With winter colds and runny noses fading away, gardeners will soon be attacked by another ailment: spring fever.
The warm, sunny days and fresh spring air mean more work outside. Two activities most gardeners tackle first are mowing and fertilizing the lawn. Both activities can influence how your grass grows this spring.
When it comes to mowing, it does not hurt to mow lower than normal the first time or two. In fact, it can help the grass green-up more quickly as you are removing old steam and leaf tissue that is shading the ground. The soil will warm faster resulting in new grass growth. Be sure to raise the lawn mower to recommended heights after the second mowing to help prevent crabgrass. Crabgrass seeds must have light to germinate, and a high-mowing height will shade the soil helping to minimize germination. In upright growing grasses, such as tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass, rooting depth is greatly influenced by mowing height. The taller the cut, the deeper the roots will grow. A deeper root system means a more drought-resistant turf that is stronger and healthier.
If your lawn is predominantly tall fescue or Kentucky bluegrass, set the mower at 1 to 11/2 inches high for the initial mowing. For zoysia, mow it no higher than an inch. In both cases, be careful not to mow so low that you scalp the turf and damage the crowns. It is best if you collect and remove the clippings from the yard. After the first mowing, however, allow them to fall to the ground and decompose -- especially if you are following the "one-third rule" -- only removing one-third of the grass blade when you mow. The normal mowing height for Kentucky bluegrass is 2 to 3 inches and for tall fescue is 21/2 to 31/2 inches. Zoysia can be mowed at two inches.
To calibrate your lawn mower, place it on a level surface with the motor off and disconnect the spark plug. Reach through the grass discharge shoot and measure from the ground to the blade. Adjust the wheels so the blade is at the desired height. Finally, keep the blade sharp and always practice safe-mowing techniques.
Should you apply fertilizer now? The answer: "No." Early-season fertilizations may cause more problems than they solve. As the soil is slowly warming, the root system is slowly getting started. With this in mind, an application of high nitrogen fertilizer will stimulate green top growth that is out of balance with the root system. Eventually, the tops will need more water and nutrients than the slowly developing root system can supply. The result is a plant that is more prone to being damaged by harsh growing conditions and attacked by insects and diseases.
The best time to fertilize cool-season lawns such as fescue and bluegrass is after the plant has used stored winter reserves and is ready for more food. This usually occurs around May. At that time, apply the fertilizer at the rate of one pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn. Make sure to water it in well and then be ready to mow.