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Give your lawn some attention now

Ah! April in Paris. Paris, Illinois, that is. April love. Drip, drip drop, little April showers. The tranquility of fragrant apple blossoms swaying in the breeze with honeybees flirting around. Hear the roar of the Saturday morning lawn mower?
ic0104161.jpg David Robson

Yep. Spring in Illinois is a mixed bag. Probably none more so than April.

April is an itching month. Gardening excitement is building. Grass is greening. Farmers are out plowing fields and lining the earth with seeds.

Ah! April. Crabgrass germinating. Dandelions popping their heads out of the ground and spilling forth with a sunshine yellow. Worms working under the sod creating their own microscopic mountain ranges. Many summer time lawn ills can be prevented with some attention now. The secret to a good lawn is to have it in the best condition possible before the stresses of summer begin. Of course, that means ideally you would have started last September when most people weren't thinking of anything except some relief from the heat.

Important. The primary concern of spring lawn care is to develop the thickest, deepest root system possible to help the grass survive the summer with little or no problems. It doesn't hurt for the grass to develop lots of new shoots at the same time. Fact 1. Grass roots grow when the soil is above freezing to about 70 degrees F. This is true for most of the cool season grasses such as bluegrass, ryegrass and fescue. Maximum root growth takes place between 55 and 65 degrees F. That's the soil temperature at the four-inch level. Fact 2. Shoot growth maximizes between 60 and 75 degrees, give or take a few degrees.

You can see there is a range in the spring when roots are growing to beat the soil, so to speak, and the shoots are going to town as well. Most important fact 3. When you apply nitrogen to encourage green color and shoot growth, the plants will go into a vegetative mode and stop root growth no matter that the soil temperature is ideal. There lies the big problem. If we fertilize in early April, we'll develop this thick lush turf above ground. The roots, though, while chomping on the bit to grow due to ideal conditions, are essentially handcuffed. Or root-cuffed.

That means a hot dry summer, or even late spring, could have a detrimental aspect on the lawn. Like death. Important task. Try to find a lawn product in the spring that doesn't have a fertilizer added to it. Most dandelion and crabgrass killers have the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that plants need, but not always in the spring.

If you applied a winterizer fertilizer last November, you'll notice how thick and lush your lawn is without needing to add fertilizer. If you're patient and wait until the air warms up even more, you'll notice your lawn will have the same green color.

Bottom line. Try not to apply a fertilizer on the lawn until the ground warms to the point where roots aren't growing as much. This is around Mother's Day.

Of course, you still have to contend with crabgrass IF you've had the problem in the past. A thick lush turf will choke out the crabgrass seedling, but of course, fertilizing is the Catch-22. There are pure crabgrass compounds on the market. You may have to ask for them and/or force the business to order them. Most national turfgrass companies can get the products for you in less than two weeks. Some people, just because their neighbors are doing it, though they aren't jumping off bridges, will be psychologically forced to apply some fertilizer to their turf. If so, only apply one-fourth of the rate listed on the bag. Not half or a third. Just one-fourth. If it says apply 10 pounds for 5000 square feet, use only two and one-half pounds for that area, or the 10 pounds for 20,000 square feet. (This is JUST an example.) You'll get some greening, but maybe not too much. Of course, if there is crabgrass killer in this combination, you won't get good control, so you'll have to find straight crabgrass killer.

Don't forget to mow when the grass needs to be mowed, and not just on weekends. It may be twice a week if the grass is growing fast. Keep the turf at two inches tall.

And sharpen the mower blades. David Robson, extension educator, horticulture: e-mail: or SOLUTIONS:

David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension. You can write to Robson in care of Illinois Country Living, P.O. Box 3787, Springfield, IL 62708. Telephone: (217) 782-6515.


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