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Lawn care time is a-comin'

Friday - 2/24/2012, 1:44pm  ET

Mike McGrath,

You can't seed no grass in the Silver Spring

Allan in Silver Spring writes: "You recently said that ‘Bluegrass, fescue and other cool season grasses don't establish well enough in the spring to survive our area's hot summers.' That begs the question: What varieties of grass are tolerant enough to be planted in the spring and withstand the hot summers? And are any shade-tolerant as well?"

No lawn grass can be successfully seeded in our region in the spring, Allan. Like I've been warning for over a decade, the soil takes too long to warm up to germinate the seed in enough time for the young (and very weak) plants to grow big enough to survive the summer sun. The only safe and sensible time to sow cool season grass seed is mid-August, when the soil is perfectly warm and the next nine months will be nice and cool.

Zoysia grass can be established in the spring via plugs, but it's a warm season grass that turns tan and dormant over the winter. Plus, it does not take shade very well.

You can lay sod of any of the cool season grasses very successfully in the spring. If the area is a little shady, go with turf-type tall fescue. If it's very shady, you need a fine fescue -- or moss if it's the black hole of Virginia.

The general rule: Any area that gets less than four hours of sun a day cannot support a lawn.

"You're gonna wash that grass right outta your hair…"

Jill in Alexandria writes: "We have onion grass in a section of our yard that we would like to landscape. We have tried digging up the plants, bulb included, and applying vinegar and Roundup, but nothing seems to kill this stuff. It just keeps growing and spreading. Do you have any suggestions?"

No herbicide -- chemical or organic -- can affect this plant, Jill. The above-ground portions are too thin and slippery to hold any spray in place and the underground bulb stores too much energy. Trying to dig it out of anything drier than sopping wet soil is a waste of time.

Buy a device called the Water Powered Weeder, available from Lee Valley Tools and possibly at some retail locations. It's a long spike you attach to your garden hose and stab into the soil. Then pull the trigger and a laser beam of water literally blows the weeds out of the ground, roots and all. It's very effective, fun to use and there's no digging or bending over.

Long-term lawn care plan

Melanie in Front Royal writes: "My dad died several years ago, and my mom's lawn has deteriorated to the point where's there's more weeds than grass in some areas. The yard is large -- well over an acre. I like the idea of using cornmeal or dried molasses as a fertilizer and weed killer. Do I need to sow grass seed as well?"

As we try and explain every year, grass seed sown in spring will not survive summer, Mel, and neither cornmeal nor molasses will help your lawn.

Since the area is so large, just cut it this summer at 3 inches high with a sharp blade and don't bag the clippings. Then be ready to till up the worst areas, spread compost and sow fresh seed mid-August, which is prime time for lawn seeding in our region. Make sure the new seed matches the old grass in color and blade shape.

But also be realistic. Does your more-than-one-acre property really need to look pristine? In cases like yours, I urge people to concentrate on the areas they see up close every day and just cut the outlying parts at 3 inches. Green is green. If it looks like a nice lawn from a distance, you can, and should, be done for the day.

Be careful about "drastic pruning"

Diane in Calvert County writes: "I think sometime last year you talked about drastically pruning azaleas and I believe you said this should be done in February, but I can't find the reference. Is now the right time to do this? I understand it means no flowers this year."

If you're not careful it might mean no flowers any year, Di.

Lord knows what I might have once said or didn't say, but azaleas and rhododendrons should really only be pruned right after they flower. And your use of the word "drastic" gives me the willies. Don't remove more than one-third of the plant in any one season. If it's been left alone to grow wildly for 20 years, it will take a few seasons to get it back to the size you want. But take the time to do it right -- say a one-third reduction in size done right after flowering time three years in row -- and you will have a smaller but happy plant.

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