Spring lawn care tips

Core aerators have hollow tines that push down and remove a core of soil. iGrow photo

By David Graper
SDSU Extension Horticulture Specialist and Director of McCrory Gardens

Spring is here, according to the calendar and with the most recent snow melted, hopefully we are finished with the really cold weather. Most people are venturing outside to look for signs of spring. Some people are watching for the many species of migrating birds that are making their way northward. Gardeners are likely hoping to see signs of green poking up out of the ground or for buds to be enlarging on their trees and shrubs. The warm weather in February might have caused some “confusion” in some of our plants as to trigger premature growth but the weather over the next few weeks could make a huge difference in how much impact that had.

It’ s still too early to do any real planting outside but there are a number of other tasks that you can do to get you out of the house and out into your yard once things dry up a bit. The first is general cleanup. Invariably winter wind, snow and ice will cause breakage to tree and shrub branches. It is a good idea to get these picked up first. They look bad sitting around your yard and will get in the way as you try to do other spring yard cleanup. If the soil is not too wet from a chance spring thunderstorm, I use a small trailer that I hook up to my garden tractor. I pull that around the yard, collecting the small branches as I go. If a branch is too large, I either cut it into smaller pieces with a lopper or pruning saw or just drag it off the yard. If the soil is too wet, it is best to keep the garden tractor in the garage for a few days so that you do not compact the soil by driving on it with the heavy garden tractor.

Raking the lawn is probably the next most common gardening activity for the early spring. It helps to clean up accumulated and especially matted down leaves in the lawn and also rakes out a lot of the dead grass blades from last fall. It is best to rake when the soil and leaves are dried out, not right after a rain. If it is too wet, you could inadvertently pull out grass plants, making your lawn thinner than it might have been. However, if you rake over an area and a patch of grass just comes out, it was probably dead anyway. It might have been killed by snow mold or some other problem. You may also find remnants of vole damage, especially where snow accumulated over the winter. These little field mice feed primarily on grass blades and the crowns of grass plants then pile up their leavings in little trails in your lawn. It might look like a lot of damage now, but the grass plants usually send up new shoots from their underground rhizomes and fill in the trails fairly quickly.

I tend to avoid raking as much as possible. Instead I use my lawn mower in the fall to chop and blow the leaves off the grass and around my flower beds and over the mulch that I have around my trees. Farther out from trees and shrubs, mowing the leaves chops them up enough that they pretty much filter down amongst the grass plants and decompose there, recycling their nutrients to feed the grass plants and the trees and shrubs that produced the leaves. Mowing the lawn and catching the clippings in the fall is another way to get the leaves picked up with less labor. From there they can go into the compost pile or get worked into the garden. You do have to be careful though if any herbicides were applied to the lawn. The residual activity of some of those can cause damage to your garden the following year. Unfortunately, the lawn mower method only works well in the fall when the leaves are fairly dry and not matted down to the ground and lawn by winter snowfall.

Once you get the lawn raked, you might be tempted to get the fertilizer spreader out. It’s probably a better idea to let that in the tool shed for now though. It is better to wait until the grass is actively growing to fertilize it, particularly if you fertilized the lawn last fall. If you did, it is best to wait until about mid-May to late-May to fertilize. While early fertilization will make the lawn green up faster, it will also mean a lot more mowing this spring too.

Spring is a good time to do core aeration if your lawn suffers from compacted soils. This might be most noticeable in areas that get heavy foot or especially vehicle traffic. A core aerator cuts out small plugs of soil, creating a channel down into the soil. These channels create a space for water and air to get down into the soil and also allow roots to grow into those openings. Core aeration is also very helpful to reduce a heavy thatch layer. The cores that were removed from the soil will slowly break apart and spread out over the lawn, mixing soil and microorganism with the thatch layer to help it decompose.

Spring is also a good time to do power raking or dethatching, if that is truly a problem in your lawn. It is important to understand that thatch is not made up of grass clippings but rather excessive stem and root tissue that tends to build up if the lawn is over-fertilized, over-watered and perhaps mowed too low. If you dig out a core of your lawn, going down about 3” you should be able to see the thatch layer. If it is less than about ¾” it is not a problem. I have seen thatch layers that are over 2” deep though. The power rake cuts slits through the turf and thatch layer, making pathways for water to penetrate as well as to bring the thatch up to the surface. Power raking can also assist in over-seeding a lawn that is too thin. Those same grooves that are cut into the soil create a good place for grass seed to germinate.

