will allow the plant to allocate nutrients and energy to developing proper branching structures and successful blooms. For many varieties of every-blooming roses such as tea, miniature, and grandiflora, this is the only pruning that is necessary, except in the case of shaping these shrubs for aesthetic purposes.
Care should be taken with certain flowering shrubs that develop bloom on old-growth such as lilac, forsythia, rhododendrons, azaleas, and hydrangeas. These shrubs should not be pruned until later in summer after flowers have begun to die off but before new flower buds have developed. To promote vigorous growth of new branches, remove a few of the oldest growth branches toward the middle of each growing season. This will increase flowering and overall plant health. The same timing and technique should be used for old garden roses and climbing roses. When removing old growth, particularly on larger trees and shrubs, a pruning saw may be necessary in lieu of hand-held shears.
Other flowering shrubs such as crape myrtle, butterfly bush, and panicle and smooth hydrangea produce blooms on new growth, meaning that old-growth branches are spent and should be removed back to the desired framework of the overall plant. These varieties of flowering shrubs can thrive when pruned back to nearly ground level in the fall or early spring, before significant new growth has developed. To maintain the structural integrity of the bush, it is best to prune these varieties back to roughly 12-18 inches from the ground or back to the desired architecture if shaped. Leaving a framework of older growth will provide a strong central core from which new growth can develop and bloom. Hard pruning of these varieties will increase bloom size and plant appearance.
Heavy pruning of these bushes should be done in winter while the lants are dormant. If shaping shrubs to form hedges as is common with privet and boxwoods, ensure that the top of the hedge is slightly narrower than the bottom. Forming tapered sides will allow sunlight and ainwater to evenly cover the vegetation. Shaping should be halted approximately six weeks before the first expected frost in order to allow the vegetation to properly heal and harden-off prior to the onset of winter.
When the pruners are out, fight the temptation to give everything a trim. Fruit trees and deciduous shade trees such as oaks, maples, birch, and dogwoods should not be pruned during the spring, but should be pruned while dormant in winter to decrease incidences of infection. Similarly, grapes, berrybushes such as blueberries, and cane-berries such as raspberries and blackberries should be pruned in the winter.
If your fruit trees were not pruned during the winter months, they can be lightly dressed in the early spring to remove excessive growth from within the canopy. Canopy pruning should be done prior to the trees producing leaves. Opening up the canopies of apple, plum, pear, and peach trees ensures that proper sunlight and air-flow reach the inner branches and fruit making the trees more productive.
Fertilizing Fruit-Bearing Plants
While pruning may be off the to-do list for many of your fruiting plants, there are still a few things you can do to maximize their growth and productivity. Early spring is the perfect time to fertilizer your ruitbearing trees and shrubs.
For example, if your fruit tree was planted in your garden three years ago, 3/10ths of a pound of nitrogen should be applied. Given a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 NPK, in which 10% of the fertilizer is nitrogen, 10% is phosphorus, and 10% is potassium, three pounds of fertilizer should be applied evenly in a wide circle around the tree. Start about 18 inches away from the trunk of the tree and extend out to just beyond the drip-line of the canopy.
For underperforming grape vines or if leaves were discolored the previous year due to nutrient deficiencies, apply roughly ½ pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer around the base of each vine. Raspberries, blackberries, and everbearing strawberries should be fertilized at a rate of one pound per 25 square feet. Note that June-bearing strawberries should not be fertilized in the spring, as this will increase leafgrowth and the risk of disease and damaged fruit making harvesting more difficult.
If you are looking to fertilize your blueberry bushes, this should be done using an ammonium sulfate fertilizer such as Lilly Miller 21-0-0 or Espoma Holly-Tone. These fertilizers provide a source of ammonia nitrogen while lowering and maintaining proper soil pH for thriving blueberries.
Regardless of the crops being fertilized, it is a general rule that fertilizers should be applied in the springtime and not in the late summer or fall. This will induce late-season growth that will not sufficiently harden off by winter.
As noted previously, mulching fruit trees and berry bushes should be done after applying fertilizers, as mulch has a tendency to absorb nutrients. A proper layer of three to four inches of mulch around fruit trees, berry bushes, and throughout rows of raspberries and blackberries aids in soil health, water management, and stabilizing root temperatures.
In my opinion, watching your yard and garden turn from dry and disheveled to preened and flowering is one of the most rewarding feelings. I find it particularly fun to take before and after photos so that at the end of a long day of mulching and edging or even weeks later when flowers are in full bloom, you can flip back and appreciate the impact of your hard work. When tackling spring projects in your yard,remember that the best way to learn is to do and don’t forget to step back and take pride in seeing your seedlings grow and flowers bloom.