By Ellen Huckabay/Contributing Writer

March ushers in more than just warmer weather, daffodils and shamrocks. This month also means warm-season grasses such as bermudagrass, zoysiagrass, St. Augustine grass and centipede will start coming out of winter dormancy and greening up. What does this mean for homeowners? For March, it means it is time to get prepared for the vigorous summer growing (and mowing!) season ahead. And with April right around the corner, you’ll want to be aware of some other tasks and pests you might encounter in your lawn.

If you haven’t had your soil tested in the last three or four years, a good place to start your preparations would be sending in a soil sample. Results from your soil test will give you information on soil pH, lime requirements and soil nutrient levels of phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese and zinc. Allowing plenty of time to get your results will mean you’re ready to apply your first application of nitrogen (N) to hybrid bermudagrass and St. Augustine, and your only N application to centipedegrass, in mid-April. Contact your local extension agent for information on taking, sending and interpreting a soil test.

Mowing is the most important maintenance practice for a good-quality lawn, but it is also the most overlooked. Get your lawn mower in tip-top working condition now to prevent tedious setbacks in later spring. Change the oil if needed and fill the gas tank. Of particular importance is the sharpness of the mower blades. Whether you use a reel or rotary mower, maintaining the cutting blades is of utmost importance. Dull mower blades rip the top of the grass leaf blades and leave an uneven edge, causing them to turn brown and giving the lawn an overall dull appearance. Sharp mower blades cut grass leaves cleanly, ensuring rapid healing and regrowth. Think of it as the difference between using a pair of scissors to cut a piece of paper (sharp blades) and ripping the paper (dull blades).

You will be ready to mow as soon as your lawn exceeds one-and-a-half times the desired mowing height. (Yep, that means that you’ll want to get out in the yard and measure the length of your grass until you get a schedule worked out.) Continue mowing every 5 to 7 days throughout the growing season. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is mowing centipedegrass high, like St. Augustine. For centipede, use the lowest setting on your lawn mower you can without scalping your lawn. Centipede likes to be mowed as close to 1 inch as possible, while St. Augustine is happiest at a mowing height of 3-4 inches.

Compaction is a big problem we see in home lawns every year as well. Compacted soil is like a sponge that’s been compressed with the water squeezed out of it. Roots cannot grow into compacted soil, and water cannot penetrate a compacted soil surface to get to the roots where grass and plants can access it. The solution to compaction is aerification; specifically, hollow-tine aerification.

Once your grass has greened up in April, you can aerify your lawn. Equipment can be rented for DIY-ers or you can have it done by a lawn maintenance company. Core aerification removes cores of compacted soil from the soil profile, which improves air and water movement into the root zone. After aerifying, a light top-dressing with organic matter (compost) will smooth the soil surface and improve the nutrient- and water-holding capacity of the remaining soil. Aerification can be done once a year or more during the summer growing season; but don’t aerify if your lawn is drought stressed, during spring green up or winter dormancy.

On the Gulf Coast, March is not the time to apply herbicides to grass. The first pre-emergent of the year should have been applied in mid-February, but with this year’s warm temperatures there was never a good time. Don’t fret, you can make a pre-emergent application in April once your grass has completely greened up. And you can follow that with another pre-emergent application and post-emergent product in June.

Many effective pre- and post-emergent herbicides can be purchased. ALWAYS read the label to make sure the product is safe to use on your type of grass and will kill the weeds you have. If you need help identifying weeds, bring a sample by the extension office and an agent or master gardener will help.

NEVER use a weed-and-feed product on your lawn. Herbicide applications and fertilizer applications should be separated. While you may think you’re saving time using a 2-in-1 product, you’re actually wasting money because some of these products can damage or kill your centipede or St. Augustine grass.

So get ready and get set, because your grass is about to grow. Get a jumpstart on the “green” action by doing some preparations soon.

Ellen Huckabay is the Outreach Programs Coordinator for the ACES Home Grounds, Gardens, and Home Pests Priority Team. She can be reached at [email protected] or at 334-844-3021.

You’re Invited to These Upcoming Gardening Events

What: Old Dauphin Way Association Spring 2017 Plant Swap
When: Saturday, April 1, 10 a.m. to noon
Where: Parking lot, Central Presbyterian Church (N. Ann at Dauphin)
Free: Bring a plant — take a plant.

What: Mobile Master Gardeners Lunch & Learn
When: Monday, April 17, noon to 1 p.m.
Where: Jon Archer Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N.
Topic: Container Herb Gardens, Laurie Ibsen-Reeves