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Season: Spring

  1. Topdressing

    Healthy lawns need healthy soil. Most homeowners do not have enough good soil to grow a healthy lawn. Topdressing with the right compost is the solution!

    Why use compost?

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    • Contains organic matter and nutrients.
    • Improves soil structure and health (lawns need 6 inches of good soil to thrive.)
    • Enhances root development.
    • Reduces the need for fertilizers.
    • Increases soil’s ability to retain water.

    Just a few easy steps:

    1. Have the compost delivered to your home and dumped in a convenient location. (Make sure the dump truck does not drive on the lawn!)
    2. You’ll need a wheelbarrow, metal rake, and lawn rake.
    3. Dump wheelbarrow loads of compost all over the lawn, 3-4 feet apart.
    4. Push and fan out these piles with the flat end of a metal rake.
    5. Lightly rake, fanning out with the lawn rake so the grass blades poke through.

    Most lawn care professionals will topdress for you.

    When is the best time?

    • Late summer or late spring.
    • If you have very little topsoil, twice a year for 1-2 years.
    • If you have 6 inches of quality soil, there is no need to topdress.
    • If aerating: topdress afterward.
    • Dry weather is always best. If the compost is dry and lightweight, your job is much easier.

    Know how much you need

    • 1/4 to 3/8 inch layer of compost spread over the lawn.
    • 1,000 square foot area needs roughly .75 cubic yards of compost.

    Find the right compost

    • Find finished compost: it should smell earthy and sweet and should not be steaming hot.
    • Know what it’s made of: many local sources are organic and contain shellfish. They are great for lawns and gardens.

    Next steps:

    • Overseed with a low-maintenance grass seed.
    • Apply compost tea.

    Important note: Topdressing is not recommended if you live near a waterbody.

    Credit: Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District.
    Learn more at:

  2. Overseed

    Overseeding is the process of spreading seed over an existing lawn to rejuvenate the grass, fill in thin areas, and incorporate low-maintenance seed mixes that require less water and fertilizer.


    • Rejuvenates lawn.
    • Thickens grass.
    • Crowds out weeds.


    • You can overseed at any time during the growing season.
    • The best time is mid-August through mid-September.
    • The next best time is in May, after spring cleaning your lawn.

    Best methods

    • Overseeding is the ideal next step after aerating and topdressing your lawn.
    • For best results, spread 1/4 to 1/2 the normal seeding rate recommended on the bag.
    • Lightly water to ensure seed-to-soil contact.
    • Keep the soil lightly watered for the next three weeks.
    • Make sure the soil is moist but not soggy.

    Don’t seed in the shade

    • Grass needs 6 hours of daily sunlight to thrive.
    • Don’t waste time and money trying to get grass to grow in the wrong place.
    • Try shade-tolerant native groundcovers that require little or no maintenance.

    Use a low-maintenance mix

    • Mixes mainly comprised of fescues and perennial ryegrasses are best suited to tough Maine summers and winters. Most varieties of shady mixes contain a good blend of these grasses.
    • An ideal low-maintenance mix will contain roughly 60-70% fescues and 30-40% ryegrasses with at least two varieties of each species.
    • Look for “endophyte enhanced” for natural insect resistance.

    Many of our partner stores stock low-maintenance seed mixes. Look for some of the following:

    • YardScaping or BayScaping Mix
    • TuffTurf Mix
    • Cottage Mix
    • Shady Mix

    Tip: Adding 5% white clover to your seed mix will provide a source of nitrogen to naturally fertilize your lawn!

    Credit: Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District.
    Learn more at:

  3. Groundcovers

    Grass needs at least 6 hours of sunlight to thrive. For very shady areas where grass won’t grow, consider these perennial groundcovers.


    Gaultheria procumbens

    Grows up to 6 inches and spreads 4 to 6 inches annually. Favors well-drained, acidic soils with average moisture. Grows in partial to full shade. Leaves are evergreen, and red berries remain on the plant all winter. Young leaves and berries have a wintergreen flavor.


    Pachysandra procumbens

    Medium-sized herbaceous perennial evergreen groundcover. Fragrant, white flowers develop in the spring. Grows best in deep shade and prefers moist, well-drained, acidic soil. Slow growth rate; grows to 10” tall and forms a mat on the ground.

    Sweet Woodruff

    Galium odoratum

    Shade to partial shade; fast growing; quick to establish; beautiful, white spring flowers and attractive foliage through to snow. Is seldom bothered by pests or diseases. Prefers slightly acid soil pH of around 5.0 and moist, well-drained soil in the shade. DEER RESISTANT.


