Here are 10 tips for cleaning up your yard this spring—and laying the foundation for a great-looking lawn.
As soon as snow season is over (if you have one) or your soil dries up, you know that it’s time for spring cleanup. In our region, we look to nature’s signs, too. Lawn care begins between the bloom times of the forsythia and lilac bushes.
You put a lot into your home and property, so take a weekend or two to roll up your sleeves and get outside to care for your yard. People who neglect spring cleanup end up paying more in mowing and lawn care during the rest of the year.
Clean Up Leaves
Even if you cleaned up the leaves in the fall, there are many trees (such as oaks) that shed their leaves over the winter and spring. It’s important to rake up those leaves to remove layers of leaves that can lead to grass mold or decay. If you have a compost pile (or want to start one!), add those leaves to the pile; they’re excellent organic material for plant beds and mulch.
If you have a larger yard, consider a low-noise leaf blower (like this one from Echo). Many blowers today offer low levels of noise unlike blowers of years past. You can also safely blow leaves out of your gutters—right from the ground. A clean gutter prevents pest nesting areas, water damage, ice dams, and gutter damage.
Rake the Ground—Deeply
After blowing away the leaves, do a deep raking of your yard. Don’t just sweep the surface. Rake away thatch and any grass blades that have died over the winter. You don’t want more than ½-inch of thatch on the ground. If you have snow in your region, you may spot some matted patches. Rake them.
Get Rid of Weeds
Weeds will only get worse as daylight hours increase during summer. Pull weeds or cut them away now while it’s easy. As they grow, their roots will strengthen and they will be very difficult to pull out.
If you plan to spray for weeds, the best plan is to apply a “pre-emergent” herbicide in the fall—because this inhibits weed seeds (especially crabgrass) from even germinating.
If you see perennial weeds emerge in the spring, you can spray a post-emergent herbicide. This is less effective than the autumn timing, since the growth has already begun. Go to the garden store, buy a lawn weed preventer that covers both grassy weeds (e.g., crabgrass) and broadleaf weeds (e.g., dandelions), and put it down with a lawn spreader (like this one from Echo). Then water your lawn for an hour; it’s critical that it soaks down into the ground, all the way to the weeds’ roots.
If you already have dandelions, a common perennial weed in early spring, you can also dig them out by their roots or just enjoy their yellow blooms. Note: Snap off dandelion heads before they seed if you don’t want more dandelions next year. If you are maintaining a yard without chemicals, you could always harvest dandelion greens when young and tender! Yes, you can eat many “weeds”!
Loosen the Soil
Does your property have flower beds? After the winter, the soil may be completely compacted. It’s important to loosen the soil to help oxygen reach the plants roots. You can use hand tools for small areas, but larger areas may benefit from tiller (like this one from Echo). Some trimmers have tiller attachments.
The lawn also gets compacted soil, especially if people walk on it. If you see patches of moss or signs of decline, we would advise aerating the lawn. However, this is usually best done in the fall. Plan to rent a lawn aerator at your local home improvement store.
Moss can also mean that your lawn is getting acidic. If you are growing grass, the goal is a neutral pH. Get a soil test (often free or done for a small fee through your local County Cooperative Extension office). If your lawn is acidic, you’ll need to apply lime to it; the Extension folks can advise you.
Edge Garden Beds
Nothing finishes a yard like a crisp edge between a sidewalk and the turf. If you’d like to create that perfect manicured look, consider trying out an edger (like this one from Echo).
You may also want to redraw the boundary between your garden beds and grass. Wider beds mean less lawn care, too. Here’s how to do it: Use a garden hose to mark out a nice line for your garden beds. Then, along this bed line, take a sharp metal edger and drive it into the ground as deep as it will go. Dig all along the hose line and then remove the grass that’s there, creating a nice bed. Once done, fill up the bed with 2 to 3 inches of mulch (pine bark is a good choice)—or you’ll just get a bed of weeds! (See photo below.) Now transplant or plant some flowers!
