Spring Lawn Care Tips: How to Reclaim Your Yard After Winter

dead yard lawn care
Shazie28/Getty Images

For many years, I lived in lovely Los Angeles, where landscaping and lawn care are a year-round proposition. Then I moved back to my ancestral East Coast where there’s this thing called winter, a period during which the days grow short, gray, and cold, and people hunker down inside, sneezing, grumbling, and occasionally checking Zillow to see what houses are selling for back in the old LA neighborhood.

While winter can be a long, dreary season, at least it ends with that glorious return to life called spring. As the land warms, leaves bud on trees, flowers stretch up through the soil, and the sky above grows lighter and bluer. If your yard was robust and healthy as the cold weather set in during autumn, then revitalizing your lawn in spring may involve nothing more than a quick feeding and a return to regular mowing and watering as needed. Most of us aren’t so lucky, though; the wintertime can be rough on grass, and reestablishing a lush, verdant, welcoming lawn can require some extra effort and a few tips.

You’re taking the right first step by reading this article — FYI, the rest of the steps are going to require a bit of elbow grease.

It All Starts With De-Thatching

Thatch is that yellow/gray/brown/dead layer of grass that lurks below the healthier blades and gives entire yards a sickly appearance regardless of the lawn’s actual health. And when the thatch layer is too thick, it can prevent grass from getting proper air, water, sunlight, and nutrients, slowly killing your precious yard. So remove it! De-thatching isn’t rocket science — just use a good, stiff rake (get a dedicated de-thatching tool for stubborn cases) to lift up and clear away most of the thatch. If you can leave behind a thin layer of thatch (less than a half-inch, in fact), that’s great, as it can protect the grass against excessive heat and sunshine during the warmer months.

Compacted Soil? Aerate It

During the winter, the ground spends a lot of time cold or even frozen, and might have sat for days or even weeks covered by snow. These conditions and/or heavy foot traffic can leave the land packed down tight, potentially too compacted for proper aeration and water absorption. If you fear your lawn is overly compacted (moss is a sure sign of this, as is dead or dying areas), then aerate the soil. You can do this with funny shoes with long spikes, with handheld aerating tools, or with huge motor-driven machines.

Yard Butler Coring Aerator
Yard Butler

Science Time: Test the pH

If you really want to do things right, then you should test your yard’s pH levels early on in the springtime. You can get a soil pH testing kit from any hardware store worth its salt, and they’re quite easy to use. If it turns out your soil is too acidic, then a thin coating of lime over the lawn should be all that’s needed to balance our the pH level. If it’s too alkaline, use sulfate. A yard with proper pH balance will enjoy much healthier and more rapid growth in extant blades, and new seeds or sod will take much better too. Just make sure that after you apply the lime (or sulfate) you hold off on fertilizing or using weed and feed for at least two weeks, as the products can reduce one another’s efficacy.

To Weed and Feed, or Just Weed?

If your yard is plagued by dozens of dandelions, clusters of clovers, and an onslaught of onion grass, then by apply weed and feed atop the turf. Weed and feed works because grass roots grow deep (metaphorically and physically, right?) while weeds root much closer to the surface. The herbicides in the mixture only penetrate a little way down into the ground, killing off weeds, while the fertilizers penetrate much deeper, nourishing the grass. But if your lawn only has sporadic weeds, it’s a much better idea to remove them by hand and avoid using what are essentially poisonous products. Also, while hands-on weeding can be laborious, complete removal of a weed is a much more effective remedy than trying to kill it off with herbicide products; many will wilt, disappear, and then quickly regrow from root systems left intact by the weed and feed approach.

grass lawn yard

Don’t Cut Too Deep

Once your grass is actively growing again, it’s time to start mowing. When you mow the lawn, never cut off more than a third of the total length of the blades of grass lest you deliver too much damage, reducing the lawn’s capacity for photosynthesis, temperature regulation, and more. Even if your grass is overgrown and much taller than you want, be patient. Trim a third off it one day, then wait several days. Now remove a bit more. And so on. The ideal height for most common grasses found in America is between two and four inches, so aim for that as the eventual goal. And when cutting the grass, vary the direction of your passes. Not only can mowing in diagonal or cross-over rows leave a great-looking pattern, but it also means that the blades of grass are cut more evenly over time, which leads to better blade health and to reduces soil compacting.

A quick word on lawnmower maintenance: don’t skip lawnmower maintenance. Sharp blades lead to a better-looking and healthier lawn, and you can probably find someone who will sharpen them for $15-$20. Make sure to check the oil in your mower periodically (if you use a gas-powered machine) and to ensure the motor is (at least relatively) clean, especially near exhaust ports and intakes.

mowing the lawn, home maintenance checklist

Seeding, Sodding, or Patience?

If your grass has large patches that are essentially dead, I recommend investing in a few strips of sod and filling them in wholesale. Just make sure you cleared the patch down to soil and loosened the dirt up before plopping the sod in place. For smaller patches, adding plenty of seed and fresh soil should do the trick. And for lawns that are in decent shape but are sparser than you want, consider overseeding the entire yard. Just make sure you follow that with a thin layer of peat moss, which will hold some moisture and protect the seeds from sunshine and birds. For yards that are relatively healthy, you can probably skip the sod and seed entirely, as healthy grass will fill itself in over time. Just watch for weeds.

Water the Lawn

Your grass needs water, FYI. As a general rule of thumb, most grass needs a bit more than an inch of water per week. You can use a rain gauge to be precise, or you can just use your gut. If possible, achieve this inch-plus of weekly watering via three long watering sessions, not a shorter daily watering. This helps saturate the soil down deep, encouraging root growth and maintaining soil health. If it’s hard to plunge a four or five inch knife blade into the soil, it’s too dry; if the upper layer of the soil is muddy a half hour or more after the watering, you’re overdoing it.

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