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Jeff Lowenfels: What your yard really needs

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 17, 2015

I don't know what it is that causes Alaska homeowners to wake up one day in the middle of April worrying about their lawns. Perhaps it is that obnoxious TV "Scottsman" yelling at us to fertilize or the appearance of those nasty weed and feed (please, no!) products at box stores even though the lawn is still just a dormant mass of brown matter.

Who knows, maybe wanting a green lawn is just the reaction one gets after cleaning up the winter debris from the yard and mulching up things as you should have already done or should do this weekend. A cleaned-up lawn can look pretty good even though it is not green.

Whatever it is, trust me, it is an annual occurrence and this year is no exception. Let's deal with it.

First, your lawn is just coming out of dormancy. The roots are alive and at least thinking of growing. However, everything above ground is still dead. Lots of folks look at all that dead biomass and just assume it is thatch or will turn into thatch (a mat/layer of dead grass stems that are hard to decay). They also assume if they remove it now, before the grass grows green, it will be easier. This is not true.

That dead grass you are looking at on your lawn is not thatch and will, in fact, decay over the summer. Leave it alone. Save yourself a lot of work. If you keep an organic lawn, in all probability you won't need to thatch, ever.

If you really want to work on your lawn, consider doing a few things. The first is to simply run the mower over it, mulching up all that dead grass so it will be easier to decay. Then aerate it. You will need to rent a machine that pulls plugs out of the lawn. Leave them and let them decay back into the lawn. This will bring air and better drainage back into a compacted yard.

You can apply compost to a lawn this time of year. It is better than fertilizer in my opinion. Dump piles around the lawn and rake them down and into the lawn. A layer about 1/4 to 3/4 of an inch is all you need. The microbes in the compost will move down into the lawn's soil and improve things.

Next, you can over-seed your lawn. While lawn grasses spread by underground root systems, because of weekly mowings they rarely get to form seed as they would in nature. Applying seed some now will help thicken and rejuvenate a lawn this summer. Apply 1 to 2 pounds of the best seed you can find (fewest weeds) per 1,000 square feet if you have a normal yard and double that if your lawn is thin.

Finally, if all of this seems like way too much work right now (or ever), then simply water the lawn a couple of inches a week when night temperatures stop getting below, say, 40 degrees. In two weeks it will green up. Then, and only then, should you consider putting fertilizer on it -- as then and only then will you be able to tell if it needs it.

Of course, this means you have to pay a bit of attention to your watering system. Make sure your hoses do not leak from faucets or attachments. No one wants to get wet this time of year. This means washers are needed and you should employ a pair of pliers to tighten things. You need enough hose to reach every part of your property. Consider investing in a traveling sprinkler now so you can amortize its use over the season. A timer to start watering automatically is also a great tool to have and will pay for itself in easing the chore.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Flowers to start from seed: Dahlia, schizanthus, nigella, phlox, portulaca, nemesia, marigold, nasturtium

Vegetables to start indoors: Edible soybean (edamame)

Visit nurseries: They are open and have stuff you need, from praying mantis egg sacs to six packs. The early bird gets the worm.

Rhubarb: If you must have it early, cover your plants with a box or bucket and stand back. Remember the leaves are poisonous. Only eat the stems, which you gently pull and twist off. Don't cut with a knife.

Bird feeders: Get them indoors ASAP. Same with feed. The bears are back and you don't want one.

Worm class: Vermicomposting. April 26, 2 p.m. Eagle River Nature Center, free workshop; $5 parking fee for non-members.

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