I think it would be safe to say that the mild winter weather is giving folks an early dose of “spring fever” this year. Daffodils are blooming, some flowering trees are beginning to show color and the cool season blue grass and fescue lawns, that are predominate in the Severna Park area, are starting to turn green.
In the past, we were told that to improve the appearance of our lawns, we needed to apply fertilizer with high nitrogen content at this time of year to encourage the grass to turn a rich, dark green color. While this practice did achieve the desired result of creating a greener lawn, it may have been doing more harm than good in maintaining the health of both the turf and the environment.
According to the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, feeding cool season lawns in the spring causes most of the nitrogen absorbed by the grass to be directed at producing new top growth. However, this new growth comes at the expense of the turf developing stronger roots that help it survive during the summer.
In addition to hindering root development, the excessive growth of grass blades means that more frequent mowing is needed to maintain the appearance of the lawn.
The Maryland Cooperative Extension Service now recommends the best time of year to fertilize cool season lawns is in the early fall, which promotes the development of healthy roots in the turf as well as an attractive green lawn. The roots store some of the absorbed nutrients that help turn the grass green again the following spring.
Not applying lawn fertilizer in the spring also reduces the amount of nitrogen carried in stormwater runoff, which fuels excessive growth of algae in the Severn and Magothy rivers. When these algae blooms die, the water is robbed of oxygen that aquatic life needs for survival.
I have to admit these newer recommendations are counterintuitive to what I learned about lawn care in the past, and I continued with my old ways by fertilizing my lawn each spring.
Last year, because of what I learned from my training with the Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy, I realized I needed to “practice what I preach” and change how and when I fertilize my lawn.
With this new knowledge in mind, I decided to break with tradition and not fertilize my lawn last spring. I am pleased to report that my lawn did fine last year. It took a bit longer for the grass to turn green in the early spring but, by May, my lawn looked as green as the other yards in my neighborhood. It also survived the early summer heat with no ill effects.
In the early fall, I made two light applications of fertilizer as recommended by the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service and this year my lawn is beginning to turn green again without a spring feeding.
For more information on this subject, The Friends of the Rappahannock and The Chesapeake Club have informative campaigns (some with a humorous twist) that encourage folks not to fertilize their yards in spring.