Lawn myth busting: Skip spring ‘weed and feed’
Editors note: Rossi is a turf specialist and associate professor in the Department of Horticulture, Cornell University. This is the first in a series where Rossi debunks common lawn myths. His advice targets cool-season grass growing regions in the Northeast, but may be applicable in regions with similar growing conditions.
ITHACA, N.Y. – It’s a sure sign of spring: The robins return and millions of lawn owners head out to apply fertilizer and weed- killers to their lawns – a rite widely known as “weed and feed.”
But here’s the problem: Early spring probably isn’t the best time for you to fertilize your grass or apply herbicides unless you have a history of weed problems.
Let’s start with the herbicides. Weed and feed products designed for early-spring application usually contain pre-emergent herbicides. They work by preventing weed seeds from sprouting, and they can be an effective way to control crabgrass and some broadleaf weeds.
Trouble is, this assumes that you’ve got weed seeds in your soil ready to sprout. If you’ve been using pre-emergent herbicides regularly or otherwise doing a good job of controlling weeds and keeping them from going to seed, you may have exhausted the supply of weed seeds in the soil. If that’s the case, applying pre-emergent herbicides is like clapping your hands to keep the lions away.
Then there’s the fertilizer. It should be mostly nitrogen, and I’ll admit that it can really green up the grass in a hurry. But it can also fuel lush top growth at the expense of roots, and you want those roots going deep for moisture so the grass can outcompete weeds during the hot, dry summer months to come. That lush top growth also means you’ll need to mow more often and deal with more clippings.
If you’re going to apply fertilizer, Memorial Day and Labor Day are better times to do it. And with recent restrictions on phosphorus fertilizer in many areas and the lack of evidence that potassium will improve your lawn in most circumstances, shop around for fertilizers that are all nitrogen.
Other weed and feed products are designed for late-spring application. They contain herbicides designed to kill actively growing broadleaf weeds like dandelions. But if you want to kill broadleaf weeds, these herbicides are much more effective if you apply them in fall. At that time, the weeds are storing up reserves for winter and moving nutrients from the leaves to the roots. They move the herbicide to the roots at the same time, resulting in a better kill.
And unless your weeds are running rampant, try spot spraying them in the fall instead of putting down herbicide over your entire lawn. That’s just one small step you can take for sustainability.
If weed and feed has become a ritual for you, it’s time to break the habit. Try skipping it this year and applying fertilizer and herbicide only if you need them and in separate treatments at the times when they will be most effective.
Weed control during spring seeding
From April SportsTurf “Q&A with Pamela Sherratt:
Q: We are getting ready to overseed our soccer field this spring. What weed control options are there?
A: Successfully growing cool-season turf from seed in the spring can be a challenge because the weed pressure is so great, which is one if the reasons why the recommended time to do renovation is in the fall. In the real world however, athletic fields are in a constant state of renovation and so seeding is a season-long operation.
Weeds that emerge in spring, like crabgrass, prostrate knotweed, yellow nutsedge, goosegrass and annual bluegrass are particularly troublesome on athletic fields because they can germinate and establish quickly, even on compacted soils. Weed seed present in the soil is laying dormant just waiting for an opportunity under the right environmental and cultural conditions to invade a weakened turf with bare soil. Because weed pressure is so great in the spring and early summer months, it is important that the soil is not disturbed (avoid tilling as this will bring up weed seeds) and that the seedbed be treated with an herbicide that does not adversely affect germination of the desired grass seed.
There are several approaches to using an herbicide during the seed establishment period. Following is a summary of those options, based on years of herbicide trial work by Dr. Dave Gardner. One strategy is to seed in early spring and then after the seedling turf has established, apply an herbicide with pre and early postemergence activity, such as dithiopyr (Dimension, others*). This strategy requires very careful timing, and on most athletic surfaces, overseeding is not a once per year operation. Once the application of dithiopyr is made, as is the case with most preemergence herbicides, future overseeding operations must be delayed according to the label.
In fact, on areas that you plan on seeding or over-seeding in late spring or summer, hopefully you did not apply a preemergence herbicide. If you did, then be aware that almost all of the preemergence herbicides on the market are very effective at controlling not only weed seedlings, but also the seedlings of our desired turfgrasses. Fortunately, there are three preemergence herbicides that are labeled for use at seeding time: siduron (Tupersan), mesotrione (Tenacity), and topramazone (Pylex).
Siduron has been available for use in turf for many years. It is safe for use on seedling turf. Follow the label directions carefully. When used properly, siduron will reduce crabgrass, goosegrass, foxtail, and many summer annual broadleaf weeds by about 80%.
Mesotrione is in a unique class of chemistry and this product has a very diverse label, including pre- and postemergence control of both broadleaf weeds and annual grasses. It also controls sedges preemergence and certain perennial weedy grasses postemergence. One of its key uses is the preemergence control of annual grassy and broadleaf weeds in newly seeded turfgrass. When used as directed, mesotrione will result in nearly complete control of crabgrass, goosegrass, foxtail, and many summer annual broadleaf weeds. But, it will not affect the growth and development of the seedling turf. Most effective use of this product is to apply it to the soil surface right after the seeds have been raked in but before mulch is applied.
You can then begin to irrigate as you normally would to establish seedling turfgrass. Mesotrione is very safe to seedling turf. However, some phytotoxicity has been reported if it is applied to young turfgrass seedlings. If you are using multiple applications of mesotrione as part of a program to control stubborn weeds, such as creeping bentgrass, then you want to avoid overseeding or reseeding the area until you are making your last mesotrione application. In other words, it is better to wait and reseed with the second or third mesotrione application, then to seed when the first round of mesotrione is being applied.
Topramazone is a more recent introduction to the turfgrass market. It is similar to mesotrione in its weed control spectrum and its safety to seedling turfgrass. Make sure to follow the label recommendations carefully.
After the seed has germinated there is a period of time in which your options for weed control become limited. Most postemergence herbicides for broadleaf weed control have language on the label that states that following seeding, the turf needs to be sufficiently established so that it has been mowed three times before the product can be safely used.
All of the herbicides mentioned in this column are good products and can be quite effective. You can help to improve your chances of success by avoiding the 2-4 week period each year that is the peak of germination for the particular weed species that dominate your fields. For example, each of these products is quite effective at reducing weed establishment when seeding or over-seeding in July when weed competition begins to drop off. However, each of these products can produce less than complete weed control if used in mid to late May. This is more likely to be a problem if the May timing is in conjunction with seeding a slower to germinate species such as Kentucky bluegrass. By simply waiting a couple of weeks (or seeding a couple of weeks earlier), weed seed competition may be greatly reduced, which further increases your chances of success when seeding or overseeding.
*Mention of a specific product does not constitute an endorsement over other products that may be similar