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The real harbingers of spring

It’s time to fix the mower and dust off the lawn tools

April 1, 2012
By JOE SUTTER, Messenger staff writer , Messenger News

April showers bring lawns needing mowers - and sooner than ever, after such a warm winter. Before the grass gets too long, it's time to get the mower tuned up and ready to go.

Andy Dunbar, of Dunbar Power Equipment, Fort Dodge, said one of the biggest problems he sees with mowers is when the fuel is not drained over the winter.

"Fuel is only good to be stored about three months, and then it deteriorates," Dunbar said.

Article Photos

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Shane Foote, of Smitty’s Lawn Care, shapes a shrub so the new growth can come in. Lawn tools — from pruners and loppers to rakes and lawn mowers —are coming out of hibernation now.

If you are lucky, he said, a mower with bad fuel can just be drained, but he sometimes has to take the engine completely apart, clean it and reseal it.

Dunbar said he's seen more problems with air filters in this past year than usual too.

"Since it was such a dry fall, we've had mowers come in this spring that wouldn't start, and the air filter was covered with like 3 inches of dirt."

Getting the mower serviced is mandatory at least once a season, Dunbar said. In addition to changing the oil and the air filter, he recommends replacing the spark plug each season.

"A mower's only got one spark plug, so if it's not perfect you'll have difficulty," he said.

Of course, keeping the blade sharp is also very important.

The biggest mistake people often make when they grind blades themselves is they don't grind enough off to get a nice edge, he said.

Dunbar gets a lot of questions about lawn care, although it really isn't his area of expertise.

"Toro has a real elaborate website, and I refer people to that," Dunbar said, citing the manufacturer of the new mowers he sells.

But perhaps the best source for information is local, he said.

"We refer people a lot to local lawn care places in town. A problem in Fort Dodge can be totally different than what they have in Florida or California," he said.

One local resource is the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach office. There, horticulturist Yvonne McCormick said the first tool people should get ready this year is a rake.

"The first thing for lawns - raking is important," McCormick said. "It stimulates growth and gets up the debris."

However, she cautioned, don't rake if the lawn is too wet.

"If you walk on muddy ground, you can compact the soil," she said. "Also, the raking can actually uproot plants."

Now is also the time to apply a pre-emergent weed killer, she said.

"Pre-emergent stops seeds from sprouting. If you wait until the soil is warmed up, all those seeds will already have sprouted," she said.

While McCormick said the best time to plant grass seed was in the fall, Dennis Detmering, of Smitty's Lawn Care, said now is also a good time for planting if the lawn needs it. In that case, though, don't use the pre-emergent.

"If you put down a (pre-emergent) fertilizer/crab grass control, that doesn't allow any seedlings to grow. That will defeat your purpose," Detmering said.

Sharon Coppinger, of Eddie's Greenhouse, said there are usually four steps to fertilizing and treating a lawn.

"Use the fertilizer/crab grass preventer right now," Coppinger said. "Fertilizer with weed control goes on Mother's Day. On the Fourth of July put down fertilizer with insect control. On Labor Day, put on the lawn fertilizer, the winterizer, to boost for winter."

Detmering said if new grass is planted, it needs to be watered. The ground should be kept damp, but not over-watered, he said, and the best time to water is in the morning.

"If you water throughout the day, the wind blows and the lawn can pick up mold and disease - it can stick easier. The majority of those are airborne," he said.

Detmering and McCormick both agree that keeping the lawn mower blade sharp is crucial.

"Obviously, it helps it cut better - you don't want to tear the grass. Plus, a sharpened blade gives you an even cut," Detmering said.

McCormick said not to mow the lawn lower than 2 inches, because it would stress the grass. Later, in the hotter months, she recommended raising the mower to 3 1/2 inches.

"You never want to mow off more than one-third of the leaf at a time," she said. "It's the same with pruning."

She also said compost could be used on the lawn. It should be applied very thin, about half an inch thick, she said.

"It adds organic matter to the soil and helps retain moisture."

One easy way to keep organic matter in the lawn is by mulching the grass instead of bagging or using the side chute, Dunbar said.

"The engines on the mowers are so much more powerful. They used to not be strong enough to do a good job of mulching," he said. "Most mowers are really designed with that in mind; it's what they're built to do."

McCormick said the best way to keep the lawn weed-free is to keep the grass healthy.

"A struggling, sparse lawn is more prone to weeds; a good healthy stand of turf is going to be thick cover that competes with weeds."

She added that much more information is available for free by calling or visiting the ISU Extension office, or on its website.

Contact Joe Sutter at (515) 573-2141 or



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