GET TO WORK
You can make both your lawn and mower a cut above
By Lori Harlan
Copley News Service
The snow has melted, the ground is warming, and soon your lawn will be full of life. It's time to dust off the lawn mower.
The life of a lawn depends on the weather - sunlight, warmth and soil temperature, says Ron Richardson, president of the Lawn Barber in Springfield, Ill.
The first step in lawn care is spring cleaning. Richardson suggests raking, blowing or picking up winter debris from the yard, if you haven't already done so.
"The initial cleanup gets rid of the waste and helps the grass stand up, making it more receptive to being mowed," he says.
Spring cleaning applies to lawn-care equipment, too. For the lawn mower, replace the spark plug, change the oil, replace the filter and sharpen the blade, Richardson says.
"A sharp blade can mean the difference between healthy and diseased turf. A sharp blade makes a clean cut. A dull blade essentially tears the grass and makes it more susceptible to damage," says Richardson. "You should also scrape and clean the mower deck - ideally before and after every mow, but that's probably not realistic for most people."
Robert Kunz, who has owned Kunz Mower Service for 26 years, would like to see customers begin their maintenance routines in late winter. The first round of warm weather brings an influx of mowers into his shop, creating a wait.
"These days, most people just bring their mowers in for service instead of doing it themselves, but it depends on the person. Some people want to take off the blade and bring it in to be sharpened, but it's harder than people think. Things aren't as simple as they used to be. Every mower is different," he says.
Once the equipment is working, the next steps are fertilization and weed control.
"Weed problems keep us in business," Richardson says. "Everything in the lawn is competing for the same soil. We're trying to get grass only."
Most over-the-counter weed-control products work best under ideal situations, he says.
"The most effective chemicals available are the ones in the hands of the licensed professionals. There really is a big difference between what we can use and what you can buy in the store," Richardson says. "Professional lawn-care experts can also recognize other problems and find solutions."
Some signs of lawn trouble are weeds and bare spots, or failure to thrive, sometimes the result of grub worms.
Bare spots can be seeded in the spring, as soon as the soil temperature is over 50 degrees, says Jennifer Fishburn, a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension.
Richardson recommends a good starter fertilizer with an "18-24-12" blend. These numbers indicate the percentage of nutrients contained in the product.
Dandelions sprout as soon as temperatures reach 75 to 80 degrees for a week. Crab grass germinates when soil temperatures reach 55 degrees for seven to 10 consecutive days, Fishburn says.
Because crab grass pre-emergent stunts the growth of all grasses - good and bad - its application has to be carefully timed with seeding.
"You want to put down a crab grass pre-emergent before the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees. Late March to early April is a good time to seed, but you can't use a crab grass pre-emergent until after the grass seed has emerged," Richardson says.
After seeding and weed control produce a healthy lawn, it's time to mow.
Fishburn suggests mowing when the grass is 3 to 4 inches tall and removing only one-third the height of the grass at a time.
If you mow to the proper height, she says to leave clippings on the lawn.
"Bagging isn't necessary because grass is 80 percent water. If you follow the one-third rule when mowing, there's no reason to bag the clippings," she says. "People bag because of concern with excessive thatch. That happens when you wait too long and mow too late. Then the clippings don't decompose as well."
When you allow clippings to return to the lawn, you get about a pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet, Fishburn says, and that's good for the grass.
How often to mow depends on the lawn, but Charles McKeown, owner of Golf Green Lawn Care, recommends once a week during active growth. His team kept an informal tally during a season with average rainfall and found that they mowed 23 times in a season.
Time of day doesn't matter as much as lawn conditions, he says.
If the weather is particularly hot and dry, the grass will be stressed; mowing can do more damage than good. Under those conditions - when the grass is dry and brown - there likely will be little, if any, growth to mow.
If the grass is wet from rain, McKeown says to let it dry before mowing so it discharges smoothly and doesn't clump.
Also, alternate the pattern each time you mow.
"If you keep the same pattern every time, the grass lies in one direction and never stands up straight. You also create tire tracks, especially with riding lawn mowers," he says. "It's good for the grass to change directions each time you mow."
Whether to water the lawn depends on weather variables.
"You don't want to begin watering at the first sign of drought," Fishburn says, "but don't delay until the grass goes dormant. There aren't specific rules to watering. It all depends on the weather."
McKeown suggests walking on the lawn to assess it. If the grass rebounds and has a healthy green cast, it probably doesn't require watering. If you leave footprints, that's a good indication the lawn needs to be watered. Half an inch a week generally is sufficient, he says.
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