April 18 2019 06:00 AM

After enduring the long and frigid winter, landscapers across North America are prepping lawns for the peak season.

Photos: SiteOne Landscape Supply

Like racehorses in the starting gates, green industry professionals are ready to begin this year’s lawn care season. Months of cold weather and dull landscapes have many ready to welcome spring and the beauty and business it brings.

And people aren’t the only ones who suffer from the winter blues. Harsh winter weather can wreak havoc on lawns, leaving them in need of some tender, loving care. Lawns awakening from their winter slumber need to be properly repaired and treated in the spring, so they’ll be looking lush and healthy by the time summer rolls around.

While many parts of North America experienced average, moderate winter seasons, others endured more severe weather. Some parts of the Midwest experienced record lows and many states in the West had much wetter winters than normal.

The Muskoka region of Ontario, two hours north of Toronto, is a popular summer destination for vacationers. It’s here that Bill Kilpatrick owns and operates Earth Elements, an irrigation, landscape lighting and lawn maintenance company.

“It’s been a horrible, terrible winter. We’ve had the most snow in at least seven years,” says Kilpatrick. By the end of February, he says the area had already received a cumulative 14 feet of snow. It’s also been a bitter cold winter for people in the region, with temperatures in the negative 20s. But having over 15 years of experience in the green industry, Kilpatrick is well versed in treating the issues this harsh weather causes for lawns. For parts of the U.S. not accustomed to the frigid temps experienced this winter, he has some interesting insights.

Winter woes

Because of Muskoka’s heavy snowfall, it’s typically mid-to-late-April when Kilpatrick and his guys can get started with spring maintenance. “By the time the snow banks have melted, it’ll just start to warm up, and then everything will just be so saturated we can’t really do much,” says Kilpatrick. “We have to give it another week or two after all the snow melts just to dry out.”

The large amount of snow and ice in Muskoka causes a lot of dead grass and snow molds. Kilpatrick says there are two types of snow mold to watch out for: pink snow mold (Fusarium patch) that affects the crown of the turf, and gray snow mold (Typula blight) that infects the leaf tissue. A tell-tale sign that a lawn has been infested with snow mold is dead circular patches of grass that appear after the snow has melted.

Other than that, he says moles and voles underneath the snow are a huge issue. During the cold winter months, these rodents burrow deep in the lawn for warmth and feed on the roots of turf and bulbs. If you find S-shaped paths, tunnels and holes throughout the lawn, it most likely means it’s become a rodent habitat. The solution to this, Kilpatrick says, is dethatching and aerating the lawn. This helps disturb the rodent’s habitat, so they won’t cause future harm.

To repair the damage, Kilpatrick and his guys overseed the bare areas and then add topdressing to help smooth the surface of the lawn, improve the soil structure and reduce thatch buildup.

Without this kind of spring lawn maintenance program, Kilpatrick says that weeds and crabgrass take over. “We’re basically right on top of bedrock on the Canadian Shield, so the soil is just terrible. If you don’t overseed in the spring, you’ll have tons of crabgrass by the time July rolls around.”

Despite some pressure from environmental health advocates to limit the use of pesticides in the U.S., herbicides remain the most effective way for lawn care professionals to eliminate pesky weeds. But this isn’t the case for the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, that have placed restrictions on the use of lawn pesticides since 2010.

“We don’t use a lot of chemicals like glyphosate or anything like that. We’ve gotten completely away from offering weed control in the traditional sense of spraying weeds,” says Kilpatrick.

These regulations also affect pest control. They can’t put down pesticides to take care of grubs or other food sources to discourage the moles and voles from burrowing in lawns. Earth Elements basically waits till the damage is done and then tries to fix it.

Getting irrigation systems back up and running is also on the spring to-do list. Kilpatrick and his team visit each client’s property, check for possible sprinkler head damage and start up the irrigation system to makes sure everything’s running well.

