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The first sign of spring is anyone’s guess here in Baton Rouge. Some wait for the first thunderstorm. Others for the shrill trill of a Northern parula. It might be the purple martin. Maybe it’s when pecan trees or spider lilies start to leaf, or the Japanese magnolia starts to bloom. It’s difficult to set a defining line between late winter and early spring, because there is no dramatic contrast that more intemperate climates experience as their frozen lawns turn green.
While it’s certainly pleasant having mild temperatures all year, the lack of really cold weather means your lawn has to start fighting weeds as soon as spring begins. Don’t let it fight alone. If you don’t join in the fight, your grass is going to lose.
Sometimes you just can’t win. If your lawn is too dry, you get weeds. If your lawn is sopping wet, you get weeds. You need to find that happy medium. Though grass types have their own specific needs, a rule of thumb is that deep (6 to 8 inches), infrequent watering encourages healthy root growth. If you water lightly and frequently, you’ll have a shallow-rooted lawn that can’t stand up to weeds. Crabgrass is one weed that thrives with shallow roots, so it will thrive while your lawn withers away. Before watering, check that the top one or two inches of your soil is fairly dry. Also, grass growing in shade needs less water than the same grass growing in full sun.
If you have sprinklers, check to see if they have broken heads, are clogged up or if they are set too high or too low and are not reaching all areas of the lawn.
Photo: Penn State
As with watering, grass types differ in their optimal mowing height. Some get weak and susceptible to weeds if mowed too short. Others need to be mowed short so that the thatch layer doesn’t build up and impede water from penetrating the soil. Most grasses do best when no more than 1/3 of the leaf blade is removed each time you mow. Mow your weedy lawn frequently to keep it looking even and prevent the weeds from flowering and forming seeds.
Don’t help the weeds by spreading around the seed for them. Mow first the section of your lawn with the least amount of weeds and the section with the most weeds last. Wash the mower deck and underside when you finish mowing or else it will be carrying around those seeds the next time you mow.
Photo: Susannah Anderson
Thatch is a woven layer of dead and living shoots, stems, and roots that forms on the surface of the soil and beneath the grass blade. A thin layer is good. It helps to keep weeds away. A thick layer is trouble. It prevents the circulation of the air and the penetration of water and nutrients through the soil. It’s time to dethatch when the layer is more than ½ inch thick.
If your lawn is small, you can use a thatching rake—it’s a labor-intensive process, but great exercise. If your lawn is large, rent a verticutter (vertical mower) that will cut into the thatch and break it up without damaging the healthy grass.
Photo: Christian Guthier
Traffic can compact soil, and oxygen, water and nutrients are restricted from reaching the grass roots. Growth is then slowed down and weeds are able to invade more easily. Aerate your lawn, several times a year if it has been subjected to heavy foot or equipment traffic, once a year if traffic has been light.
Aerators (aerifiers) remove small cores of soil or create pores or channels. For a small lawn, you can use a hand-held aerifier. For larger lawns, you’ll likely need to rent a machine-driven aerifier. It’s best to aerate when the grass is actively growing.
You may be able to control occasional weeds by pulling them out yourself. Keep an eye out and try to remove them before they settle in, seed and produce rhizomes or tubers. Be sure to remove the root as well as the weed. A dandelion fork or fishtail weeder works for weeds with thick taproots. If you have a patch of weeds, dig out that area and replace with clean soil.