Spring lawn care -- 3-17-14

(A day or so or warm weather and the things that have been waiting to grow burst out and up, like this plant. To enlarge the picture, click on it.)

The best time to fertilize your cool-season lawn is in the fall, after the annual weed cycle is done and the cool weather loved by bluegrass and tall fescue grasses has begun. But if you didn’t do it then, do it quickly now -- or else!

Or else what? Well, crabgrass begins to germinate very soon and if you wait too late, the fertilizer will give crabgrass a boost instead of improving the lawn grasses most people would rather have.

The best way to determine how much fertilizer to use is to have a soil test. But it’s a bit too late for that. Fortunately, the State of Maryland passed a law that took effect on Oct. 1 of last year, which you can read all about by going to http://mda.maryland.gov/Documents/HowToFertilizeYourLawn.pdf.

One of the law’s most important provisions is that each bag of fertilizer sold in Maryland will be labeled in a way that ensures that, if you follow label directions, no more than .09 pound of total nitrogen is applied for every 1,000 square feet.

Before you do any of this, it’s a good idea to rake any leaves left over from last fall so that your fertilizer helps the lawn, as opposed to breaking down those leaves. It’s also important because it will soon be time to apply a pre-emergence herbicide to prevent crabgrass from germinating.

When should it be applied? When the blooms of “nature’s alarm clock,” the yellow forsythia, are just past their peak. Crabgrass is an annual weed that overwinters as a seed. Besides chemical control, you can raise the height of your mower, which shouldn’t cut below two inches anyway. A close-cut lawn, with bare spots exposed, gives crabgrass seeds a place to get a foothold. You should also water properly, because shallow watering also encourages crabgrass seeds to sprout.

Remember what we said about raking before you apply any fertilizer. The same goes for pre-emergent crabgrass herbicides. The idea is to apply those chemicals so that they create a “blanket” on the lawn. Raking afterward puts holes in that blanket.

Years ago, extension agents recommended chemicals by name, but my search last week of the University of Maryland’s Home and Garden Information Center didn’t yield much, other than a strong suggestion to “follow label directions carefully.” It’s better to buy this sort of chemical at a garden center, as opposed to a big box store, because the garden center’s workers are more likely to know the products than a big-box store employee who might only be a “temp” in that area.

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It’s too early for most plants to go into the vegetable garden, but you can plant peas, loose-leaf lettuce, spinach and onions right now.

According to the experts at Burpee Seeds, the pea is one of the oldest vegetables grown, with cultivation dating back to the Bronze Age. It was also one of the earliest crops Europeans brought to America.

Burpee’s experts say that as a general rule, peas should be planted by St. Patrick’s Day, or March 17. However, they say how fast they germinate will depend on how warm the soil is. If you’re planting a pea variety that needs to be shelled, you should give it a good amount of space in your garden and consider treating your seeds with what’s called an inoculant. It’s a bacteria that helps the pea plants fix nitrogen from the air. I once planted red clover in and around my pea plants to do the same thing.

For early yields Burpree recommends: 'Burpeeana Early,' 'Maestro,' 'Sugar Bon', and 'Thomas Laxton.' It’s a bit late for mail orders, but I’ve seen Burpee Seed racks in local stories.

The peas I like the best are ‘Sugar Snap’ edible-pod peas. When my sons were young, they begged to eat them right off the vine, and this was from a pair of lads who would eat very few types of vegetables.

For any kind of pea, you’ll need a trellis for the pea plants and a chicken-wire fence, because they’re a favorite food of rabbits. Once the rabbits strip them, you might just as well pull up the plants, because they don’t rebound from bunny attacks too well.

Spinach and loose-leaf lettuce are susceptible to leaf miners, so you might want to use floating row covers to protect these. The miners are the larva of a fly and you can keep the flies off your plants, the miners won’t eat it up.

This year you might also want to try wide-row planting, which means putting six or more rows close together. The profusion of plants gives weeds less of a chance to grow, although the best-quality plants tend to be along the edges.

(Did you enjoy this column? If you have suggestions or constructive criticism, please e-mail bobmaginnis@myactv.net.)

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