Outdoor chore do's and don'ts

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2012 - 8:01 PM

Our "unprecedented" early spring leaves homeowners in a quandary: Spring into action? Or put on the brakes?

It looks like May. It feels like May. Does that mean we should act like it's May in caring for our lawns and gardens?

That's a tough one. Even experts aren't sure what to make of our balmy March.

"There are so many unknowns here," said horticulturist Deb Brown. "It's such an unusual year, there isn't a good precedent."

In this record-breaking year, here are the experts' best educated guesses about what you should -- and shouldn't -- be doing outdoors.

Rake? Probably yes, but with caution. "Now that we have had some rain, and the grass is greening up, it's OK to rake the lawn," said Brian Horgan, turfgrass specialist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

But rake gently, using a lightweight, fan-type rake, Brown cautioned. "The danger in raking at this point is that you can pull out young grass; you need to be careful."

And if your ground is still frozen or feels mushy, resist the urge to rake at all. There's no big rush, Horgan said.

"Homeowners typically rake lawns after snowmelt to prevent snow mold. This year, we have no snow mold issues. Until the grass greens and starts growing, doing extensive lawn care will do more damage than good."

Fertilize? No, Brown said. "It's too early. Go ahead and buy it, if you see a good price, but I sure wouldn't use it."

Weed control? Hold off, for now.

"My suggestion is that homeowners and lawn-care operators wait a bit," said Horgan, who recommends that homeowners look for a product that offers both pre-emergent and post-emergent crabgrass control.

"My concern is that if they only apply a pre-[emergent] this early, the crabgrass will continue to germinate all spring/early summer, and that product will be gone." Instead, he recommends waiting a few weeks, then applying the product, to control plants that have already germinated, while also providing longer-lasting control for plants that continue to germinate.

Remove mulch? Yes. "Once you see things growing out of dead leaves, it's time to clean it up a little," Brown said. Mulch can impede young plants' growth, and they risk mold damage if the mulch becomes warm and moist. So remove it -- "but I wouldn't move it too far," she said. "If we get a freakish cold snap, you can rake it back on."

Water? Yes, as soon as the ground is thawed. To determine whether your ground has thawed and your trees need water, push a kabob skewer or other metal rod into the ground, suggested Gary Johnson, extension specialist in urban and community forestry. If the skewer can be pushed into the ground 8 to 10 inches, you can water. If the 8 to 10 inches is moist, there's no need to water yet. If the 8 to 10 inches is dry, watering is critical.

Pruning? Depends on the tree. If you have fruit trees, "this is prime time to do a little pruning," Brown said. But it's a risky time to prune oak trees, according to a warning issued this week by the Hennepin County master gardener program. Minnesota's high-risk oak wilt season began in mid-March this year, about 10 days early, because of the unusually warm weather and flight activity of the beetles that transmit the fungus.

Plant? "Depends on how much of a gambler you are," Brown said.

It's probably safe to plant some cold-crop veggies, such as leaf lettuce and peas. For other edibles and annuals, wait -- unless you're planting in a container that you can easily move into the garage or in a very small garden that you can cover, in the event of a late cold snap.

"We don't know what's coming next," Brown said.

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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