Spring has come late to my part of North America, very late. The snow is only just melting away as I write this and bit by bit my property will be springing to life. My neighbors, or at least those on the south side of the street where the snow has melted faster, are out vigorously raking their lawns, attempting to remove all traces of thatch* and actually tearing up the lawn grasses and scraping off the surface soil. They work as if the life of their lawn depended on it … but they’re most likely doing more harm than good. And in so many ways.
*Thatch is the loose, intermingled organic layer of dead and living shoots, stems, and roots that develops on lawns between the zone of green vegetation and the soil surface.
I don’t rake my lawn at all in the spring. There aren’t enough dead fall leaves remaining on it to bother with and there is no excess thatch to remove.
Thatch is actually a good thing, as long as there isn’t too much of it. Most authorities consider up to 1 inch (2.5 cm) of thatch to be ideal for any lawn, but if there is more than that, it’s getting a bit thick and may need to be reduced (see below). However, I have trouble maintaining ½ inch (1.2 cm)! That’s probably because I use a mulching mower, which chops lawn clippings into tiny, rapidly decomposed pieces, plus I shred all the fall tree leaves I use as mulch and in the compost on the lawn, using the same mulching mower, and little pieces of nice, rich, dead leaves settle into the thatch where they stimulate microbial activity, so thatch just seems to melt away. Also, I never apply nitrogen-rich lawn fertilizer whose only purpose seems to be to make lawns grow faster so you have to mow more often, so I probably have fewer lawn clippings than my hardworking neighbors.
If your lawn doesn’t feel spongy when you walk on it, it probably doesn’t have a thatch problem.
I will go over my lawn later in the spring, when it’s dried out a lot more, and pick up fallen branches, but I don’t need a rake for that. Of course, if there were a lot of grit and sand deposited by snowplows on the lawn near the street, I might feel the need to rake it up, but 1) there isn’t much and 2) I replaced the lawn near the street with a flower bed and perennials don’t seem to mind a bit of grit and sand
I actually don’t do anything much to my lawn in the spring. I just let it grow … and enjoy the thousands of cute little spring bulbs that poke up through it: crocuses, snowdrops, Siberian squills, etc. I’ll get around to mowing the lawn soon enough, when the flowers have died back and it starts to green up and grow, but that’s weeks away.
If You Feel the Need to Rake Your Lawn…
Of course, not everyone is as laidback about lawn care as I am. It’s quite understandable that you might feel obliged to rake your lawn in the spring to show your neighbors you’re not a slouch, but at least do it right. First, wait until the surface has dried out. (Not the case here yet!) Walking on soggy lawn will compact the soil and damage the lawn permanently! And when the time does come, just go over the lawn lightly and rapidly with a plastic-tined rake (less damaging to lawn grasses than one with metal tines), removing surface debris, like dead leaves, twigs, sand and stones.
When Thatch Is a Problem…
If you do have a thatch problem, try to figure out why. Is the soil too compact? If so, you may need to top dress with compost … or aerate then top dress. And possibly overseed after that. Is it too acid? A treatment with lime or some other alkaline product may be needed. Raking to remove thatch, even with a thatching rake or a power dethatcher, is only a stopgap solution. You’ll never have a nice lawn unless you fix the real problem.
Enjoy your raking! I’m going to take a snooze!