Proper FALL Care Will Help Your Lawn SPRING to Life

After a long and often hot summer, the thought of doing one more thing to your lawn may not seem very appealing. But, come next spring both you and your lawn will appreciate the few simple and easy steps you took this fall. According to The Lawn Institute, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in suburban Chicago, grass is very slow to respond to most efforts to improve it, so what you do (or don’t do) to your lawn this fall could have a dramatic result.

Summer, with its heat, lack of natural moisture along with plenty of outside activities can be pretty hard on a lawn. What you may not realize though is that fall, on the other hand provides the lawn a time of recuperation, re-growth and food storage, as it prepares to enter winter dormancy. Taking advantage of the grass’s natural tendencies to restore itself during the fall can yield greater results than any other season of the year.

Clean-up, patch-up, aerate, fertilize, water and winterize are what you should consider doing over the next few months; however, when to schedule them will depend upon whether you have a warm- or cool-season lawn. The Lawn Institute recommends that in most locations you will want to begin these steps after the weather turns markedly cooler, and have them completed well before the first hard freeze of winter. (Any important differences between warm- and cool-season grasses will be noted throughout this article.)

For those of you are have only limited time, the following list in presented in the order of importance…first things first!

Clean-up fall leaves and other yard debris on a regular basis throughout the fall because even a thin layer of wet leaves on top of grass blocks out much needed sunlight and smothers the grass. A layer of leaves can also serve as a home for grass damaging insects and it can encourage some lawn diseases.

With a sharp-bladed, mulching mower, you can chop-up a thin layer of fallen tree leaves and let them remain on the lawn, but if the leaf layer is more than an inch or so thick, attach a bag to the mower or rake the leaves and then mow. Be especially certain to get leaves out of low-areas or minor depressions in the grass because winter rains and snow melt will accumulate, creating a soggy mess of leaves that can kill the grass beneath.

Patch-up thin or worn-out areas with seed, plugs, sprigs or sod, using the same grass variety that dominates your current lawn. Because of cooler days, greater natural moisture and less competition from weeds, fall is the absolute best time of year to plant grass seed, plugs and sprigs, while sod can be installed practically year-round…even when the ground is frozen! Regardless of the establishment method used, good soil preparation is identical and necessary for success.

Small, low areas can be filled with a half-inch of quality top-soil that’s raked into the existing grass so it can still grow through the new soil. Bare areas should be cleared of all dead material and the soil worked up with a fork or spade and raked into a proper planting bed.

Also, keep in mind that saving a few dollars to buy less than superior planting material will usually yield less than satisfactory results. Later you’ll question why you did all of the proper labor steps only to have less quality than what you intended.

Aerate or De-Thatch the entire lawn to improve the penetration of water, water-borne nutrients. While aeration and de-thatching are two very different processes, most homeowners will choose one or the other; however, aeration is probably the more important and provides a greater return on the investment of time if you do it yourself or money if you have it done by a lawncare professional.

Aerating machines (available at most rental centers), pull 2-3 inch long plugs of grass and soil from the lawn, creating small openings that allow greater penetration of moisture and air and relieve compaction of the soil. Hollow-core tines are recommended because solid-tine aerators simply compact the area surrounding the tine to achieve an opening and the net result to the overall lawn approaches zero. Most lawns will benefit greatly by being aerated every-other year.

De-thatching should be performed on lawns that have greater than a half-inch of thatch build-up. Warm-season lawns are particularly prone to thatch build-up, as are lawns that receive excessive amounts of nitrogen fertilizer. Lawn clippings do not contribute to thatch. As with aerating machines, de-thatchers can be rented specifically for this purpose and probably do a better job and cause less damage than special blades attached to lawn mowers.

Fertilize the entire lawn with a product that is low in nitrogen and higher in phosphorus and potassium, taking care to time this application according to the type of grass you have. Cool-season grasses (bluegrass, rye, and fescue) should be fertilized approximately 30 days before the first hard freeze; while warm-season grasses (bermuda, centipede, St. Augustine and zoysia) should not be fertilized after October in most areas.

Nitrogen encourages leaf growth, making the plant lush and therefore susceptible to winter damage. Therefore, the percentage of fall applied nitrogen should be reduced. Phosphorus and potassium, on the other hand, encourages root growth, food storage and improved cold hardiness. Percentages of these two fertilizer components should be as high as possible.

Although the grass leaves, thatch and root system are highly effective at trapping and holding fertilizers, care should be taken when applying these materials to ensure that they are not spread on drive-ways, sidewalks or other hard surfaces or immediately before any expected heavy rains.

Watering is a very important aspect of fall lawn care, but because nature can usually be expected to provide an adequate supply in the fall and temperatures are cooler, applying water will be necessary only intermittently. The “one-inch-a-week” of water is still a solid rule of thumb during the fall for most areas; however, soil and grass types may call for an adjustment of how much water needs to be applied.

Fall is also an excellent time to initiate or continue a program of infrequent and deep watering to encourage deeper root development. While warm-season root growth is not as great in the fall as during summer, cool-season grasses produce a considerable amount of root during the fall. For any grass, fall is a time of year that deeper roots can be established for improved over-wintering and better spring green-up.

It is also important to keep in mind that even a dormant (brown or golden) lawn is still living and requires moisture to avoid deadly dehydration.

Lastly for this area, remember that automatic lawn watering systems should be reprogrammed to compensate for the lawn’s reduced applied water requirements, as compared to summer needs and program settings.

Winterizing lawn equipment in the fall will put you many steps ahead come next spring. After the last mowing of the year, either take your mower to a repair shop (which will be less busy now then in the spring) or perform the following steps yourself: clean and oil all metal surfaces, sharpen and balance the blade, change the oil and winterize the gas (either with special-purpose additives or by draining the tank of all gas).

Other lawn-care items to consider are grass bags, hoses and sprinklers. Bag attachments should be free of all debris and stored with the opening pointed downward to allow air movement and discourage small animals from building a winter home inside. Hoses and sprinklers should be free of dirt and drained to eliminate any water that might freeze inside and cause damage.

Published by The Lawn Institute