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Lawn Lessons: Soil and Seed Solutions

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By Paul Gores

grass_seed(MCT)—After 2012’s summer-long binge of heat and dry weather, lawns and plants are likely to have a hangover this spring.

As homeowners and gardeners wait for the snow to melt, they’re looking for ideas to help revive yards, trees, shrubs and plants that took a beating in last year’s drought, said garden expert Melinda Myers.

“It’s high on everyone’s mind,” she says.

Myers says that if your lawn looked scrubby going into winter, it probably will at least need some spot repairs to replace dead grass and get rid of weeds.

But it’s possible that taking more drastic action makes better sense for lawns that were badly scarred last summer.

“If over 60 percent is weeds or dead grass or bare spots, you may want to think about starting over,” Myers says. “So many lawns are started on a poorly prepared soil. So the optimistic part is this is the chance to fix it — adding some organic matter, preparing the soil. In fixing it for the long term, you not only repair the damage, the other thing you’re going to do is set your lawn up for greater success in the future.”

If spot seeding is all that’s needed, though, there are ways to improve the chances the grass will grow vigorously, said Milwaukee County consumer horticulture agent Sharon Morrisey with the University of Wisconsin Extension.

Reseeding should be done as soon as the snow melts and the soil is dry enough to be worked, says Morrisey. Early April is ideal if possible. The goal is to plant before the crab grass, which there was a lot of last summer, germinates. Tall grasses used in lawns will germinate before crab grass because they need different soil temperatures, she said.

“As soon as you can get into the soil and work it, work it pretty well so that you’ve got a good root zone for the grass seed to grow into,” Morrisey says. “That’s a step a lot of people leave out. Especially when you’ve got heavy, compacted soil, it’s hard for the grass to get going again.”

And don’t bargain-shop for seed.

“Use a good mix of grass seed. Don’t go with the cheapest and do not use annual seed. Annual rye grass blend is usually the cheapest and it’s only annual — it only lives for one year so you’ll be doing it every year,” Morrisey says.

She recommends a mixture of fescues and bluegrass seed tailored for conditions such as sun or shade.

“Fertilize the area at the same time you’re putting the grass seed down,” she says. “Then be sure to put a light coating of mulch of some kind to hold moisture in. And then the critical piece is to keep it watered until all the seed has germinated, which in the case of bluegrass takes 21 days. Don’t stop watering because you see some grass seed germinate.”

While lawn restoration seems to be on most homeowners’ minds, trees and plants could use some special care after the drought of 2012, too, the two experts say.

For plants that are coming back but don’t look very good, Myers recommends “vertical mulching” between perennials with an auger after putting down a top dressing of compost.

“It aerates the soil, but the other thing it does is it works that compost down in the root zone so it just speeds up the process of what the compost on the surface of the soil does,” Myers says.

As for trees, Morrisey says that many people wrongly assumed last summer that established trees didn’t need watering because the roots went down deep enough to tap into groundwater. She said the roots within the top six to 12 inches of soil are the ones that absorb water and nutrients.

Morrisey says homeowners should put mulch over as much of a tree’s root zone as possible to maintain moisture. Never cover exposed roots with soil and grass, she says. That blocks an exchange of gases and will lead to the slow death of the tree.

©2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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