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Get stressed lawn ready for growing season

Brown grass dormant from winter months will sobe turning green with ingredients rasunshine along Hyde Park Ct Elgin.  April

Brown grass, dormant from the winter months, will soon be turning green with ingredients of rain and sunshine along Hyde Park Ct in Elgin. April 5, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media.

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Updated: May 17, 2013 6:04AM

ELGIN — It wasn’t just last summer’s drought that stressed out trees and shrubs, said David Kitz, an arborist with Lombard-based B. Haney & Sons Inc.

The wet, cool summer of 2011 was followed by a year-long drought that started the cycle of stressed trees — a cycle that may have left residents’ trees susceptible to insects and the diseases they carry, Kitz said.

Many lawns also are showing stress from last year’s drought, said Dave Glowienke at Ralph Helm Inc. Several landscapers have told him that residents are looking to replace all or large portions of their lawns because of that stress, said Glowienke, the service manager at the Elgin company that services and repairs lawn care equipment.

Both the lawn care and tree professionals are offering suggestions on what homeowners can do now to ensure a better growing season for those already-stressed plants.

For lawns, homeowners should start by dethatching the grass — either by raking, hiring a lawn service or renting a machine that does that, Glowienke said. He also suggests having the lawn aerated to help oxygen get into the soil.

Kitz, however, is more skeptical of aeration, considering northern Illinois soil and its tendency toward clay. He thinks spring aeration can actually compact lawns more than needed, and he suggests that is done before winter sets in — if at all.

Lawns that are showing stress likely also need new seed and fertilizer to get them ready for the growing season, both agreed. That, Glowienke said, can either be done by the homeowner using the many products available at hardware and home improvement stores, or by hiring a lawn service.

It is also a good time to get the lawnmower — which might not have gotten a lot of use last summer because of the dry conditions — ready for the year, Glowienke said.

The right way to store a lawnmower for the winter is to get all of the fuel out, Glowienke said. The prevailing problem for lawnmowers that refuse to start in the spring is “bad gas. If it doesn’t start, it is a gas-related issue,” he said.

New oil and a sharpened blade will also help the lawnmower do its job for the year, he said.

There is nothing wrong with mowing early in the season to get the lawn “cleaned up” and help oxygen get into the soil, too, Glowienke said.

Once the lawn is growing, Kitz suggests cutting the lawn higher. That allows the roots to grow deep and the grass to shade-out weeds.

“Give it the first couple of cuttings, then wait for it to get a little longer; that would be fine” to encourage a healthy lawn, Glowienke said.

Help for trees

The wet summer of 2011 started the stressed cycle for trees because the excessive moisture kept oxygen from getting to the shallow roots, Kitz said. Then last summer’s drought, for many trees, desiccated the roots, too.

He has seen the most stress on pines, spruces and evergreens, including trees where the tops have died off. That isn’t a problem at first, he said, but as the tops of the tree trunks die off, the wood can become weak and can topple with a strong enough windstorm.

The environmental stress also has caused many trees to become more susceptible to insects. There are some over-the-counter products for trees, but Kitz suggests calling an arborist to ensure the problems and tree species is identified before putting on any treatments.

Those insecticides “are not a silver bullet,” he said. “If the tree is heavily infected, with all of those little bites, there is a larger danger,” and it is sometimes too late to save a tree, he said.

Kitz isn’t overly concerned about the trees that tried to bud earlier this winter. They went back into dormancy once the weather turned cold again, he said.

He did suggest homeowners consider mulch under their trees, as long as the mulch is spread out in a thin layer and not up around the tree trunk.

“Mulch is almost always a good thing if applied properly,” Kitz said. “Mulch helps regulate moisture and can reduce compaction if there is a lot of foot traffic” around the tree, he said.

Too many homeowners “volcano” mulch around trees — piling it up around the trunk, he said. A better layout is 1 inch to 3 inches of mulch spread around a larger area — and not up close to the trunk, Kitz said.

If this summer ends up being as hot and dry as last year, he recommends watering around the water line — the end of the tree’s overhang — and deeply watering lawns on a not-too-frequent basis.

“The equivalent of a half-inch to 1 inch rain every two weeks is good. Let it dry out and get the oxygen back into the ground” before watering again. That way, Kitz said, the roots will grow deeper and be less susceptible to another drought.

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