“For big overseed programs, we’ll do a cycle and soak program of short waterings four or five times a day to keep the seed moist until the grass seed pops up,” says Kilpatrick. “Then we’ll slow down and start doing longer waterings with more days in between to drive the roots down.”

Why apply topdressing?

Topdressing is a sand or prepared soil mix applied in a thin layer to the surface of the lawn. It can be used to smooth the surface of the lawn and reduce thatch buildup by encouraging decomposition. It can be used following seeding, overseeding or sprigging to protect the developing plants from desiccation during the establishment process.

When applied following core aeration, the topdressing material filters into the holes opened by the aeration process, speeding turfgrass recovery. Topdressing also can be used to modify the soil profile, though this takes multiple applications over a number of years. For this use, the topdressing material differs from the composition of the soil to which it is applied. (source: www.thelawninstitute.org)

A fresh trim

A and A Lawncare and Landscaping in Florence, Kentucky serves northern Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana and has 90-plus employees. With 20 years of experience in the green industry, Ron Beard is the general manager, heading up the lawn care division.

He says this winter in northern Kentucky has been cold with consistent snowfall. He and the rest of the team at A and A Lawncare and Landscaping had a bit of a false start in February when the weather warmed up, leading them to think they’d be able to start spring maintenance early.

Beard says they got everything ready to go, but the temperatures soon dropped again. “We’re just going to wait for Mother Nature. Mid-March is typically when we’ll go out the door, and it looks like it’ll be that way this year too,” says Beard.

He says that spring maintenance begins with a good cleanup. “We get rid of all the winter debris, limbs and twigs, then do a little bit of pruning to damaged trees from the winter.”

Plants that flower on new wood can be pruned in early spring, just as the new growth begins. This leaves them plenty of time to recover from pruning and allows them to still create flower buds that will bloom the same season.

Beard says the ideal time to prune is after the buds have emerged on the stems but before they expand. He also advises to avoid pruning during wet or damp weather. Moisture can encourage the growth of diseases. Instead, wait until a sunny day so the sunlight can dry the plant, killing mold and bacteria.

Good nutrition

Cold weather can cause foliar and root disease to grass and plants. Applying winterizer products in the fall can help prevent this, but the key is following up in the spring with a thorough lawn care program.

“We’ve got a lot of compacted soil around here, so the products that we use are putting the right nutrients back into the soil. This helps our clay soils around here, which is healthier for the grass too,” says Beard. “We put down a good spring fertilizer with bionutritional products. This helps the lawn come out of the winter dormancy as it starts its growing season.”

In addition, a pre-emergent herbicide is applied to protect lawns from crabgrass and grassy weeds. And don’t forget aeration, which Beard says, “is the single best thing you can do to your yard around here, because it opens up the soil, and it allows the right nutrients to get down to the roots.”

Just like in Muskoka, a common yard issue in the area is little mounds of soil, signifying moles tunneling underground in the lawn. Beard says that these small bare areas in the lawn usually just require being raked up, seeded and fertilized. He says the best way to get rid of these pests is to trap them, but you can also alternate their food source.

“We need earthworms in the soil, so you don’t want to get rid of them,” notes Beard. But when it comes to grubworms and other insects that moles eat, he says, “We’ll go ahead and apply a grub control to help get rid of a food source.” That’s usually enough to get these unwanted critters off the property.

Did Phil get it wrong?

Contrary to Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction on an early spring, meteorologists are forecasting that spring weather will take its time arriving in the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes this year. Fortunately for landscape contractors, these regions are not expected to receive as much rainfall as they did in 2018.

In the Midwest and much of the Plains regions, prolonged warmth is expected to arrive in mid-April. A few stretches of dry weather are forecasted during the season, though drought is not expected at a regional level.

