Spring Lawn Care: 5 Steps to Bring Your Lawn Back to Life

Caring for Your Lawn After a Long Winter

March 19, 2021
Lawn With Native Plantings

Lawn filled with native plants in Eugene, Oregon

Jamie Hooper/Shutterstock

Not to be too dramatic, but spring is the most important time of the year to care for your lawn! If you neglect it in the spring, the rest of the season will suffer. From fertilization to crabgrass prevention, here are five basic steps to bring your lawn back to life after a long winter and prepare it for the seasons ahead!

1. Feed the Lawn

Coming out of a long, harsh winter, spring is the most critical time to give your lawn a boost. It comes down to fertilizer—no matter whether your preference is organic or synthetic.

Today, there is the option to use organic fertilizers made from natural materials instead of refined chemicals. Using natural fertilizers lowers the chance of run-off affecting local bodies of water and wildlife.

A light application of rapid-release fertilizer in early spring will give a big boost of nutrients to stimulate recovery from the winter and help sustain a strong, healthy turfgrass during the upcoming months. You may see greening of your lawn in just a few days after application. Or, get a combination of rapid-release plus slow-release fertilizer if you don’t want to spend a lot of time on your lawn over the season.

Regardless of whether you choose rapid-release or slow-release fertilizer, there are two main methods to apply fertilizer:

  1. Granular (solid pellets): For larger yards (½ acre and up), it’s best to go with granular and use a broadcast spreader to spread it evenly across the lawn. 
     
  2. Liquid: If your lawn is smaller (under ½ acre), it may be more convenient to use a liquid type diluted in water. This can be attached to the end of a garden hose (to fertilize as you water) or applied with a compression sprayer (with a pump) that is handheld (or backpack-style for larger yards).

Generally, it’s easier to apply the right amount with granular. A broadcast spreader (handheld or pushed) means that you’ll spread the pellets evenly in a quick and easy manner.

Image: Granular fertilizer for lawn. Credit: Dean Clarke.
Granular fertilizer for the lawn. Credit: Dean Clarke

Another way to feed your lawn is to use a mulching mower that chops up grass into fine particles; this feeds your lawn with nitrogen over the season. As clippings break down, they return nutrients to the soil and should not be bagged.

2. Get Ahead of Crabgrass

In early spring, the second component of lawn care is a pre-emergent crabgrass control. There is a narrow window for controlling crabgrass, whether your preference is a home solution (e.g., vinegar), organic, or chemical control. If you apply the pre-emergent too soon, it’s not effective. If you apply too late, the seedlings have already germinated! So how do you know when it’s the right time to spray?

The trick: Soil temperatures needs to be at 55°F for three days straight. Once temperatures reach 65 to 70°F, crabgrass will spread rapidly.

For easier application, you can use a compression sprayer that is either handheld or backpack style (depending on the size of your property). Do not mix a weed killer sprayer with any other sprayer bottles; label appropriately.

Some products are “weed and feed,” combining a pre-emergent crabgrass herbicide and fertilizer for early spring. This combination product has a light amount of fertilizer to boost grass growth, while the pre-emergent deters crabgrass seedling development.

Before you go spraying all over, consider your lawn. If you don’t have a ton of weeds, there’s no need to use a “weed and feed” or any all-over weed killer. Instead, spread fertilizer over the full lawn and then spot treat your weeds.

Learn more about common weeds.

Image: Stop crabgrass before it gets this large. Credit: Christian Delbert/Shutterstock.
Stop crabgrass before it gets this large! Credit: Christian Delbert/Shutterstock

3. Prep Your Lawn Mower

Annual tune-up
In early spring, we recommend an annual tune-up on your lawn mower! If you have a gas-powered unit, you can do this yourself in 10 to 15 minutes and it’s relatively inexpensive. An air filter, spark plug, and oil should cost you around $20. See your operating manual. 

Of course, with a cordless electric mower, there is no gas, filters, spark plugs, or oil to change, making it super-convenient and very low-maintenance.

Clean beneath the deck
Whether you have a gas or electric mower, however, you do need to clean out the area underneath the mower deck. This is an area you don’t see, so old grass and leaves often build up. The mower blade’s movement is designed to work with the shape of the mower deck. The vacuum created by the mower deck pulls the lawn grass upright, which allows the blade to make clean, even cuts. If you don’t clean beneath the deck, it won’t create the vacuum. When we hear folks say that their lawn mower doesn’t cut as well, it’s often due to neglecting the below-deck area. Flip the unit up and get in there with a putty knife!

Replacing or sharpening the blade
What about the blade? If it is not knicked, there’s no need to buy a new one. If you have sandy soil conditions or lots of pinecones, you may find the blade gets damaged more often; this is especially true in the more sandy soils of the southern and western United States. Of course, always take the time to pick up sticks and debris before you mow so that you don’t harm your blade.