Grass seeding can also be done in the spring but it can be a challenge to get a good stand of grass if the area was heavily infested with warm season annual grasses like crabgrass which can germinate later in the spring and compete with the new grass plants. It’s important to prepare a seed bed somehow. Small patches or bare areas can be roughed up with a stiff garden rake. Larger areas can be prepared with the power rake as mentioned earlier. Once you have the area prepared you can scatter the seed over the bare areas. Then it is a good idea to use a lawn roller or similar device to firm the seed into the seedbed. Powered grass seeders can also be rented. These combine the action of rotating blades, a bin that distributes the seed and a roller that helps to press the seed into the seedbed.

Seeding can be done quite early in the spring. However, the seed will not germinate until the soil temperature gets up to at least 45°F with much better germination at temperatures in the 55 to 65°F range. If the seed sits there for too long, it could blow away or get washed away by a heavy rain. If you have access to some good clean straw, that can be applied as a mulch. There are other mulching materials available as well, some in the form of an organic blanket that will help to hold the seed in place while it is germinating. Once soil temperatures are warm enough, there needs to be sufficient moisture for the seed to germinate and the young seedlings to get established. This process usually takes about three weeks. So, if you are trying to get some new grass established and it doesn’t rain for a few days, some light irrigation, just about every day, will be necessary to get a good stand.

Once the lawn starts to green up, other problems might show up, like the small “dog spots” as they are often known, caused by an excess of urine salts that were deposited on the lawn. Unfortunately just sprinkling some seed on these spots will not do much good. Those excess salts must be removed somehow. One method is through repeated watering to essentially dissolve the salt and leach it down deeper into the soil. The other method is to just dig out the top 3-4” of soil and replace it with fresh soil. Then you can sprinkle on the seed and get it to grow and fill in the spot.

For additional information on lawn care see:

• http://igrow.org/gardens/gardening/spring-lawn-care/

• http://igrow.org/gardens/gardening/core-aerating-your-lawn/

• http://igrow.org/gardens/gardening/first-step-to-lawn-care-measure-your-lawn/

• http://igrow.org/gardens/gardening/be-patient-when-it-comes-to-lawn-care/

A question regarding starting seeds

I bought one of those seed starting kit that has a couple flats and domes to keep the humidity high for the seeds to sprout. It also has a heating mat to speed up the process. I also have some fluorescent lights to use as grow lights. How long should I keep the dome on and when should I put the seedlings under the light?

Remove the dome once the seeds have sprouted and turn on the lights at this time too. Keep the lights down close to the seedlings, probably about 4-6” above the plants. Otherwise, the little seedlings will have very weak growth and not grow into healthy transplants. Only use the heat mat until seeds germinate too.

Extension Master Gardener training offered this summer

By Aimee House Ladonski

Volunteer Development Field Specialist

Want to become a Master Gardener or know someone who does?

Please share the attached announcement with potentially interested parties.

SDSU Extension Master Gardener Training is provided by SDSU faculty and includes access to online training materials, a resource manual, and hands-on classes. Hands-on classes will be held in three locations, over eight sessions. Come join the fun!

Participants can select one of three training locations:

Sioux Falls: June 6, 13, 20, 27, July 11, 18, 25, August 1.

Aberdeen: June 7, 14, 21, 28, July 12, 19, 26, August 2.

Spearfish: June 8, 15, 22, 29, July 13, 20, 27, August 3.

Each session begins at 8:30 am and ends at 4:30 pm local time.

Topics Include:

• Basic botany and taxonomy

• Soils and fertilizers; turf and weed management

• Plant pathology/composting

• Tree and shrub care

• Pest management

• Planting and landscape use;

• Pesticides

• Insects and pollinators, biodiversity

• Vegetables and season extension

• Herbaceous ornamentals, native plants, plant propagation

Cost options

Training with Volunteer Commitment (Discount Rate $190)

To take course at discounted rate, you must provide 50 hours of volunteer service over the next two years. The balance of the full course fee will be invoiced if service commitment is not completed. Upon successfully completing the training and 50 hours of initial volunteer service you will become a full-fledged SDSU Extension Master Gardener.

