Garden Variety: Lawn care tips for grass of all kinds

One of the first tasks many gardeners look to in the spring is lawn care. The grass is starting to green up, and hopefully can wait a few weeks for the first mowing. But maybe there were some bare patches last summer, a crop of dandelions has arrived or you are thinking this is the year your lawn will be the envy of the neighborhood.

From minimalist lawn care to green, lush lawns, here are the tips to get a good-looking lawn in northeast Kansas.

Before starting on any lawn work, identify what type of grass you have and what type of grass you want. Most lawns in the Midwest are turf-type tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, zoysiagrass or bermudagrass. The first three are cool-season grasses and often mixed in lawns. The last two are warm-season, along with the less popular but excellent choice of buffalograss.

Cool-season lawns

Fescue, bluegrass, and ryegrass are greening now and tempting gardeners into paying a lot of attention to them. The truth is that the best time to do anything to your cool-season lawn was in the fall, but it is OK to do a few things now.

Minimalist lawn care

For minimalists, the key to less work is healthy grass. Thin grass and bare spots allow more weed growth, and weeds tend to grow faster and put up more seedheads than the lawn itself, making the lawn look even more unkempt. A thick stand of grass is also good for preventing erosion. If you have bare spots or thin areas, go ahead and throw some grass seed down in those areas. Do it soon, as the middle of March is considered the cutoff for spring seeding to allow grass to establish before the heat of summer.

Use a rake to loosen the soil surface when seeding to get good soil contact and allow new roots to penetrate. For large areas, a verticutter or power rake is the best bet to break up the soil surface. These machines can be rented at many hardware and equipment rental stores, or a professional can provide this service.

Seed selection is important. Ignore pretty bags and large marketing budgets and look at the labels. Some grass seed packages contain weed seed and large percentages of inert matter. High quality seed contains a very high percentage of viable seed and little else.

Turf-type tall fescue is the best species for the Lawrence area, even for shade. Look for a blend of a couple of different varieties of turf-type tall fescue without all the extras. Bluegrass needs more water than typically falls in northeast Kansas, and ryegrass is disease-prone in hot, humid summers.

When mowing is needed, raise the mower to the highest setting. Mow regularly as removing large portions of the leaf blade at one time stresses the grass. Mowing the grass very short will also result in stressed grass and allow more weeds to grow, resulting in the need for more frequent mowing.

Instead of bagging clippings, allow them to return to the lawn. Clippings break down quickly and return water and nutrients to the grass.

Middle-of-the-road lawns

For lawn care enthusiasts that are somewhere in the middle of minimal and over-the-top, stick with the tips above to start. Next, you are probably wondering about fertilization and weed/pest control.

Spring fertilization of cool-season lawns often makes grass put on more top growth than roots, so resisting the temptation right now is best. If you are irrigating, use a slow-release fertilizer in May. Otherwise, save the fertilizer for fall when you will get a lot of bang for your buck and a healthier yard the next year.

Broadleaf weeds are also best controlled in the fall. If you have a lot of dandelions, chickweed, etc., focus on overseeding those areas with high quality grass seed and following good maintenance practices. The weeds will be dead as soon as warm temperatures arrive anyway.

If crabgrass was a problem last year, you may want to use a crabgrass preventer. A thick stand of desirable grass is still the best at preventing crabgrass, but areas along driveways, sidewalks, etc. tend to be prone to crabgrass growth. Apply the preventative product in early April or watch the redbud trees – crabgrass seeds germinate about the same time the redbuds bloom. Read and follow all label directions and avoid use if you have just re-seeded.

Always green and lush lawns

If you love your lawn and want it to be the best on the block, you should be doing all the things described above. Be sure to do a May application of slow-release fertilizer since you will need to irrigate through the summer months to keep the lawn glossy green. Water deeply and infrequently rather than every day to promote root growth. Check your irrigation system regularly and use a rain sensor to have the system shut off and avoid overwatering after rain events.

In late August or early September, plan to core aerate, dethatch, overseed, and fertilizer to keep the lawn in tiptop shape.

Warm-season lawns

For bermudagrass, zoysiagrass, and buffalograss, your lawn is low-maintenance even if you care a lot about it. Wait until the grass starts to green in May. Cut it very short for the first mowing of the season and rake off the brown stems. Fertilize in June if you wish. Mow regularly through the summer.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.