Lawns need little except water right now

GardeningMay 16, 2012 

Here are the two best bits of advice I can give you for this week.

First, don't waste your time on the lawn this time of year. Mulch in place the debris from the fall and winter if you haven't already, but other than that, all it needs is water. Since I am writing this a few days before publication, if it hasn't rained, give your lawn an inch or two of water every four or five days. One application that goes deep is much better than lots of shallow ones.

Do not apply fertilizers. Do not apply lime. Just apply water.

"Whoa, Lowenfels," you say. "Don't fertilize?" Yes, you are being bombarded by displays of high nitrogen lawn fertilizers everywhere you shop. And there is that Scottish character on T.V. Occcccch, too bad they arrrrrrren't neeeeeded, lassies and laddies. How can you possibly tell what your lawn needs until it has a chance to start growing again and green up naturally? Surely someone on Madison Avenue doesn't know.

Besides, these wreak havoc on the soil food web that should be taking care of your lawn. They reduce natural nitrogen fixation, result in compacted soil and acidic (i.e. moss-loving) conditions with much of the expensive nitrogen you apply wasted and ending up in the water table. Worse, they make your plants dependent on you to supply more food, often.

By the same token, the high middle number of many Alaskan fertilizers is silly and a waste of money too. This is phosphorus. There are reports that we are only 20 to 30 years away from peak phosphorous, which if true will dwarf climate change by ten fold, phosphorus being one of the key elements needed for plants to grow. Its use in lawn fertilizers has been banned in at least 17 states for environmental reasons. Moreover, it gets locked up in the soil very quickly. It also discourages the one thing that does make it available to plants in sufficient quantities, mychorrizal fungi. Simply put, despite their appearance right next to the high nitrogen fertilizers, you most probably don't need to add phosphorous to your lawn or the soils in your vegetable gardens.

Instead -- and history has proven me right -- you only need to water. Lawn plants are growing. They bring starch from root cells up into growing tips, produce chlorophyll and all manner of proteins and start growing. Grass plants have been doing this for eons. They don't need your help other than a glass or two of water.

Once your lawn greens up naturally, you can decide if it needs to be fed something. You don't do it by simply tossing some stuff that was made from munitions left over from World War II. Even then, of course, you should stay far away from high nitrogen and high phosphorus fertilizers and favor low number, organic formulations (below 10-10-10) or soybean meal, granulated molasses, fish and feather meals and compost. For now, however, simply water your lawns. See what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Advice No. 2: Harden off all plants you buy unless you are told they already have been acclimated. This is one of those things that the second year Alaska gardener does not need to be told. It is the first timer who doesn't understand all plants grown inside need about a week to slowly accumulate to the outside wind and UV light.

In short, plants can get windburn and sunburn if you don't put them through a process known as "hardening off." Leaves will turn bronze and white; you've seen plants not taken care of at some local outlets that were sunburned and then hit by a day or three of Southcentral winds. Literally think of these plants as babies. How much sun and wind would you expose yours too?

It is a very easy process. Once the birch leaves in your area are the size of a squirrel's ear, the nights won't get below freezing. This means you can store plants outside. Over the next week gradually increase their exposure to both sun and exposure to air currents and wind.

You can put plants (cells, flats etc) into deep boxes (make sure there is drainage) to protect from wind and provide shade and make them easier to move around. If you can find a spot where there is a hour of dappled sunlight (light through the trees) early in the morning or after 5 in the evening, you can leave plants there and move them into more direct sun in three or four days, after which they should be fine. It goes without saying that you must keep your plants watered during this process.

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at teamingwithmicrobes.com and hear him (and call in) on the Garden Party from 10 a.m.-noon on Saturdays on KBYR, 700 AM.

Garden calendar VEGGIES IN THE GROUND THIS WEEK: BEETS, CARROTS, COLLARDS, KOHLRABI, LETTUCE, SWISS CHARD, TURNIP, ZUCCHINI. THATCHING: DON'T. WAIT UNTIL LAWNS GREEN UP BEFORE DECIDING IF THEY NEED IT. LIMING: NOT WITHOUT A TEST! VISIT NURSERIES: BUY STARTS BEFORE THERE ARE NO STARTS. BARE ROOT SALES: THE BEST SALES OF THE YEAR ON TREES AND SHRUBS IS NOW, WHEN THEY ARE SOLD BARE-ROOTED. NO HARDENING OFF NEEDED. PLANT THEM NOW OR POT THEM UP AND PLANT WHEN YOU WANT. NEW ALASKA BOTANICAL GARDEN TOUR SERIES: "HOME GROWN HARVEST: FROM SEEDS TO SUPPER" PRIVATE GARDEN TOURS REPLACE THE ABG'S "SECRET GARDEN SERIES." THE FOCUS THIS YEAR IS FRUIT, VEGETABLES AND WILD EDIBLES. ALL TOURS ARE ON THURSDAYS AT 6:30 P.M. STARTING TONIGHT. TICKETS MAY BE PURCHASED INDIVIDUALLY, OR BUNDLED AT A DISCOUNT FOR THE WHOLE SERIES. SPECIFIC DIRECTIONS DIVULGED AFTER PURCHASE. QUESTIONS? CALL 770-3692.

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