Spring is when your yard begins to sparkle with fresh new grass. As lush green spreads across the lawn, keep an eye out for an intruder that kills the magic: crabgrass. When it takes root, it can ruin an otherwise beautiful lawn.

Early spring is the perfect time to identify crabgrass, prevent it from taking hold, and encourage root growth for a healthy green lawn. Here’s how to make it happen:

Grass vs. Crabgrass

First, let’s look at how to correctly identify crabgrass. Each plant has long, spidery arms that spread from a central base. Crabgrass has broad leaf blades, feels coarse to the touch, and grows long roots that can be difficult to dislodge. Looking across your lawn, you’ll see crabgrass popping up in mounds above the normal grassline especially along walkways and driveways where they thrive on the radiant heat that these hard surfaces give off.

In terms of its behavior, crabgrass is a grassy weed that thrives in full sunlight and crowds out desirable turf grass. It’s in the family of plants known as summer annuals, meaning it germinates in spring, grows during warm weather, and dies out when cold temperatures hit each year.

Don’t let its “annual” description fool you, though. It doesn’t die out forever. Left untreated, crabgrass will come back year after year because each plant produces millions of seeds. That’s the origin of the old gardener’s saying, “One year’s seeding equals seven years’ weeding.”

Ideal Turf Grass

Unlike crabgrass, good turf grass feels soft to the touch and looks neat and even. Turf grass is divided into two general categories: warm season and cool season.

In overall cooler zones, like the Newburyport area, cool season grasses thrive more vigorously than the warm season grasses found growing south of us.

Spring into Action

Early spring is the perfect time to address crabgrass because it hasn’t had time to build deep roots. In fact, in the Newburyport area you’ll know it’s the right time for lawn maintenance and weed control when the forsythias begin to bloom. Those cheerful yellow blooms are a red flag for weed growth.

Take a proactive approach by applying an early spring crabgrass pre emergent to your lawn. These herbicides work against weeds before their seeds begin to germinate and take root. That means they never have a chance to soak up sunlight and become stronger plants. So make sure to feed your lawn in the early spring and again later in the spring especially if the season is off to a rainy start.

Understand Your Soil

In addition to a crabgrass pre emergent, give weeds a one-two punch by fertilizing the good guys. Healthy turf grass should be all that survives after fertilizer application. Proper fertilization involves soil testing, applying the right mixture of nutrients, and re-fertilizing at key times.

Soil testing shows what your soil lacks. If it’s not right for your grass, your lawn will never look as good as it could. You’ll need to find the right balance based on your specific mix of grass and soil. A professional landscaper is your best bet for an accurate analysis though testing.

You can soil test using a soil testing kit or by sending a sample to a soil testing facility such as UMASS. The test will reveal each zone’s pH level, or relative acidity or alkalinity. Soil pH can range from 1.0, which is highly acidic, to 14.0, or highly alkaline. A 7 on the pH scale is neutral, or balanced between acidic and alkaline. When your soil is neutral, your fertilizer is most effective because the nutrients are available for the grass and not locked up in the soil.

In desert zones where little rain falls, soil is very alkaline. Here in the Newburyport area, where we get plenty of rain, soil tends to be acidic to neutral. Still, there can be wide variation depending on factors like geography, water sources, and nearby trees. Pine trees, for example, make soil more acidic. And in suburban developments, trucked-in soil might be completely different from the normal local soil. A professional soil test will help you to establish a plan to correct soil pH by applying the proper amounts of nutrients and lime.

Add Nutrition

Based on the type of grass and soil, apply fertilizer. Fertilizers come with labels that explain the chemical mixture inside. You’ll see 3 letters: N-P-K or nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium. These match up to 3 percentages, for example: 29-0-5. That means the fertilizer is 29% nitrogen, 0% phosphorus, 5% potassium, and the remainder is inert matter for good spreading.

Generally speaking, a 20-5-10 mixture is good for cool season grasses, helping your lawn thrive in early spring. However, the necessary mixture changes as the season changes, reducing the amount of nitrogen needed by later-season plants. It’s a good idea to use a slow-release fertilizer that contains nitrogen, but not too much.

Signs That Something is Wrong

As your grass grows, you might notice signs that something’s off in your lawn maintenance plan. Perhaps the crabgrass just won’t die. Or maybe your grass was green for a while, then turned brown. Here’s a rundown of some common issues and how to tackle them:

Crabgrass invasion. If your lawn is already full of crabgrass, you’ll need a multi-pronged defense. Remove visible crabgrass, down to the roots, by hand or with a tool. Apply crabgrass pre emergent to prevent new weed growth and post emergent herbicide to kill established weeds. Re-fertilize according to your soil test recommendations or consult lawn care professional.

Lack of new grass growth. This can be a grass seed germination issue, meaning there’s something preventing new seed from taking root – seeding when the weather isn’t ideal for new grass growth, using old or rotted seed, compacted or poor soil, poor watering, or pest infestation. You may need to try new seed and address underlying issues before seeds will germinate.

Bare, brown, and patchy spots. Patchy sports are most often caused by compacted soil. Compacted soil can prevent new seed from taking root and can prevent existing grass roots from spreading. Compacted soil does not allow the vital nutrients, water and oxygen to get to the root zone where it is needed for healthy grass production. Aerating your lawn relieves the compaction creating an ideal foundation for new grass seed to take root.

Grass that looks burnt. Although it’s tempting to blame the hot summer sun, burnt-looking grass is often a fertilization issue. Perhaps a too-strong or fast-release fertilizer was added at the wrong time. Maybe it was applied improperly, which can chemically burn the plants. This is a serious issue that should be addressed before continuing your lawn maintenance plan.

Strong or chemical smell. Your lawn shouldn’t reek with a chemical odor. This may indicate over-application of fertilizers or additives. Avoid using smelly bone, blood, or fish-based products because they attract opossums, raccoons, and other scavengers. They can also be poisonous to the family dog.

Zombie crabgrass. Did you kill all the crabgrass, then it suddenly sprang back to life later? You might be cutting the grass too short. This can hurt the turf grass and allow crabgrass to take hold. You also could be using the wrong mix of crabgrass preventer and lawn fertilizer. It might be time for professional lawn advice.

Into Summer and Beyond

If you follow the right weed prevention and lawn fertilization plan, you should see little to no crabgrass in your yard as spring turns to summer. As summer stretches on, your lawn will look soft, even and free of weeds.

Of course, when you don’t see weeds, it’s easy to become lax about lawn maintenance. Don’t give up during the dog days of summer. If your turfgrass becomes weak, it’s the ideal time for sun-hungry crabgrass and other weeds to pop up.

Continue to monitor your yard for weeds, pests, and patchy spots. Use a spreader in late summer to apply a granular fertilizer. This keeps your lawn strong and weed-free, right up until the Northeast’s first hard frosts.

For more information about weed control, landscaping, and lawn care, reach out to the experts at Swazy & Alexander. We serve the Newburyport area, including Newbury, West Newbury, Rowley, Georgetown, Ipswich, Amesbury, Salisbury, Byfield, and Boxford.