By Matt Morrison
Hemingway once said, “America is the land of wide lawns and narrow minds.” Now, I don’t know about narrow minds, but we definitely love our lawns. Fall is one of the most important times of the year to perform lawn care maintenance.
The process you need to follow will vary with the type of turf on your lawn. The two main types of turf grasses are cool season and warm season. The main difference is that cool season grasses require regular maintenance throughout the fall and winter seasons, while warm season grasses need to be prepped for the following spring. Common cool season grasses are ryegrasses, fescues, bluegrasses, and bentgrasses. Common warm season grasses include St. Augustinegrass, Bermudagrass, Zoysiagrass, and Buffalograss. If you are unsure what type you have on your lawn, you can take a sample to your local county extension and find out which type you have. The most important thing to remember is that maintenance doesn’t end when the grass stops growing.
The process of fall lawn care consists of the following steps:
- Test Your Soil
- Apply Herbicides for Weed Control
- Seed or Sod
- Remove Leaves and Thatch
- Maintain Equipment
Test Your Soil
Knowing your grass and soil variety will lay a solid foundation for your lawn care regime. The first thing you should do this season is perform a soil test to determine levels of nutrients, pH and other factors that affect the growth of your lawn. These results will help you understand what your soil needs this fall. If you need to reduce the acidity in your soil, you should apply lime. If alkalinity should be reduced, then you should apply sulfur. The Cooperative Extension Service of state universities will usually perform a soil test for a reasonable fee. You can contact them or a local service to determine how you should collect samples and where to send them.
Apply Herbicides for Weed Control
Many broadleaf weeds start to show their ugly faces in the fall. Dandelions, plantain, clover and creeping charlie are just some of the perennial weeds that come out to play. If the weeds are spread out and few in number, you can spot treat them with an herbicide. Spray container products make it easy to do spot treatments. You should complete this task while temperatures are still above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure you carefully evaluate the number and types of weeds in your lawn. It is not necessary to apply herbicides over your entire lawn unless there is significant infestation. Don’t worry about crabgrass and other annual weed-like grasses. These are controlled more effectively in the spring.
Even though temperatures are cooler and the growth of your grass is slowing down, the lawn still needs to be watered. This is often one of the most neglected areas of fall lawn care. Visions of cool fall and winter weather often cause lawn owners to take a vacation and forget about their lawns. But, you should continue to water until the ground is cold and freezing temperatures are on the horizon. If you have an automatic sprinkler system, you will need to use compressed air to blow out the pipes and sprinkler heads before damage occurs from a freeze.
If you are a lawn fanatic like me, you can make two applications of fertilizer, once now and another in the late stages of fall (late October/ early November). This will provide nutrients to your lawn over a longer growth period. Late season fertilizing often causes lawns to be the first to grow in the spring. However, the longer you wait to fertilize, the less likely it is to be beneficial. When in doubt, simply skip the final application. If your soil test indicates that your lawn has a shortage of phosphorus, then you may consider using a ‘winterizing’ type of fertilizer. Otherwise, leftover spring fertilizer or a weed and feed fertilizer is sufficient. One final thing to avoid is slow-release fertilizers. During this time of year, soil has a lower level of microbial activity which means it takes longer to break down fertilizer and make its nutrients available to the grass.
You should continue to mow your lawn throughout the fall until growth stops. It is important to keep your grass 2″ to 2 – 1/2″ tall during fall. If your grass gets too long, it will mat and risk lawn diseases like snow mold. However, if you cut it too short (less than 2″), you can diminish the lawn’s ability to make and store food for growth in the spring.
Seed or Sod
This is not always a necessary lawn care practice, but this time of year is the best time to establish or repair a lawn by seeding or sodding. Seeding and sodding should be completed as soon as possible before really cold weather sets in. If you are overseeding your lawn, you need to rake up debris and dethatch your lawn if thatch is thicker than half an inch. This ensures that the grass seed will be as close to the soil as possible. You should also aim to keep the soil moist for a few weeks while the seeds are germinating.
Remove Leaves and Thatch
When leaves begin to fall in autumn, it is important to remove them before a thick layer forms that can smother the grass. Simply raking often removes thatch from your lawn, but in bad cases of soil compaction, you may need to get a lawn aerator to perform core aeration. If you have the funds, and you’re serious about lawn care, you may want to buy an aerator. Otherwise, you can simply rent one at a local hardware or garden supply store.
Lawn care equipment requires constant maintenance throughout, but the fall season involves a more thorough maintenance process. Upkeep can save you tons of money and heartache in the long run. Fall is a great time to perform an oil change on your mower. You should also drain the gas from your mower or add a gas stabilizer. Consult your manual before using a stabilizer, because it may void your warranty.
Remove the mower’s spark plug with a spark-plug wrench. Lubricate the spark-plug cylinder with a teaspoon of oil through its hole. Install a new spark plug, but keep the spark-plug wire disconnected. Grease where necessary, especially the rear height-adjuster on a self-propelled mower.
You should check your blade and the bolts on the unit to ensure tightness. You should also inspect and possibly sharpen your mower blade. After you have completed these steps, store the mower in a clean, dry place away from any possible ignition sources.
Following the fall lawn care practices outlined in this article will prepare your lawn for winter and reward you with a healthy, thriving lawn in the spring.