March madness: Turf tips for spring

Editor’s note: This article is from the archives of the MSU Crop Advisory Team Alerts. Check the label of any pesticide referenced to ensure your use is included.    

Sometimes trying to remember what I did last week is tough enough, let alone trying to recall the spring weather from a year ago. However, I don’t remember playing golf in mid-March last year and I do have a faint recollection of snow on Easter. For memory confirmation, I clicked over to to take a glance at growing degree day accumulations from 2008 and 2009. Using the 32 degree base temperature model, as of March 18, East Lansing has already accumulated 132 degree days and Traverse City has 68 degree days. Using the flashback button to a year ago, I found that East Lansing had accumulated 31 and Traverse City 9 degree days in 2008. At least spring is arriving as a lamb. Anyone care to guess if the warmth will continue through March and April? At this time I wouldn’t get too anxious about tending the turf or preparing the garden for planting this summer.

Go Green Lawncare

Certainly it seems that everyone is going green these days, but for those of us in the turf industry, we’re always thinking about green and it’s not just about the color; it’s also about the environment. For those of you on the front lines of managing turf on a daily basis, you may feel that everyone is out to get you as your professionalism, ethics, and turf practices often seem to be questioned in regards to tending the turf and perceived impacts on the environment. It has become common, and I think somewhat trendy, to demonize everything turf, especially when it comes to applying fertilizers.

Go Green Lawncare is our effort from the MSU Turfgrass Science Team to provide a platform to educate the citizens of our state on basic turf care practices resulting in healthy turfgrass stands and enhancing our environment, not degrading it. The Go Green Lawncare Tip Sheet provides five turfgrass management practices to produce a healthy turfgrass stand and protect the environment. The tip sheet was designed with an open space at the bottom to allow customization with contact information. The tip sheet will be made available as a type of public service announcement flier from local governments or from professional lawn care operators. Tip sheets will be available soon in packages of 100 through the MSU Extension Bulletin office. For information on customizing Tip Sheets for your business contact: Pearson – Nicholson Associates at: 800-909-4990 or

Mow high, recycle clippings

Setting the cutting height at three-inches or higher, returning clippings, and keeping the clippings off hard surfaces and on the turf will promote healthy turfgrass. Higher mowing heights give the turf more leaf surface area to harvest sunlight and produce energy through photosynthesis. The more energy the plant produces, the more energy it can use to grow roots, which will ultimately help it better survive drought periods. Research conducted at MSU showed that turfgrass at a four-inch mowing height and 3 lb. N/1000 ft.2/year had a 75 percent reduction in broadleaf weed populations without any herbicide when compared to two-inch mowing height, no nitrogen, and no herbicide. Mowing high, returning clippings, and fertilizing helps turf compete with weeds.

Fertilize in fall for best results

Fall is the best time to fertilize and will benefit the turfgrass as it recovers from summer stress and prepares for winter. We advise to be patient in the spring and wait until May to fertilize, which could certainly be a challenge this year if the warm spring continues. Unlike professional applicators, most homeowners are probably going to apply around 1 lb. N/1000 ft.2/application. Waiting until the turf is growing and not trying to stimulate early spring top-growth at the expense of root growth is our primary objective in advising patience for the first spring application.

Choose lawn-type fertilizers

Choose lawn-type fertilizers with low or no phosphorus. Our primary objective in this topic is to steer the homeowner away from applying triple products (e.g. 12-12-12). For almost all sites, applying this amount of phosphorus to a mature turfgrass is unnecessary and results in excessive amounts of phosphorus being applied.

Clean up: Avoid surface water

Keep your distance from surface water. It can be as simple as maintaining a five to 10 foot no-application zone near surface water. This eliminates the potential for direct application of any product into the water. Also, make sure to keep the clippings on the turf and out of the water and make sure to sweep or blow any fertilizer granules off hard surfaces and back onto the turf. As an industry, we should be well past the days when leaving particles on the driveway was justified as evidence of an application that day.

Water smart: Don’t soak it

Frequent irrigation is better than soaking events that might puddle and run-off the site. Avoid irrigating early in the evening, wait until after mid-night to reduce the time of leaf wetness and help reduce disease incidence. The bottom line is that more frequent irrigation is going to result in healthier turf than soaking it with heavy amounts of water on an infrequent basis. For those that don’t irrigate, during droughts of more than a month give the turf a little water to help it survive.

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