Meanwhile, the Southeast and Gulf Coast will buck the trend, with Arctic air retreating quickly and the threat for severe weather not far off. These southern regions may face the threat for above-normal rainfall, with the potential for flooding in cities such as Houston, New Orleans and Tallahassee, Florida. (source: www.accuweather.com)

Keeping a watchful eye

Josh Pool is chief operating officer for Timberline Landscaping in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a landscape design, construction and maintenance firm.

Here, he says, late winter and early spring have a lot of really warm days and then really cold nights.

“The swings in temperature really stress out the plants, especially a lot of our evergreens. They don’t really know what season it is,” he says. “They just go back and forth from freezing to 50- or 60-degree days, which is very stressful.”

Fortunately, the area received a normal amount of snowfall this year, which helps provide the right amount of moisture for these plants.

Unlike some areas, Pool says Timberline doesn’t need a lot of overseeding. “We have bluegrass, which is naturally aggressive as far as spreading,” he says. “So you tend to get some winter kill, and then it’ll fill back in pretty quickly with the right fertilizer program and moisture availability.”

Spring aeration also isn’t always necessary. “A lot of people have the idea that the aeration in the spring is going to help your lawn green up faster, and that’s not technically the case unless you have a lot of dogs, kids or traffic on it during the winter,” says Pool.

The company aerates in the fall when grass is more actively growing and two to three more times year depending on traffic and turf compaction.

Timberline has two different weed control programs depending on whether the property is residential or commercial. “As far as the residential goes, we have a five-step program. That way we’re making sure we’re there and we have eyes on it so we can catch any issues with insects, diseases or weeds.”

Pool says Timberline starts with an early spring pre-emergent herbicide, followed by a five- or sixweek rotation of applying a light fertilizer application to the lawns.

“Obviously, you don’t want to do too much fertilizer as you’re going into summer so you’re not causing unnecessary work for your mowing crews,” he says. “With fertilizing, you get newer flushes and growth, and you could end up needing to bag more than you necessarily need to.”

The company’s commercial property program is a bit different. It employs more of a slow-release type product for two applications, one in early spring and one toward August.

On schedule

Like many places, April is the ideal time to start up irrigation systems. The company averages at least one monthly irrigation check during the growing season for residential clients.

“When we’re visiting the site, we’ll run through each program individually so that we can make sure none of the heads got out of alignment or determine if there are broken or clogged nozzles,” says Pool. “We do quite a bit more on our commercial side because the systems are a lot bigger and are more at risk to have a main line break. So we do those properties weekly, sometimes biweekly.”

Timberline’s approach to managing commercial properties is to have its water managers be solely responsible for doing irrigation checks instead of both checking and doing repairs. “We all know what happens when you end up having a break — you just spent two days there, and then you’re behind on your checks and you’re doing your other properties a disservice,” says Pool.

“So we break it up where our water managers are doing the checks. They’ll do some minor repairs if it’s a head or a nozzle or something along those lines. But if there’s anything larger that’s going to take them away from doing their visual checks on properties, we then schedule that out to our technicians who come behind them and do the repairs.”

Pool says they encourage a lot of their clients to use smart controllers, which allows the water managers to easily check and monitor irrigation as they go.

“Right when we start up the irrigation system or around that same time frame, we do a spring cleanup in the beds, we’ll cut back ornamental grasses and we’ll do a low mow.” Pool says you don’t want to scalp it, but just open up the canopy enough so that the sunlight gets in your soil to warm it up faster.

“Typically when you do that, you have faster green up compared to people that don’t do it. And you get some of that dead debris out of there, so you don’t start contributing to your thatch layer.” After this initial mow, they’ll start weekly mowing sometime in May and continue on the rest of the summer.

Maybe you’ve had a busy off-season filled with snow removal or planning for the year ahead. Or maybe you’ve taken a bit of a breather to relax and recover from last year. Regardless of how you spent the winter, it’s always exciting to get back into the swing of things and start the spring season. Hopefully the months ahead will bring your business new opportunities and growth. Best of luck this spring season, and may your lawns be oh-so-green and lush.

The author is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at sarahbunyea@igin.com.