By: Jackie Carroll
Lawn care doesn’t stop when the grass stops growing. Read on to find out how to take care of grass in fall.
When temperatures cool and the blades of grass stop growing, the roots of the turfgrass continue to grow. That’s why grass care in fall includes watering and fertilization to provide the nutrients and moisture the lawn needs to develop strong roots and build a reserve of energy.
You can use a hand-held spreader to fertilize a small lawn, but you’ll have better control and apply the fertilizer more evenly if you use a walk-behind spreader. Read the fertilizer package instructions and follow them carefully. Make sure you set your equipment to deliver the correct amount. This is one of those cases where more is definitely not better.
Fall is also the best time to apply a broadleaf lawn or moss herbicide should this be necessary.
Lawn care during fall includes lawn repair. Fix bald spots with seeds to match the type of grass or a lawn repair mixture. If you’ve planted a warm season grass, it will brown during the winter. If you don’t want to look at an amber lawn until spring, overseed it with perennial ryegrass.
Raking leaves is a fall lawn care task that few people look forward too, but it’s one of the most important things you’ll do for your lawn. Leaving the leaves on the grass blocks sunlight and encourages diseases. Remember, your grass isn’t dead, it’s just resting, and it need lots of sunlight. Blowing is easier than raking, but hard raking with a spring-tine lawn rake is good for the lawn because it loosens thatch and scratches the soil. Don’t wait until all of the leaves have fallen. Rain and morning dew stick the leaves together, forming a thick mat that is difficult to loosen and rake.
And while we’re talking about thatch and soil, dethatching and aerating are also critical parts of lawn care in autumn. In most cases, you’ll only need to do this every two years. You can aerate small lawns with a border fork or hollow tiner, pushing them deep into the soil. For a large lawn, you’ll need to rent a gas-powered, walk-behind aerator. They can be expensive, and you may come out ahead hiring a landscaping company to do the job.
This article was last updated on
Read more about General Lawn Care
When the worst of the summer heat subsides, you're poised to roll up your sleeves and do some fall lawn care. However, the regimen right for your situation will vary based on whether your lawn is composed of warm-season or cool-season turf grass. If you are unsure which type your lawn is made of, take a sample to your local county extension.
Cool-season turf grasses are called such because they thrive in the cool weather usually associated with spring and autumn. Examples of cool-season turf grasses include rye grass, the fescues (both "fine" and "tall" kinds), Kentucky blue grass, and bent grass. By contrast, warm-season turf grasses grow most actively when the weather is warm, which is why they are the preferred grass types of southern U.S. state. Examples include Bermuda grass, Saint Augustine grass, zoysia grass, and buffalo grass.
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Proper lawn care in fall, including mowing, fertilizer, and watering, will help it survive winter in good health. It will be able to resist diseases and weeds better next season, and to start off next year in good shape.
As long as the grass is growing, keep mowing, and mow at the proper height. This is often the most misunderstood and abused part of lawn care. Most grasses should be mowed at 2 to 2-1/2 inches high in spring and fall, and 3 to 4 inches high in the heat of summer. The last mowing of the season can be on the short side, about 2 inches high. This will help prevent the grass packing as much under snow, making it susceptible to leaf diseases such as snow mold.
Another aspect of mowing height is not to cut off more than one third at any mowing. So if the grass gets too tall, decrease the height to the ideal in a couple of mowings, the first being higher. This way you won't have an excess of long grass clippings that may cause thatch, and you can leave them on the lawn-- a good practice as these recycle nutrients and organic matter back into the soil.
Higher mowing is important to grass for at least two main reasons. More leaf area on grass plants means they'll be able to make more carbohydrates needed for healthy growth. There is a direct relationship too between the amount of tops and roots. The more tops to the grass plant means more and deeper roots, which in turn means the grass can better withstand stresses.