    Cornus candidosis

    Grows approximately 6 inches in height and spreads easily. Favors moist, rich, acidic soils. Grows best in partial to full shade. Larger white bracts surround small green flowers. A red berry is produced in the fall and is attractive to birds. NATIVE.

    Lily of the Valley

    Convallaria majalis

    Grows from 0.5 to 1 foot high with a spread of up to 1 foot. Not the best choice for a perennial bed, but it’s good for ground cover as it spreads easily and may need thinning. Small, white, bell-shaped flowers bloom in early spring and are fragrant. Prefers rich soil with medium moisture and partial to full shade.

    Credit: Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District.
    Learn more at:

  4. Rain Gardens

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    Rain gardens are attractive and functional landscaped areas that are designed to capture and filter stormwater from roofs, driveways, and other hard surfaces. They collect water in bowl-shaped, vegetated areas and allow it to slowly soak into the ground. This reduces the potential for erosion and minimizes the amount of pollutants flowing from your lawn into a storm drain and eventually into our streams and lakes.


    Rain gardens can vary in size but are most effective when built to 20-30% of the drainage area. Rain gardens for single-family homes will typically range from 150 to 300 square feet, but even a smaller one will help reduce water pollution problems.

    • The garden should be bowl-shaped, with the lowest point of the garden no more than 6” below the surrounding land.
    • The sides should be gently sloping towards the center to prevent sudden drop-offs that could lead to erosion problems or walking hazards.
    • Rain gardens are often placed in a preexisting or created depression within a lawn or in a location that receives roof runoff from a downspout.
    • To avoid flooding improperly sealed foundations, build your rain garden 10’ away from existing structures and direct water into the garden with a grassy swale, French drain, gutter extension, or other device.

    Rain gardens can be placed in sunny or shady regions of your lawn, but plants should be chosen accordingly, with the lowest point planted with wet tolerant species, the sides closest to the center planted with moist tolerant species, and the edges of the rain garden should be planted with sub xeric (moist to dry) or xeric (dry) tolerant plants. It is also important to check the permeability of your soil. Sandy soils only need compost added, but clay soils should be replaced with a mix (50- 60% sand, 20-30% topsoil, 20-30% compost). After the construction of the garden is complete, the entire area should be covered with a thick layer of mulch, preferably Erosion Control Mix.


    Replacement Soil mixes and Erosion Control Mix is available from local garden centers. Native plants can be purchased from your local nursery. Please see Native Plant Lists from this series for plant descriptions based on specific sun and soil conditions.


    Overall, once plants mature, the maintenance of a rain garden is very low. Watering is important during the first growing season, and some weeding is necessary after planting. As the garden matures, some of the perennials may need to be divided if plantings become too crowded.

    Credit: Maine DEP, Portland Water District.
    Part of the Conservation Practices for Homeowners Factsheet series, available at:

  5. Fertilizing

    New research shows that lawns need less fertilizing.
    Follow these tips to get great results at a lower cost to you and our environment.

    Do a soil test

    • You don’t know what your lawn needs without one!

    Fertilizer basics

    • Unless you have a soil test that identifies a need for phosphorus and potassium, all you need is nitrogen. Look for 10-0-0 on the bag (cornmeal gluten is a good choice).
    • For free fertilizer, always return the clippings to your lawn.
    • If an unfertilized lawn is acceptable, then don’t fertilize!

    Older lawns – 10+ yrs old

    • Lawns older than 10 years need only clippings.
    • If fertilization is deemed necessary, start with 1/3 of the amount recommended on the bag label, monitor the lawn, and apply more only if the lawn needs it. Don’t apply more than 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1000 square feet.

    New lawns – under 10 years old

    • Younger lawns need nitrogen.
    • Start with 1/3 of the amount recommended on the bag, monitor the lawn, and apply more only if the lawn needs it up to a total of 2 pounds per 1000 square feet.

    When should I fertilize?

    • The best time to fertilize is between August 15th and September 15th.
    • Grass needs to be growing to take up fertilizer.

    Use slow-release organic fertilizer

    • Improves soil health and fertility.
    • Slowly releases nutrients so they feed your lawn, not our streams, rivers, and groundwater.
    • Most come from sustainable, renewable resources.
    • Look for corn meal gluten, a byproduct from milling corn. It’s a great source of Nitrogen for your lawn!

    Notes on synthetic fertilizers

    • Derived from natural gas, a nonrenewable resource.
    • Many contain soluble nitrogen that can wash into rivers and streams, wasting your time and money.
    • If you do use synthetic fertilizer, look for slow-release nitrogen. Using slow-release nitrogen helps ensure that your lawn’s root system takes in the nutrients before they wash away.

