A good time to start caring for your lawn is now, while the snow still lingers

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2003

EDITOR'S NOTE Dean Fosdick retired in May 2001 after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown, 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)netscape.net

NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) George Hadeler likes talking about the couple down the street how they spend hundreds of dollars on foundation plants and ornamentals each year yet ignore their expanse of grassy lawn.

Home and garden magazines call it 'curb appeal,''' Hadeler says. It's the first impression visitors or prospective buyers get when they arrive at your house. If the lawn looks scraggly, then everything else is an uphill battle.''

Hadeler, a master gardener from Luray, Va., speaks from the vantage point of more than a quarter-century running a hardware business in suburban New York.

Along with selling lawn care products by the tractor-trailer load, he also attended manufacturer-sponsored seminars aimed at showing homeowners how to make their lawns look country club chic lush, green and manicured, among other things.

Much of this started in the early '60s when lawn care was really a big deal,'' Hadeler says. You needed to know what you were talking about if you wanted to keep customers.''

The best time to begin caring for your lawn is now, while some snow still covers the ground, he says.

Beat the crowds by taking your mower, string cutter, tiller, leaf blower or all the above to the nearest small-engine repair shop for a seasonal workup.

Chances are, they'll need new sparkplugs, fuel lines cleaned, a general tightening up and the mower blade sharpened.

And while on the subject of lawnmower blades: Sharpen them at least eight to 10 times per year.

Dull blades fray grass,'' Hadeler says. Grass dies from the top, eventually killing the entire plant. Sharpening is the cheapest thing you can do to extend the life of your lawn.''

Early spring also is a good time to run a soil test. That tells you several things, but primarily whether your soil is acidic (a pH balance below 7.0) or alkaline (above 7.0). Most garden soils range between pH 5.5 and pH 7.5. On the acid to alkaline scale, pH 7.0 would be neutral.

Soils contain nutrients but you may want to bulk yours up with organic matter, fertilizer or compost.

Fertilizers work faster and can be formulated to release their nutrients in a rush or slowly, in time-release capsules.

Water soluble fertilizers give you an instant energy burst,'' Hadeler says. You may have to mow more frequently for a while. Time-release (fertilizer) is more expensive but it has a longer effect.''

One caution. Fertilizer often is poorly applied or too much is put down. It winds up on driveways or off target, Hadeler says. You're only fertilizing watersheds to the detriment of water quality,'' he says.

If you didn't rake last fall, the first warm days of spring are an opportune time for removing leftover leaves and thatch. Aside from making your lawn look better, that (raking) gives you a chance to determine its overall condition,'' Hadeler says. Develop a plan as you walk. Become familiar with your yard before mid-April or early May.''

Decide if you want to seed or re-sod damaged areas.

If it looks like you have to seed, it's wise to put it down before the last snow of winter. Snow helps push seed down into the ground. Also, you've just raked. You won't get more than a 5 percent success rate unless you've opened the ground a little.''

The seed variety you choose should fit your climate. Kentucky bluegrass thrives in cool, moist regions like the coastal Northwest and the mid-Atlantic states. Fescue and buffalo grass are better for dryer conditions. Bermuda grass is generally able to handle the heat of southern summers.

None, however, will remain green without water an inch, probably more, per week for bluegrass. Adjust the mowing height to at least three inches in hot weather. That helps the grass hold water better.

Limit the size of your lawn if you're experiencing long periods without rain and let some of it go dormant. Replace your turf with ground cover, a rock garden or try xeriscaping. The latter derives from the Greek word xeros, for dry,'' and is becoming a popular, water-conserving landscape technique around the nation.

Annuals and perennials can be integrated with shrub borders and groups of trees, or they can be planted in their own beds along fences, walls, walks and patios, horticulturists with Colorado State University say about a xeriscaping plan.

A lingering drought in more than 20 states may explain in part why landscaping activity is up and lawn care is down, says Bruce Butterfield, research director for the National Gardening Association.

Lawn care sales decreased from $12.7 billion in 2001 to $11.9 billion in 2002,'' Butterfield says. Landscaping sales increased from $6.3 billion in 2001 to $8.8 billion in 2002.''

Which brings us full circle to Hadeler's landscape-rich but grass-deprived neighbors.

If you take a field and mow it and mow it and mow it, you'll have a yard. But you won't have a lawn,'' he says. If you want a picture-perfect lawn, you'll have to work at it.''

On the Net:

National Gardening Association: http://www.garden.org

Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, about xeriscaping: http://www.ext.colostate.edu; click on gardening; click on fact sheets.

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