It is important to send the grass into the winter as healthy as possible, which means that adding fertilizer in early fall is important in fact, this is perhaps the most important fertilizer application during the growing season. Add about one pound of actual nitrogen per 1000 square feet of lawn. So if a fertilizer is 10 percent nitrogen, you would add 10 pounds of this product over each 1000 square feet (5 pounds of a 20 percent fertilizer). You'll want a quick release fertilizer so the grass can take it up before winter. Most of slow release fertilizers will be lost in the soil (or worse into watersheds) over winter when the grass isn't growing.
If you haven't tested your soil before, or in a few years, now is a good time. The results will tell you if any other fertility or lime is needed. As many soils become more acidic over time, lime is often needed to keep the soil acidity or pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Add lime in the fall as it is slow acting, and its effect won't be fully realized until spring. Soil test kits are available from many full-service garden stores and your local university Extension offices.
In addition to proper mowing and fertility, watering is key to helping your lawn go into winter healthy and without stress. If rain is infrequent or too light, make sure the lawn receives at least an inch of water a week. This is where an inexpensive rain gauge from a garden or hardware store comes in handy. Or you can get a more elaborate wireless rain gauge from complete garden suppliers. Often during a rainy spell you may think you're getting more rain than really is falling.
If you've been using the lawn during the growing season, with lots of foot traffic, play, or even driving on it, the soil is likely compacted and could benefit from aeration. This simply involves penetrating the surface with holes so air, water, and nutrients can reach the roots. One simple method is to use "aeration spikes" you can buy in garden stores and catalogs that slip onto the bottom of your shoes. As you walk on a lawn these break through the compacted surface. Or you can rent a special aerator machine from rental firms, or hire a professional lawn
Once aerated, or if the soil is fine without this, overseed if your lawn is weak and needs a bit more grass. Buy a good grass seed blend of varieties, scatter it as needed over a sparse lawn or bare spots, and water in. Grass seeds get established more quickly during the cool fall than hot summer, and now when pressure from weed competition is low.
Another misunderstood part of lawns relates to thatch-- a mat of living and dead stems and roots on the surface that slows water, nutrients, and air from entering the root zone. This is not caused by short grass clippings, but often by improper culture or environmental conditions. If this thatch layer is more than an inch thick, consider renting a dethatcher machine, or hiring a lawn care professional to help with this.
If you have broadleaf weeds, spot treat or dig out. There are special tools just for the deep roots of dandelions. I have a friend who plants a sprig of thyme in each hole made where a dandelion root was dug. This will create a nice aroma over time as you walk through the lawn. There is no need to use a general herbicide product now, as many work on grass seeds which aren't growing, and it may kill lawn grass seeds you put down.
Once you reach the end of grass growing and mowing season, early October in colder areas and later in warmer ones, make sure you keep leaves raked up as they fall. Otherwise these will smother the grass. Use your leaves for compost, or for mulching beds. Many like to run over them first with a mower to shred them, or put them through a shredder that you can buy just for garden clippings and leaves. I pile mine on a future garden area, covered with some poultry wire to keep them from blowing away. As they break down they'll make great organic soil.
Fall is the absolute best time of year for aeration, overseeding, adding compost, and fertilizer if necessary. Lawn care at this time of year is crucial for the success of your lawn the following spring. Warm days and cool nights provide ideal conditions for grass seed germination for our region’s fescue, bluegrass, and ryegrass lawns. When the weather cools down, growth happens in the soil with the grass roots, instead of on top of the soil with the grass blades. Turf grass roots store food during the winter months. When spring rolls around, your lawn has the nutrients it needs to produce a lush green hue. There is usually no need to fertilize in the spring
The first step in improving your lawn should always be a soil test. This very cost-effective diagnosis of your soil’s fertility and pH status is quite often the answer to the question of why your turf is failing. Soil test paperwork can be picked up at several major plant nurseries in the area. It costs $10 to mail your sample to Virginia Tech (VT). Or you can contact the Prince William Master Gardener office and request a Master Gardener come to your home and collect the sample for you. This costs $40 with all of the funds going to VT. The soil test will tell you if your lawn needs more compost, fertilizer, or lime. Most of the soil in our area is very acid, and probably requires supplemental lime. Fall is the ideal time to make a lime application because it takes weeks to months for your lawn to fully realize the benefits of the treatment. You should only add fertilizer if the results of your soil test specifically state your turf needs fertilizer. Otherwise you are wasting your money and that fertilizer you put on your grass is just going to run off and end up in our local ponds/creeks and eventually the Chesapeake Bay, and the Chesapeake Bay is where most of our drinking water comes from.
