10 Tips for Maintaining a Beautiful Yard
A Spring Yard Care Checklist from The Old Farmer’s Almanac
Got spring fever yet? Whatever your weather, late winter is the time to start yard care. From winter pruning to crabgrass prevention, here are 10 tips to cover all you need to know now. There’s a right way to care for your yard, lawn, and garden beds.
We just had another snow storm but we also know that lawn and yard care is all about being proactive. We put a lot into our home and property, so it’s time to refresh our memory on what’s next.
1. Start Pruning—The Right Plants
Late winter to early spring is the ideal time to prune many of your landscape plants. But take care! An important aspect of pruning is knowing when to prune plants. When to prune a shrub depends mostly on when it blooms and whether it flowers on growth produced in the same or previous years.
- Cut off any broken or badly disfigured branches caused by winter’s snow and ice in late winter. Unwanted lower branches on all evergreen shrubs and trees should also be removed in late winter.
- Prune summer-flowering shrubs hard at the end of winter because they’re species that form their flower buds on “new” wood (i.e., wood that will grow this spring). Examples include: abelia, beautyberry, butterfly bush, most clematis, our native smooth hydrangeas, panicle hydrangeas, potentilla, roses, rose-of-sharon, shrub dogwoods, Japanese spirea, St. Johnswort and summersweet. Cut before any new growth starts and you’ll still get flowers in summertime.
- However, late winter and early spring is NOT the right time to prune spring-flowering shrubs which bloom on the growth of previous season (“old” wood). Examples are: azalea, beautybush, bridalwreath spirea, spring-blooming clematis, cotoneaster, deutzia, enkianthus, flowering almond, forsythia, mophead hydrangeas, lilacs, mock orange, mountain laurel, ninebark, oakleaf hydrangea, pieris, rhododendron, viburnum, Virginia sweetspire, weigela, wisteria and witch hazel. If you cut them too early, you’ll cut off the buds that would’ve opened in the coming weeks of spring. The best time to prune spring-blooming shrubs is right after the spring flowers fade.
- You can also: Prune Evergreen shrubs (yew, holly, and boxwoods) and evergreen trees (spruce, fir) is late winter or early spring when they are still dormant and before new growth begins. (Pines are pruned in early June to early July.) And it’s fine to prune shade trees, such as oak, sweetgum, maple, katsura and hornbeam in late winter or early spring. But wait until after bloom to prune spring-flowering trees, such as dogwood, redbud, cherry, pear and magnolia.
Never prune too early as incisions can dry out if the temperature drops below freezing. See the Almanac’s spring pruning chart. Another reason not to prune too early is to protect our beneficial insects and pollinators. If you are pruning back woody perennials or shrubs, look for cocoons and chrysalises hanging from a branch. Cut those branches back later in the season.
Trees are ideally pruned before the leaves come out, when it’s easier to see the condition of the branches. Of course, you need to prune any dead branches for safety reasons; you don’t want branches falling on people or property. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if a tree has dead branches unless you climb it. For this reason, it may be prudent to hire a tree trimmer to prune any dead trees once every 3 years.
To prune trees yourself, look into tree pruners with long-reach poles so that you can keep your own feet safely on the ground.
2. Clean Up Leaves—Go Easy
Even if you cleaned up some leaves in the fall, there are many trees (such as oaks) that shed leaves (and broken or fallen branches) over the winter and well into spring.
Now let’s not go crazy as if we have to clean up every single leaf off our lawn to compete for the neighborhood beauty pageant. A little leaf little helps our pollinators and wildlife survive the winter.
Remove any debris, broken or fallen branches, and heavy piles of leaves or any layers of leaves. This invites mold and disease and decay. However, don’t rake into wet ground. It’s best to wait until temperatures are reaching the late 40s or 50s.
If you have perennial beds, we would also wait, even though we know you can’t wait to cut down those spent perennial stems. So many beneficial insects (ladybugs, native bees) and predators (lacewings, parasitic wasps) are still “hibernating” in leaf litter or hollow plant stems. They will “wake” up as the weather warms and daylight increases. As you clean up leaves in ornamental beds, keep an eye out for the cocoons of luna moths (which look like a crinkled brown leaves).
If you just can’t stand to wait, cut those spent plant stems and simply set them at the edge of your property or the woods. The native bees will thank you!
If you have a compost pile (or want to start one!), add those leaves to the pile.