Participants will receive the same training, but will not be required to volunteer and will not become a certified Master Gardener. Instead, participants receive a horticulture training certificate upon successful completion of the course.

Training without Volunteer Commitment (Full Price $540)

Participants will receive the same training, but will not be required to volunteer and will not become a certified Master Gardener. Instead, participants receive a horticulture training certificate upon successful completion of the course.

Register Today at iGrow.org.

Having trouble registering? Contact us at [email protected] or call 605-782-3290

Registration deadline is May 1st, 2017.

Mark your calendars

“Spring Fling” will be Tuesday, March 28th, 7:00 – 8:30 pm, at Pavilion Auditorium on the Avera Hospital campus, West 4th St., Yankton, South Dakota.

The event is sponsored by Missouri Valley Master Gardeners of the Yankton area.

The presenter is Joe Hoffman “Growing the Captive Mind”, Vocational Training Instructor, Yankton Federal Prison Camp.

Horticulturist Joe Hoffman will discuss what worked in his career as he taught inmates and grew their study collection of trees, roses, other perennials, and annuals on prison grounds. Observatory Hill design, flower color coordination in prison landscape, and camp composting are some of his topics. He welcomes participant questions.

All are welcome to this free event. See more about the Spring Fling at “Missouri Valley Master Gardeners” on Facebook.

Minnehaha Master Gardeners program

The Minnehaha Master Gardeners are preparing their 2017 Gardening with the Masters program. The event will be Saturday, April 1, 2017 at the SF Regional Extension Center, (Campus of SDSD), 2001 E. 8th Street, Sioux Falls, SD.

The Schedule is as follows:

• 8:30: Registration

• 9:00: “Bees, Flowers & Pollination” – Jon Kieckhefer

Overview: Plan your garden for the benefit of the bees, flowers and you!

• 10:00: “Butterflies as Pollinators” – Vanessa Lambert

Overview: Butterflies may look like flowers but they can also be helpful as pollinators.

• 11:00: “Is Your Yard for the Birds?” – Kent Jensen

Overview: Learn how to identify and attract birds to your yard.

• 11:50: Lunch in registration area

• 12:40: “Nature at Work in Your Yard!” – Cynthia Bergman

Overview: Learn how to make your yard easier to maintain by doing the “right thing” in the “right place”.

• 1:40: “Creating a Fairy Garden” – Annette Scheffer

Overview: It’s like playing “house” in a garden!

• 2:45: “Garden Line Revisited!”

Overview: Master gardeners will be available to answer your gardening questions or find the answer if there is one.

7th annual Spring Fling – A Gardening Adventure

The Miller area Dakota Prairie Master Gardeners are sponsoring their 7th annual Spring Fling – A Gardening Adventure. Saturday April 1, at the Miller High School Commons (623 E. 4th St. Miller, SD). Featuring:

• Knowledgeable horticulture speakers

• Luncheon & snacks

• Make and take projects

• Creative ideas

• Door prizes

• Silent Auction

Registration 9:00-9:30 A.M. Event begins 9:30 A.M. Tickets and $25 at the door or $20 advance purchase.

Tickets available from: Connie Schroeder, 410 N. Broadway, Miller, SD 57362. Phone: 1-605-853-2268

South Dakota Horticultural Society 2017 Annual Spring Meeting – April 8

Location: Medary Acres Greenhouse, 1100 8th St. S. Brookings, SD 57006 (605-692-5816)

• 9 AM: Registration

• 10 AM: John Ball – Pruning: Just When We Thought We Knew It!

Pruning is a practice that had been done for millenniums so you would think we have figured it out by now. No, and there have been many changes in the last few years. This session will cover the latest thoughts and techniques.

• 11 AM: Lance Stott – Checking Plant Vitals: Innovative Ways to Determine Plant Water Stress

• 12:00 PM: Lunch: boxed sandwich, chips, fruit and drinks provided

• 12:30 PM: Business meeting, John Robertson award and Scholarship awards

• 1:00 PM: David Graper – Best of the Flower Trial Plants at McCrory Gardens

• 2:00 PM: Door prizes followed by Medary Acres Tour

• 3:00 PM: Adjourn and optional other tours 3:00 PM

Cost is $25 per person. Pre-registrations are appreciated and may be sent to Marie Harvey, 34600 – 213th St., Ree Heights, SD 57371.