Weed and feed just feeds the weeds

Mark in Stafford writes: “Every year I typically ‘wake up’ my lawn with a dose of weed and feed followed by another dose eight weeks later.

“But this year, because of the warm temps, I already have lots of dandelions and other weeds in my lawn.”

Don’t blame the warm weather, Mark. You have lots of dandelions and other weeds because you are relying on unreliable — and really unhealthy — chemicals instead of caring for your lawn correctly. The only thing those herbicides are killing are frogs, toads, earthworms and you.

Air: The long-term cure for dandelions

Dandelions are a sign of compacted soil, the long-term remedy for which is a “core aeration.” This is achieved by using a big noisy machine that pulls plugs out of the turf, allowing your grass roots more room to breathe. (And yes, plugs must be pulled; poking holes in the turf just … well, it just pokes holes in the turf.)

But don’t aerate now. Although it has great long-term benefits, core aeration stresses the lawn in the short term — and you do not want to stress a cool-season lawn with summer heat coming on fast. Although some people will try and sell you on the idea of doing it now, cool-season lawns of bluegrass and fescue should only be aerated in the early fall.

Hound Dog for the short term

But what about right now?

You can get rid of the most prominent of those dandelions with a simple mechanical device that pulls them out of the ground while you stand up (and it doesn’t leave nasty dead browned-out dandelions in the turf, as herbicides do). You just position the “puller” over the unwanted plant, step on a plunger and a small metal cage surrounds the dandelion and pops it up and out, root and all.

(And yes, because they are removing chunks of stuff, these devices do perform a little bit of gentle aeration as well. But it’s perfectly safe — much less stress than a big machine.)

The Hound Dog brand is probably the best known of these devices; it’s been around for many years. And a quick internet search will reveal dozens of similar devices under different names.

Be sharp; cut sharp!

Mark in Stafford double-doses his lawn with weed and feed and still has lots of weeds. So of course he asks: “Can I put down weed killer and a pre-emergent crab grass mix at the same time? Can you offer any advice?”

Yes I can, Mark — beginning with the advice to step away from your Spreader of Death, because you’re looking to drop your money on a sucker bet. The more toxins you toss on your turf, the more tattered it turns. The only way to reduce the number of weeds in your turf is to care for the grass correctly.

Step one: Get a new blade for your mower or get the old blade sharpened. A dull mower blade rips the blades of grass apart instead of cutting them cleanly. Those ripped-apart blades can’t store water and slowly die. Without healthy grass to hold the spot, weeds will inevitably move in. But when grass is cut cleanly, weeds don’t have a spot to seize.

Diet & exercise for a healthy lawn

Sorry, four-steppers, but the only way to truly control weeds is to care for your turf correctly. Yes: It’s boring, but it’s also shockingly effective — and inexpensive.

Now, back to Mark the Serial Weed and Feeder: No more food!

The cheap chemical salts in commercial “weed-and-feed” products are like fast food and fatty snacks; the unnaturally fast growth they cause is weak and easily overrun by weeds. And if Mark has already fed his lawn twice this season, he has almost certainly met or exceeded the legal limit for feeding lawns in Virginia (and Maryland). And it’s not just “the law”; it’s a common-sense attempt to try and save the beloved Chesapeake Bay from death by fertilizer.

Instead of buying more bags of fake pee (the main ingredient in many commercial lawn foods), sharpen your blade and raise the cutting height on your lawn mower so that the lawn is a solid 3 inches high after you cut it. Yes — after. Wait until the lawn reaches 4 inches high to mow, take off an inch with a sharp blade and the weeds will quickly diminish.

Yes, guys: Height does matter

Chalk it up to climate change or another weird winter, but there do seem to be a lot more dandelions around this year — especially in lawns that appear to be cut way too short.

News flash, guys: The blades of grass that make up a lawn are (gasp!) plants, and plants have needs that you cannot fulfill from a spreader or sprayer.

The biggest “cultural” need of turf grass (meaning something you can control, unlike the amount of sunlight) is height. Cut your grass lower than 3 inches, and it suddenly doesn’t have enough greenery to process sunlight effectively.

The grass goes into shock, draining any resources stored in its roots in a desperate attempt to grow some height back as fast as possible.

That’s right: The lower you cut, the more you’ll have to mow, because you’re forcing the grass to grow as fast as possible.

Cut at a height of 3 inches and the grass will grow as slowly as possible, now devoting its newfound extra energy to the root growth that crowds out weeds.

The dirty little secret of lawn care is that the only real cure for weeds is cultural, not chemical.

Send your garden questions to Mike!

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