Otherwise, just mow any thin layers of leaves in with the season’s first cut, and they’ll also break down and add organic matter and nutrition to the soil.
3. Start Dealing with Aggressive Weeds—Early!
Invasive or aggressive weeds will only get worse as daylight hours increase during summer. Deal with weeds in early spring. As they grow, their roots will strengthen and they will be very difficult to pull out.
The best way to minimize weeds in your lawn is through good cultural practices. Do not mow too short, skip fertilization, and/or over- or underwater. You can also devote some of your lawn to wildflowers.
For those readers who wish to grow lawn grasses or meadows and not allow aggressive weeds to take over, here are the steps to take:
You don’t want crabgrass to come up, or you will be fighting it all season. Very early in the spring, apply a “pre-emergent” herbicide that will inhibit the type of weed seeds which germinated in the winter.
The best time to apply a pre-emergent is when the temperature in the top 1 inch of soil has been 55 degrees F for five consecutive days. Once the soil temperatures reaches 55 degrees, annual weed seeds begin to germinate. Once you can see weeds in your lawn, a pre-emergent herbicide is not effective.
For most U.S. and southern Canadian regions, these soil temperatures are reached from March to April. However, this year, the soil has warmed up much earlier than normal. Consult your local County Extension service to get up-to-date soil temperatures in your area.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Lambert McCarty, Clemson University, Clemson, SC.
Broadleaf weeds are among the most troublesome problems in lawns. The seeds of broadleaf weeds occur naturally in all soils and can persist for 30 or more years. Most broadleaf weeds are prolific, producing thousands of seeds per plant.
If you see weeds emerge in the spring, spray a post-emergent herbicide (like Trimec® Speed Lawn Weed Killer). Wait to apply broadleaf weed killer until late spring, after the weeds have flowered. (Often this is 6 to 8 weeks after a pre-emergent herbicide.) Weed killers are most effective when applied evenly over the entire lawn.
A word on dandelions: A common perennial weed in early spring, dandelions can also be dug out by their roots—or, just enjoy their yellow blooms. If you are maintaining a yard without chemicals, you could always harvest dandelion greens when young and tender! Note: Snap off dandelion heads before they seed if you don’t want more dandelions next year.
4. Seeding Bare Patches—Carefully
Winter can reveal some damage to your yard from pets, snow plows, and traffic. You may wish to re-seed some spots.
The conundrum is: If you’re using a pre-emergent herbicide in the spring for crabgrass, it’s nonselective and will deter grass seeds from growing, too; this is why fall is a better time to seed grass.
However, if you just can’t stand those bare spots, try spot-seeding bare patches as early as possible (March/April) before you apply any pre-emergent for crabgrass control. Give seeds enough time to germinate and somewhat establish. If this is not possible, don’t skip the pre-emergent weed control. It is better to take care of the bulk of your yard; wait until fall to perform any turf repairs.
Before seeding, use a steel rake to scuff up the area. Loosen the soil. Scrape some compost into the area. Sprinkle grass seed on the spot. (Use a sun/shade premium mix, unless the area’s heavily shaded.) Keep the soil moist. Cover the seeds with straw matting or another material. Even grass clippings will do. You just want to cover the spot with some sort of material to hold seeds in place.
If you’re then applying pre-emergent herbicides, we would also fertilize any spots in the lawn early; in a few weeks shoots will grow and fill in the brown spots. If the brown patches are too big or you just can’t wait, sod is the better option.
5. Rake Away Thatch—Not ‘Til Dry
It’s too early to talk about thatch but we need to do it now because many folks do it way too early. When we say “thatch,” we’re talking about the matted areas which have died out; they can harbor snow mold. You don’t want more than ½-inch of thatch on the ground. A good raking will promote air flow throughout the grass, prevent disease, and help germination. It’s essential the ground and grass is dry enough or you will do more harm than good, raking up grass seeds. Rule of thumb: If footprints remain after walking, then it’s still too moist. That said, rake as soon as it’s dry and the grass is still brown; raking too late will harm healthy roots.
6. Do Not Fertilize with High Nitrogen
Fertilizing your lawn in the spring isn’t always necessary. (The best time for fertilizing is autumn—when grass plants take up nitrogen to help them green up more quickly in the spring.)