You do need to keep that blade sharp to cut through the grass instead of tearing it, which invites disease and problems. Sharpen your blade 2 to 3 times during the season. Some folks find it’s a headache to go get the blade sharpened in the shop. Luckily, it’s quite inexpensive to simply unbolt the blade, throw a new one on, and skip sharpening altogether. Another option is to have two blades so that you can have a back-up when one blade is in the shop getting sharpened. 

Proper storage for electric mowers
If you have an electric mower, the battery life should deliver hundreds of hours. However, this assumes that you keep it clean and store both the mower and battery properly. Don’t keep the mower in a cold place in the winter or a hot shed in the summer—this shortens the life of the battery cells. If possible, bring the mower into the basement or a temperature-controlled garage. If your mower is not neglected, you should be able to power through hundreds of recharge cycles!

Image: Cutting the grass with an electric cordless lawn mower.
Electric cordless lawn mowers can be a good alternative for small lawns.

4. Dethatch Your Lawn

Thatch is the dead grass between the soil layer and the living grass. A little thatch is a good thing, helping to moderate temperature extremes. However, an accumulation of thatch over a half-inch thick will deter air and water movement and invite disease and pests. Excessive thatch may occur because of too much nitrogen fertilizer, acidity or lack of lime in the soil, frequent and shallow watering, and a lack of earthworms (often due to chemical pesticides). 

Typically, late spring and early fall are the best times to dethatch your lawn. We do NOT recommend dethatching too early in spring, as this will disturb the delicate baby grass that is still germinating at this time. 

You’ll want to pull out the dead grass to allow more water and nutrients to get into the roots of the grass. For a small yard, there are special dethatching rakes; you push the tines of your rake deeply into the grass to reach the thatch layer beneath and pull the dead grass to the surface. 

For a larger yard or a yard with a serious thatch issue, consider an electric dethatcher. It pulls up the dead grass to the surface quickly, cutting through the dead material and depositing it on the surface. You can rent dethatchers from your local home improvement store or there are powered multi-tools that have different attachments (trimmers, pruners, etc.) and one of the attachment options is often a dethatcher. If you do a lot of yard and garden work, this powered multi-tool may be a great option.

After you dethatch, you’ll be amazed at how much dead grass comes to surface! It may look messy for a while, but you’ll see healthier grass within weeks. Once all thatch is gone, it’s a great time to overseed, planting new grass seed in bare or dead areas. That broadcast spreader you used for fertilizing is great for lawn seed, too. If you buy grass seed in bulk, just put the seed in the hopper and go.

Note: If your lawn continues to feel hard and compacted, you may need it to be “aerated.” This is best in the fall unless your soil is so compacted that grass can’t grow. Core aerators are mechanical devices which remove plugs of soil from your lawn to allow needed oxygen, water, and nutrients to penetrate the soil. For a one-time use, core aerators can be rented from a home improvement store.

Once you dethatch the lawn with a rake or power dethatcher, rake up the newly exposed thatch. 
Once you dethatch the lawn with a rake or power dethatcher, rake up the newly exposed thatch. 

5. Define the Lawn

For a neat and defined yard, the final step is to edge the lawn. An edger is similar to a shovel but has a blade to create a crisp, clean edge between the turf and driveway or sidewalk to keep weeds from creeping in.

In some climates, especially parts of the South, grasses like St. Augustine grass grow more out than up. The edger acts like a week whacker with an edging blade. There are both manual edgers for small lawns and motorized edgers to quickly handle any size lawn. 

You can also edge the flower beds and landscape beds to give them a fresh, maintained look. Edge around mulched trees to keep mulch from migrating and create a safe zone around tree trunks to protect them from lawn mowers.

You can certainly use a shovel to edge, but it’s tough, time-consuming work. A gas-powered or electric edger or bed redefiner has an angled blade to dig a trench around tree areas and quickly power through the job.

edged-path-home-169540_1920_full_width.jpg

Special Problems: Rocks in Lawn?

Here in New Hampshire, we get a lot of sand, salt, and gravel pushed onto our lawns from snow removal. It’s very difficult to get out with a rake alone! If you have a similar problem, look into a rock sweeper or “paddle” sweeper, which is fantastic for getting into grass and scooping out small rocks or sand without harming the grass itself. Move acorns, walnuts, rocks, mulch, and pine cones from lawn to driveway or sidewalk for easy pickup, all without hurting the lawn. The paddle is pricey, so you may also want to rent from your home improvement store to try it out.

It’s hard to imagine how this type of tool works so below is a quick video (from a retailer).

With the five spring lawn care tips above, you’re all set for a great start to the season!  

Learn more about lawn care basics through the year.

A special thanks to Jason Wilk, Product Manager at ECHO, for providing his expert lawn care advice for this article.

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