Ask A Master Gardener – Fall Lawn Care

Authored by: Carol Shirk

There is a tendency, when fall approaches, to be tired of mowing the lawn and just neglect any further turf care. However, according to Doug Soldat, UW Turf Specialist, fall is actually the perfect time to give some extra attention to the area and, as a consequence, be in great shape for next season.

If you have any bare spot larger than a dinner plate, think about reseeding it. You want to get this done mid to late September or you risk the seedlings dying. Look for grass seed that has a high percentage of fine fescue and Kentucky bluegrass for best results; keep annual and perennial rye grasses to a minimum. Loosen the soil with a rake so that you have good seed to soil contact and add some soil amendment like compost. Work the amendment in well, then add a layer of starter fertilizer. Add the seed and rake it in so that it is mixed with the top one quarter to one half inch of soil. Put a light layer of mulch, but don’t bury it. You should be able to see about fifty percent of the soil peeking through the mulch.

Previously, most specialists believed a final fertilization was appropriate up until Halloween. However, more recent research has concluded that it gets too cold for good nitrogen uptake that late in the season. So, shoot for closer to the first week of October for your last application of fertilizer. This late season fertilization helps the turf recover from the stress of the hot summer, promotes root growth and development of new leaf shoots from buds which will begin to grow the following spring.

Broadleaf weed control can be done all through the month of October. In the fall, broadleaf weeds are transporting food (carbohydrates) from their leaves to their roots in preparation for the winter. By applying broadleaf herbicides in the fall, they get transported along with the carbohydrates, resulting in death to the weed. As always, read and follow all label directions and wear appropriate personal protection gear when dealing with chemicals.

One important and often neglected practice, is to promptly get the leaves off of the turf, especially in shaded areas. Fall is a great time for grass to absorb the sun that the trees usually block, but it is difficult to do so if the leaves are laying on top of it.

As mowing continues in the fall, keep the mower deck at 2.5 to 3.5 inches. At one time it was considered a good practice to lower the deck for the final mowing, however that is no longer considered ideal. Never cut more than one third of the grass blade off at a time. Removing more than one third exposes the turf to environmental stresses, pest damage, and exposes the soil to light which promotes weed germination.

One of the most important practices for lawn care is to keep the mower blades sharp. Dull blades tear rather than cut the grass, leaving frayed tips on each grass blade. These frayed tips lose moisture more rapidly, leading to turf diseases and pest problems. When the mowing season is over, usually around Halloween, take the blades off the mower and have them sharpened so that they are ready to go for the next year.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener


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