Our recent hardy rains have lawns looking a lot healthier than they did during the drought, when grass turned brown and lawn mowers sat silent.
But don’t let looks fool you, say lawn care experts. Your lawn might be a nice shade of green and growing like crazy again, but it still needs your full attention before winter sets in.
Fall — when the air is cooler and the ground is still warm — is the best season to pamper lawns, says Phil Dwyer, lawn care expert with Scott’s Miracle-Gro in Marysville, OH.
You’ll get the most “bang for your buck” when you fertilize and seed before grass settles down for its long winter’s nap, he adds.
• Know your lawn. Most lawns are composed of tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass or ryegrass, says Dwyer. If you’re planning to seed bare spots in your lawn or seed the whole lawn, and you aren’t sure what type of grass you have, take a sample to the garden center for comparison.
The Ohio State University Extension has a turf grass selection guide.
• De-weed now. Fall is an excellent time to treat for weeds, Dwyer says. As weeds store nutrients and food resources to prepare for winter, they also absorb weed-killer deeper into their roots.
• Dethatch if the lawn needs it. Thatch is the layer of dead grass that settles between the soil surface and the grass foliage, according to Ohio State University Lawn Care Plans. Too much thatch interferes with nutrient and water absorption. To gauge thatch’s thickness, take a 6-inch plug of sod and soil from the lawn and measure the thickness of the packed thatch. If the thatch layer is more than half an inch thick, grass will struggle to grow.
• Get to the root of it. As the grass goes dormant, roots hoard nutrients for strength in preparing to come back bright green in the spring. Fall feedings aren’t for grass growing above ground but for bolstering roots before the soil freezes.
There are two optimal times to feed the lawn during fall, Dwyer says. The first time was around Labor Day. The second is around Halloween or early November, so it’s not too late to catch up.
“If you were to fertilize your lawn just once a year, this would be an excellent month,” write Denny McKeown and Thomas L. Smith, authors of the book “Month-by-Month Gardening in Ohio.” They recommend applying a high-nitrogen, quick-release fertilizer at the rate of 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet.
If you prefer an organic fertilizer, try compost, which provides a good balance of nutrients over a long period of time, advise Doug Oster and Jessica Walliser, authors of “Grow Organic — Over 250 Tips and Ideas for Growing Flowers, Veggies, Lawns and More.” Finely screened compost can be applied with a drop spreader or even with a shovel or pitchfork. The idea is to put down about quarter-inch of compost twice a year, scattered into the grass. If that sounds way too labor-intensive, try a granular organic fertilizer.
With organic pesticides and fertilizers it’s important to follow the labeling and know what sort of weed or pest you are trying to get rid of, says Jacqueline Kowalski, extension educator at Ohio State University’s Extension for Cuyahoga County. Many organic herbicides are nonselective, meaning these will damage all plants, not just the ones you are trying to get rid of, she adds. And the organic herbicide may work slower than you would like it to.
• Pay attention to moisture. Fall watering is dependent upon rainfall, Kowalski says. Although the evapo-transpiration rate may be lower, the grass is trying to recover from a very difficult summer and water is needed for this process. Water is also necessary for fall nitrogen and herbicide applications.
• Set the mower high. Continue to mow your lawn at the highest level until it stops growing, say lawn care experts.
• Leaves are good. If you can’t stand the sight of leaves covering your lawn, rake them. But fallen leaves nourish lawns. Toward the end of leaf fall, when the layer of leaves is thin, mow the lawn and leaves with a mulching mower, advise McKeown and Smith. This chops the leaves into fine organic matter that will mulch the grass for winter.