You should also think about aeration every few years. This helps with the natural compaction of our Virginia clay lawns. Overseeding is a great option after aeration. Some homeowners even spot overseed in specific locations every year. I think adding compost is the absolute best thing you can do for your lawn at any time. If you don’t have time to do anything else – add compost. It is like dessert for your lawn. It builds soil structure and provides slow release nutrients for your grass. Compost compost compost!
Fall is also a great time to plant some Virginia native shrubs as it’s when we usually have dependable rainfall, cooler weather, and fewer disease problems. In addition, many shrubs are on sale at nurseries, which makes fall planting better for your wallet. Some favorite native Virginia recommendations that will look awesome next year include: Virginia Sweet Spire, Buttonbush, and Winterberry.
As mentioned above, keep an eye out for nests and hives. Likewise, clean up areas where little pesky pests can take refuge in the winter and make sure to declutter your lawn because pests can use loose twigs and leaves to create new homes.
Lawn care experts in VA also recommend trimming trees and shrubs in the fall because a lot of winter rodents and ants can take refuge in your home.
They may use tree branches or overgrowth as bridges into your warm house.
Mow lawn at a lower setting of your mower so that the lawn is two inches or less in height. Go over the area that needs to be replanted twice if necessary, bagging clippings or raking clippings up afterward.
After mowing the grass short, dethatch lawn or rake thatch out by hand with a stiff iron rake in order to get as much dead or flattened grass as possible out of the lawn. Remove any weeds or roots that are in the grass.
Place Kellogg Garden Organics Topper Soil for Lawns, Sod & Seed on top of mowed grass. Spread out evenly across the lawn to be about ¼” to ½” deep. Make sure the area is raked smooth.
Water the soil for 15 minutes with a sprinkling system so that the grass is thoroughly soaked. This will help the seed adhere to the soil.
Lay seed over the damp soil according to package directions. In this case, I am using Eco Lawn, which is a special drought-tolerant grass which requires minimal mowing and maintenance compared to traditional grass and is perfect for an organic gardening situation as it needs far less watering, mowing, and fertilizer. An optional step would be to roll over the soil and seed with a roller if you have access to this tool so that you push the grass seed firmly into the soil.
Water the soil for approximately 30 minutes per morning or the length of time it takes to moisten the soil down one inch with a sprinkling system. If it is particularly hot and dry, water a second time around 3 PM. Never water after 5 pm because standing water can cause puddling overnight and that can create conditions for fungal growth. In Northern climates, you should only need to water like this for one month. However, for hot and drought inclined climates you might have to water daily for considerably longer in order to establish grass in extreme conditions.
Fixing your lawn in the fall is a simple process with Kellogg Garden Organics Topper Soil for Lawns, Sod & Seed and a good grass seed. The above topdressing process took me about an hour to complete, which is much faster than weeding the rest of my garden. My quick guide on how to apply soil and seed to repair a lawn in fall will make it an easy fall project. Happy Organic Gardening from the Kellogg Garden Products family!
Lastly, remember that late September through October is the best time to work on weed control. Spraying for weeds in the warmer summer months increases the chances of damaging your lawn.
By setting aside a little bit of time in the fall to dethatch, aerate, and seed your lawn, you can help your lawn through the winter, and have it come back even better in the spring.
For more information and details about these yard maintenance tips, check out these links:
Alannah Sperr, Wright County Extension intern