    Other tips

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    Credit: Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District.
    Learn more at:

  6. Rain Barrels

    Managing roof runoff in your backyard.


    Rain barrels provide an innovative way to capture rainwater from your roof, and store it for later use. Water collected from rain barrels can be used to water lawns, gardens, and indoor plants. This water would otherwise run off your roof or through downspouts and become stormwater, picking up pollutants on its way to a storm drain, stream, or lake. You can lower your water bill, conserve well water in the dry season, and reduce polluted stormwater runoff.


    A rain barrel must be placed on a level surface. If you have gutters, place the rain barrel beneath the downspout so the water flows onto the screen on top of the barrel. You may need to have your downspout cut to an appropriate height above your rain barrel. If you do not have gutters, find a location where water concentrates from your roof and place the rain barrel where it will capture this steady stream of water during rain storms.

    Elevate your rain barrel by placing it on cinder blocks or a sturdy wooden frame. Raising the barrel allows the barrel to drain properly, and you to easily fit a watering can underneath the spout, or attach a hose so you can recover the rainwater you have collected. Soaker hoses can also be attached to the rain barrel to slowly release water into gardens and recharge groundwater.


    Rain barrels are available in many sizes and styles, and range in price from $80 to over $200. Contact your local hardware store, garden center, or nursery. You can also order rain barrels on-line from SkyJuice New England.

    Building your own rain barrel is usually the least expensive option. Several web sites exist with material lists and clear directions. Sites are as follows:

    Finally, you can simply use an open barrel to collect rainwater. Keep in mind that you should use the water within two weeks because the development of a mosquito from egg to adult takes 10 to 14 days.


    Gutters and downspouts should be clean of debris. Leaves and pine needles can clog gutters and prevent water from reaching the rain barrel. Furthermore, check the screen on the rain barrel after each storm event and remove leaves or pollen that has plugged the screen.

    Freezing water can damage your barrel. Rain barrels should be drained and stored before freezing weather sets in to prevent ice damage. They can be stored outside if they are turned upside down and the faucet is covered. Be sure to put something heavy on your rain barrel so it doesn’t roll away. Rain barrels can also be stored inside a garage or other protected area.

    Credit: Maine DEP, Portland Water District.
    Part of the Conservation Practices for Homeowners Factsheet series, available at:

  7. Compost Tea

    Applying compost tea is the most effective way to quickly transition to a safe, healthy, and self-sustaining lawn.

    What is compost tea?

    • Compost tea is compost that has “steeped” in room temperature water.
    • This process grows populations of beneficial microorganisms and suspends nutrients in water so that they are immediately available to the grass.

    The many benefits

    • Immediately greens up the lawn.
    • Improves soil health.
    • Protects against insects and disease.
    • It can be applied as often as you like without harming the grass or our water bodies.
    • The best way to transition a lawn from conventional methods to a natural system.

    When can you apply it?

    • Apply at least three times per year, early spring through late fall.
    • You do not need to consult your soil test results to apply compost tea. You can not damage your soil or your grass with fresh compost tea.

    Hire a lawn care professional

    • More and more professionals are using compost tea.
    • Some offer high-quality brews tailored to your soil’s needs.

    Home brewing?

    Here’s what you’ll need:

    1. Mesh bag or stocking
    2. High-quality compost
    3. 5-gallon bucket
    4. Aquarium pump & tube
    5. Siphon
    6. Garden hose & sprayer

    You can buy a kit from the Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District.
    Call (207) 892-4700.

    Easy to Make

    1. Fill the mesh bag with high-quality compost.
    2. Nearly fill the 5-gallon bucket with water. (If on town water, let water sit for 24 hours so that the chlorine evaporates.)
    3. Sink the mesh bag of compost into the bucket of water.
    4. Place tube in water, feed through cover, and attach to pump. Turn on the pump.
    5. Brew for 24-36 hours. Aeration will brew the tea.
    6. Add a heaping tablespoon of molasses 2 hours before applying.

    Easy to Apply

    • You’ll need 1 quart of tea per 1,000 square feet of lawn, diluted with water.
    • Sink the siphon into a bucket and attach it to an outdoor faucet. Attach a garden hose to siphon and spray.
    • Use extra compost tea on shrubs, flowerbeds, and vegetable gardens.

    Credit: Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District.
    Learn more at:

  8. Using Water Wisely

    A healthy lawn needs water. How much you water and when you water can have an effect (positive or negative) on your lawn.

    Water is essential!

    • Without water, grass can’t grow.
    • Most perennial grasses will go dormant (turn brown) during dry spells. Brown grass is still very much alive and can survive for weeks until moisture returns.
    • However, allowing grass to brown will provide an opportunity for weeds to take root.