Fertilize Your Lawn—or Not
We don’t think that it’s necessary to fertilize your lawn in the spring. The best time for fertilizing is autumn—while the grass is still green but not growing or greening. This may sound counterintuitive, but fall is when grass plants take up nitrogen to help them green up more quickly in the spring.
However, some folks like to apply fertilizer in the spring, too. If you do this, apply lightly. Heavy fertilization is not good for the grass and can also lead to disease problems. Cool-season grasses can be fertilized early in spring. Just go to a garden center, buy the fertilizer for your type of grass, and apply it evenly with a lawn spreader (like this one from Echo). Note that warm-season grasses (e.g., Bermuda grass) can be fertilized in late spring once they green up.
If you’re interested in a more organic way to fertilize, use a mulching mower—which returns grass clippings back to the soil. This saves you time and energy, while also improving the condition of your lawn. Since grass clippings contain up to 90 percent water, the clippings dry up very quickly. It’s almost as if the grass clippings disappear. Plus, this returns 25 percent of the nutrients to the soil—a fantastic fertilizer.
Seed Bare Patches
What if your lawn has bare patches from traffic or even pets? It’s really best to reseed in the fall, but if you’re desperate to fix these patches, try seeding in March or April.
Use a steel rake to scuff up the area. Loosen the soil. Scrape some compost into the area. Sprinkle grass seed on the spot. (Use a sun/shade premium mix, unless the area’s heavily shaded.) Keep the soil moist. Cover the seeds with straw matting or another material. Even grass clippings will do. You just want to cover the spot with some sort of material to hold seeds in place.
If you’re using a pre-emergent herbicide in the spring, keep in mind that it kills both weed and grass seeds; this is why fall is a better time to seed grass.
Prune Trees and Trim Hedges
Fruit trees (especially apple trees) need to be pruned in the spring to stay healthy and produce a good harvest.
When to prune a tree or shrub depends mostly on when it blooms and whether it blooms on growth produced in the same or previous years. Generally, those that flower after midsummer are pruned hard in the spring. Take care not to prune too early, as the incisions can dry out if the temperature drops below freezing. See our spring pruning chart. To prune trees yourself, look into tree pruners with long reach poles (like this one from Echo) so you can keep your own feet safely on the ground.
Winter or early spring is the best time to trim any hedges with leaves. Also use a hedge trimmer (like this one from Echo) for conifers—once during the early spring and again midsummer.
Mow Grass—But Not Too Soon
You may be relieved to know that the first mow really shouldn’t occur until the grass level reaches 2 to 3 inches tall. The lawn needs time to recover after winter. We’re becoming fans of “mowing high.” Longer grass shades the earth underneath, which allows fewer weed seeds to sprout. Also, you won’t need to water your lawn as often.
If you use a traditional lawn mower, spring is the time to clean (or replace) the filter and spark plugs. It’s important to sharpen the mower blade every month or two for a clean cut. When you just rip grass and leave it with open cuts, you leave your yard susceptible to fungi and disease. See more about lawn care.
If you’re interested in alternative mowers, consider a reel mower or an electric mower as a more environmentally friendly option. These mowers work best if your property is one-third of an acre or less. It’s important to mow your grass regularly, as it’s much more difficult to cut the grass if it gets way too tall (as many of us have experienced firsthand!).
Of course, we have to mention that there are alternatives to grass as well! Many folks are starting to use more ground cover plants (such a sedum), walkways, and wider flower beds. There’s also a growing trend to add vegetable garden beds or to integrate edibles (herbs, vegetables, fruit) into your front yard. See more about edible landscaping!
Trim Your Lawn
Trim the edges of your lawn to redefine its borders. A reader once told us that a lawn trim is similar to a hair cut! You chop off your hair, but then you need to trim a nice line to look neat and well-manicured. Many lawn mowers aren’t able to do a good job of cutting the sideways grasses along the edges or trimming grass around posts and fence lines. A good trimmer (like this one from Echo) can reach those tight spaces and get close to planting beds.
Not everything on this list is necessary for every yard, but we think that we’ve covered everything that you’ll need to think about this spring!