However, many folks like to apply fertilizer in the spring, too. No matter what you decide, early spring is NEVER the time to apply fertilizer with high nitrogen (first number). Instead, you should use a slow release formula with a higher middle number such as Golf Green 10-20-5. The middle number represents the percentage of available phosphorus, which encourages good root development. When you fertilize grass, apply lightly. Heavy fertilization is not good for the grass and can also lead to disease problems.
Later in the spring, when the grass is green and growing, you can apply a fertilizer that contain slow-release nitrogen sources.
If you’re interested in a more organic way to fertilize, use a mulching mower—which returns grass clippings back to the soil. This saves you time and energy, while also improving the condition of your lawn. Since grass clippings contain up to 90 percent water, the clippings dry up very quickly. It’s almost as if the grass clippings disappear. Plus, this returns 25 percent of the nutrients to the soil—a fantastic fertilizer.
7. Loosen the Soil—If It’s Compacted
Do you have flower beds? After the winter, the soil in your garden beds may be completely compacted. Remove thick layers leaves are that are covering evergreen ground cover beds. Thin layers of leaves in your beds can be left alone and simply mulched over top of later. They’ll break down and add organic matter to your soil. Then, loosen the soil to help oxygen reach the plants’ roots. You can use hand tools for small areas, but larger areas may benefit from tilling.
A grass lawn also gets compacted soil, especially if people walk on it. If you see patches of moss or signs of decline, we would advise aerating the lawn; this allows water and air to reach the root zone faster, resulting in new growth and increased root development. However, this is usually best done in the fall. Plan to rent a lawn aerator at your local home improvement store. If you aerate in the spring, it is important to core aerate before the soil temperature reaches about 12 degrees Celsius. As it warms you’re simply making room for, and inviting, aggressive weeds seeds to find a home.
Moss can also mean that your lawn is getting acidic. If you are growing grass, the goal is a neutral pH. Get a soil test (often free or done for a small fee through your local County Cooperative Extension office). If your lawn is acidic, you’ll need to apply lime to it; the Extension folks can advise you.
8. Redraw Beds—with a Garden Hose
You may wish to redraw the boundary between your garden beds and grass in springtime. Wider beds mean less lawn care, too. Here’s a simple way to do it yourself: Use a garden hose to mark out a nice line for your garden beds. Then, along this bed line, take a sharp metal edger and drive it into the ground as deep as it will go. Dig all along the hose line and then remove the grass that’s there, creating a nice bed. Once done, fill up the bed with 2 to 3 inches of mulch (pine bark is a good choice)—or you’ll just get a bed of weeds! Then you’re ready to transplant or plant perennial flowers.
9. Mow Grass—But Not Too Soon
Mow the lawn when the grass level reaches 2 to 3 inches tall. The lawn needs time to recover after winter. However, if the grass grows too long, it shades the roots, which allows fewer weed seeds to sprout.
If you use a traditional lawn mower, spring is the time to clean (or replace) the filter and spark plugs. It’s important to sharpen the mower blade every month or two for a clean cut. When you just rip grass and leave it with open cuts, you leave your yard susceptible to fungi and disease. See more about lawn care.
If you’re interested in alternative mowers, consider a reel mower or an electric mower as a more environmentally friendly option. These mowers work best if your property is one-third of an acre or less. It’s important to mow your grass regularly, as it’s much more difficult to cut the grass if it gets way too tall (as many of us have experienced firsthand!).
Of course, we have to mention that there are alternatives to grass as well! Many folks are starting to use more ground cover plants (such as sedum), walkways, and wider flower beds. There’s also a growing trend to add vegetable garden beds or to integrate edibles (herbs, vegetables, fruit) into your front yard. See more about edible landscaping!
As with leaf removal, don’t mulch too early. Be patient. There are also many beneficial insects and pollinators (e.g., solider beetles, native bees, hummingbird clearwing moth) who overwinter in your garden, and smothering your ground with mulch is not helpful. Just hold off on mulching chores until the soil dries out a little and the weather warms.
We mulch once we have edged our beds and trimmed back dead branches on our shrubs. Then add your mulch (or, replace your old mulch). We prefer a heavy mulch, such as hardwood bark mulches over dyed brown wood chips. They are higher-quality, last longer, and look better. Read more about the benefits of mulching.
Not everything on this list is necessary for every yard, but we think that we’ve covered most of what you need to know for spring!
* This story originally appeared on almanac.com on March 4th, 2019.*