    How much water do I need?

    • Lawns need 1 to 1.5 inches of water per week during the growing season (May to October).
    • Buy a rain gauge – they are inexpensive and are available at local hardware stores.
    • Monitor rainfall and only apply what is needed to equal 1 to 1.5 inches of water.
    • Watering too much wastes time and money and creates an insufficient root structure.

    How often should I water?

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    • Only once or twice a week (depending on the rain).
    • If you water twice a week, be sure to only apply half of the lawn’s weekly needs (0.5 to 0.75 inches at each watering).

    Water deeply, not quickly.

    • If you’ve been mowing high, then your lawn’s root system has grown deep and strong.
    • Allowing water to seep into the ground will help the grass stay healthy.

    When should I water?

    • Between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. is ideal.
    • The afternoon is too hot and sunny, most of the water will evaporate.
    • Watering at night increases the risk of fungal diseases

    Tip: Determine your sprinkler output by placing jars on the lawn and timing how long it takes for them to fill with an inch of water.

    Credit: Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District.
    Learn more at:

  9. Planting Using Buffers


    Vegetated buffers are trees, shrubs, and groundcover plants that catch sediment and other pollution before they reach lakes or streams. Trees and shrubs intercept raindrops and reduce their impact on the soil. Low-growing plants and the “duff” layer on the ground filter runoff. Root systems hold soil in place and absorb water and nutrients. In addition, buffers can enhance privacy, filter noise and wind, and attract birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.


    Select plants suitable to the growing zone, light, and soil conditions of the planting area. Ideally, native plants should be selected since these are better adapted to local conditions, fit in with the natural landscape, and do not require fertilizers or pesticides. Also, the most effective buffers should be as wide as possible and include a mix of trees, shrubs, and ground cover plants. Fall and spring are ideal planting times, but anytime during the growing season is acceptable. Plant as described below (from

    1. Water the plant while it is still in its container. Dig a hole 2 times the width of the container and as deep as the soil level in the container.
    2. Remove the root ball from the container and loosen the outside layer of the root system either by scoring with a knife or pulling by hand.
    3. Set the plant in the middle of the hole. The top of the root ball should be at or slightly above normal ground level. If not, remove the plant and adjust the hole. Keep in mind that planting too deeply can kill the plant.
    4. Backfill 2/3 of the planting hole with soil. If the original soil is very poor and the plant requires better soil conditions, mix in no more than 25% loam and/or compost with the original soil.
    5. Fill the planting hole with water. This will result in a “moat” around the soil ball. When this drains completely, re-fill with water again.
    6. After the water has drained, backfill the rest of the hole to ground level and gently press the soil down to remove air pockets. Next, form a circular mound of soil around the planting hole. Formation of this “ring” around the hole will help future watering and rain sink into the ground.
    7. Water thoroughly once more to remove any remaining air pockets.
    8. Place no more than 2” to 4” of mulch around the plant, but keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunk or branches emerging from the root ball. Cover leftover bare soil with additional mulch or move to areas where it will not erode into the lake.


    Plants and bags of compost and loam can be purchased from local nurseries.


    Year One

    Deep, weekly watering is a must during the first year of planting. Most plants that die in the first season do so because of inadequate watering. Make sure that the water reaches the depth of the root ball. The “ring” around the plant helps the water sink into the ground instead of running off. Planting areas can be weeded but should not be raked.

    After One Year

    After the first year, you should only need to water if there is a lack of normal rainfall. Once the plants are well established, you can let the planted area naturalize so that you do not need to replenish mulch or weeds. The “duff” layer of leaves and pine needles will serve as natural mulch.

    Applying Fertilizer

    If plants appear to be growing well, they should not require fertilization. Fertilizers can actually harm newly developing roots, and summer/fall applications can prevent shrubs and trees from hardening off in time for winter. Shrubs and trees should only be fertilized in early spring and only after a soil test has been performed.


    You can save money by transplanting native plants into your buffer area. Keep in mind, however, that the mortality rates of transplants are relatively high. Here are some general transplanting guidelines:

    • Make sure to ask for landowner permission before harvesting, and do not take too many plants from any one area. Do not remove plants next to lakes or streams.
    • Transplant in the early spring or late fall when the plants are dormant. This reduces trauma to their root systems.
    • Choose sturdy-looking plants. Dig up the root ball as much as possible (extend your digging area at least to the width of the plant’s branches.) Once your transplant has been replanted, water frequently until well established.

    Credit: Maine DEP, Portland Water District.
    Part of the Conservation Practices for Homeowners Factsheet series, available at:

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