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Bringing back your landscaping

After a brutal winter, experts tell how to nurture yards to life

March 26, 2014

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Experts say dry, dead-looking landscaping for the first weeks after the snow melts is no reason to fret because plants gauge when to become active by soil temperature, which will take longer to increase this year.

As the snow melts, unwelcome scenes of crunchy, yellow-brown yards wrought with dead grass and barren landscaping await.

But just because lawns and plants may look completely dead does not mean that they won’t come back. Michigan’s landscaping generally is resilient, despite the worst winter many of us can remember, and most lawns and plants may be pampered back to life.

Mike Clark, senior manager at Bordine’s Nursery, said that the grass roots are what survive the winter and to not be alarmed if grass does not turn green in the first weeks after the snow melts. He said that the temperature of the soil determines when many plants, including grass, begin to rejuvenate, and that it would take place later than usual this spring.

“Where you have to be concerned is out by roads and driveways,” he said. “The road commission and homeowners put down a lot of salt for snow melt, but that will burn up roots and kill the grass in those areas.”

Clark recommended raking out the dead grass, putting down grass seed and using a starting fertilizer on the dead patches. For the rest of the lawn, he said to begin a four-step fertilizer.

As for plants, he said the relatively constant blanket of snow acted to insulate them from extremely cold temperatures and wind damage.

“Plants take a big drink of water in the fall, which is supposed to keep them viable over the winter, but we had an early freeze and a late thaw,” Clark said. “It’s like, when you go skiing, ChapStick protects your lips from drying out in the wind.”

Despite some dieback in exposed portions of plants, he said most plants would be OK, as long as they are not in a borderline zone.

The U.S. is split into 11 regions according to hardiness zones, which denote the coldest temperatures plants generally can withstand, and which are often listed on tags on plants purchased at nurseries, as well as online, said Mary Gerstenberger, consumer horticulture coordinator for Michigan State University Extension.

Northern Macomb and Oakland counties fall into zone 6a, which can withstand temperatures from minus 10 to minus 5. The southern portions of the counties fall into zone 6b, which can withstand temperatures from minus 5 to zero degrees.

“Plants usually grown down south and brought up to this area because they are beautiful, such as rhododendrons, are used to shorter winters, and people may have trouble with them,” Clark said.

Both Clark and Gerstenberger recommended choosing hardier plants native to Michigan.

“Watering and fertilizing are the steps most homeowners skip, but also the most important,” Clark said. “In addition to that, a good organic fertilizer will help baby a (struggling) plant back to health.”

He explained that organic fertilizers avoid some of the stronger synthetic elements and are gentler on stressed-out plants.

“When you drive around in mid-April, the difference between the lawns that look great and the ones that look like they’re struggling is the homeowners probably put down a winterizing fertilizer,” he said.

Both Clark and Gerstenberger agreed that the harsh, lingering winter would push back the date flowers generally bloom.

Clark said some flowers that set their blooms in the spring, like lilacs, may barely bloom at all, and early bloomers, such as tulips, may be sparser.

Gerstenberger recommended that homeowners who may not have tested their soil in a while do so to learn how much fertilizer to use and which plants to select in the future. The tests reveal the levels of phosphates, potassium, calcium, magnesium, the pH of the soil and how much organic material is present, she said.

“The test helps a lot, because when people apply (too much) fertilizer, the plants aren’t using it, and it’s just going into the soil or water and causes issues because of the phosphates and nitrates,” she said.

The test is available at many nurseries, as well as at www.msu for $25, Gerstenberger said. With the MSU test, individuals mail in a soil sample and receive emailed results and an explanation of their meaning.

Sean Hughes, owner of Alternative Landscaping in Clinton Township for 22 years, said this winter has been the worst he has seen and that his plowing and salting services were triple those of last year.

Hughes said the most damaging factors to lawns are snow mold, voles and salt damage, and the most important thing for homeowners to do to revitalize their lawns is to aerate. While he agreed the snow blanket protected plants and lawns to an extent, he said it also facilitated voles, and its prolonged presence on grass may have resulted in suffocation and excess moisture, leading to snow mold disease.

As for insects, Clark, Gerstenberger and Hughes said they hoped that the prolonged cold and snow would stave off bugs until later in the year and thin the pest populations.

About the author

Staff Writer Sarah Wojcik covers Shelby Township and Utica for the Shelby-Utica News. Sarah has worked for C & G Newspapers since 2013 and attended Oakland University. She won a first place 2013 Excellence in Journalism award for open government reporting and a second place 2014 Excellence in Journalism award for a series of explanatory stories from the Detroit chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.


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