What comes to mind when you think of a Wisconsin spring? Some of you might say the glimpse of yellow flowers on a forsythia bush or daffodils. Others might say the first puffed up robins searching for worms beneath freshly fallen snow. A couple of you might even say “What’s spring? We only have summer and winter here.” Personally, my mind is on my yard and what it needs to be healthy so it can look its best as the growing season begins. There are several ways to improve your lawn and keep weeds down throughout the year, but it all begins with spring maintenance. Keep reading for a crash course on the essential steps for a lush and healthy Wisconsin lawn.

Assess and Repair Snow Damage
Snow is unavoidable this far north, and in a lot of cases, so is damage from snow removal; rows of sod stripped by an errant plow or snowblower, sections of dead grass where salt was applied a little too heavily, and even patches of snow mold in the middle of the lawn are all too familiar problems for the average Wisconsin homeowner. Early to mid-April is the perfect time of year to address this damage before it has a chance to get worse. One of the first steps is to remove the rows of sod left from any plow damage by hand. Leave as much of the dirt as possible and spread it evenly across the damaged area. You can typically dispose of the organic matter at a local yard waste disposal site. You can also compost the stripped grass.

Spring clean-up

Depending on how thorough your fall clean-up was, this will either be very quick and easy, or a long, wet day. To do this, rake up any leaves and sticks in your lawn and planting beds, and cut down any spring perennials. Again, you can dispose of this yard waste at a local disposal site or compost it. Once the stripped sod and leaves are out of the way, take an opportunity to dethatch your lawn. You can do this by hand with a rake, or use a motorized dethatcher to remove the dead blades of grass from your lawn. This will make it easier for any grass seed in the soil to sprout and give your lawn an immediate aesthetic boost as you remove the brown and gray colors.

Seeding for Renewal

For the less damaged portions of lawn, use a broadcast spreader to distribute fresh grass seed evenly throughout the lawn. Use the correct seed mix for the amount of sun your lawn gets, and be sure to have a consistent overlap in your route with the spreader to prevent lawn striping (stripes of lawn that are greener and fuller due to more seed. This can also happen with fertilizer). For the more damaged areas, add some fresh, soft topsoil to give any fresh seed something easy to grow in. Then add extra seed to the area and gently rake it into the soil. This will hasten seed germination and help prevent seed predation from rodents and birds. Finally, add some straw or erosion control mat to help hold in moisture, prevent seed predation, and help hold the seed and soil in place before the new grass starts to grow. Water the damaged areas when necessary (this step is not always needed in a Wisconsin April) and allow the grass seed to germinate before applying any form of weed and feed to the area, as most weed and crabgrass preventing chemicals also prevent ordinary grass seed from growing. If you notice any significant damage due to fungus, call a professional turf manager to identify the lawn disease and apply the appropriate chemical to eradicate the disease, or to advise you on the next steps to repair the damage and prevent its spread. This first day was busy, but now you have given your lawn a much cleaner and less stressful environment in which to grow.

Applying Fertilizer and Crabgrass Preventer

After cleaning up the yard, repairing snow damage, and diagnosing any diseases, we can wait a couple weeks to give seeds a chance to sprout. In this time, we will likely see our early spring efforts covered in snow again, and will have to take extra care when clearing the snow so we don’t undo all of the work we just did. Once that snow melts, seeds sprout, and soil temperatures rise into the 50s, we can finally apply our spring fertilizer and crabgrass preventer. This may happen anywhere between mid-April and late May depending on the season. With any product application, always check the label to determine the correct time, application rate, and soil conditions to apply the product. Ignoring this step will lead to dead patches in your lawn, an ineffective treatment, or excessive runoff of your weed and feed product. There are many choices for weed and feed products, so feel free to consult a professional to either apply for you, or inform you of the correct product to use on your specific lawn. Most Wisconsin lawns will use a low nitrogen fertilizer in the spring with a small amount of potassium, and will include a crabgrass preventer like Dimension. Never use a fertilizer containing phosphorous for regular fertilizing applications. This will cause algae blooms in your local watershed as it runs off your lawn. Algae blooms lead to a variety of public health risks and you do not want to be responsible for that. The only appropriate application for a fertilizer containing phosphorous is as a starter fertilizer for brand new lawns, and only in small amounts. When applying your weed and feed product, be sure to set your spreader appropriately for your product. Aim for a 35 to 50% overlap between each pass to keep from burning your lawn with excessive nitrogen, and keep your passes consistent to prevent striping. You’ll see the results of your labor after a good spring rain or after you water your lawn.

Consider Spring Aeration

Now that your lawn is clean and well fed, it’s time to consider a spring aeration. This step can make a huge difference in the health and vitality of your lawn. A spring aeration will improve grass root health by providing them a softer, less compacted soil to grow through and a higher dissolved oxygen level in the soil. By increasing soil dissolved oxygen, you promote beneficial fungi and bacteria that actually fight some lawn diseases and break down organic matter into materials that plants can use. The best time to aerate your lawn is shortly after a rain or snow melt, when the soil is damp, but not saturated. Never run your aerator through bare patches, as this will just create a muddy mess and tear up the ground. Also, try to avoid any areas where you have erosion control mat, as the mat can get wrapped up in the aerator tines. Once this final task is done, your lawn is ready to grow for the rest of the spring season.

Now take some time to enjoy your clean and healthy spring lawn, and watch the grass grow.