How to Make Your Fall Lawn Look Just Like Wrigley Field
Tips and insight from the manager of one of the most famous baseball fields in the country.
Everyone remembers their first time in the stands at a professional baseball game.
For me, it was when I was 8 or 9 years old. The Chicago White Sox were visiting the Baltimore Orioles in Camden Yards. With my hot dog and drink in hand, I walked through the tunnel to our seats and saw the bright green field. My eyes lit up. It was like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when the movie goes from black-and-white to color.
Since then, I've always been kind of obsessed with having a major league-quality yard. The only problem? I never really had a yard to call my own. Since I recently moved into a new home complete with a yard, and with cooler weather approaching (hopefully soon), I thought it was time to get schooled on fall lawn care. So, who better to ask than someone who actually maintains a baseball field for a living? And not just any baseball field either.
Get Started as Fall Arrives
When fall starts bringing on colorful autumn leaves, frost can’t be far behind. Whether you garden where winter is mild or where blizzards pile up the snow, take steps in early fall to prepare your lawn for cool weather. Giving your grass some autumn TLC ensures you’ll be seeing healthy green come spring.
Adjust Mower Height
Don’t scalp warm-season grasses as cooler weather arrives. This includes St. Augustine, Bermuda, centipede and zoysia grass. Raise the mower one-half to one inch during fall. This helps the grass increase leaf area. More leaf area capturing sunlight leads to more stored food in grass roots as winter arrives. The lawn will also become more dense as leaf area expands, which helps prevent weeds from establishing during the grass’s dormant season.
Fertilize Cool-Season Grass
Most lawn care professionals recommend fertilizing cool-season turf once per year—in fall. This typically means October or November in cold-winter areas. Get your fertilizer down before grass blades start to discolor with the arrival of cold air. Feeding in fall fuels leaf blade development, which results in more food stores in grass roots. Those food stores help grass survive winter and are responsible for a quick green-up in spring. Check with your local extension office to discover fertilizer timing for your region.
Deal With Weeds
Get a jump on perennial cool-season weeds, like dandelion and henbit, by treating lawns with a pre-emergent herbicide in early fall. This trick works well in cool-season lawns. Treating in fall prevents seeds that dropped onto the lawn in early summer (before temps soared) from sprouting. It helps reduce the number of weeds you’ll see next spring.
Stay on top of leaves through autumn. Don’t allow leaves to accumulate and lay on your lawn for more than a few days, or you risk damaging grass blades. This is especially important for turf that’s still actively growing in fall. You want leaf blades to receive as much sunlight as possible so grass can store heavy food reserves in roots. That’s the secret to ensuring grass survives through winter.
Forget the manual labor of raking and try mowing fallen leaves. Use a mulching mower and you can let leaf pieces lie. Or, attach the grass catcher to collect chopped leaves for the compost pile or mulching planting beds. Leaves mow best when they’re dry. You can also rake leaves out from around shrubs onto the lawn so they’re accessible for mowing.
The best time to aerate grass is just before it enters its most active growth phase. For warm-season grasses, the timing is late spring-early summer. For cool-season grass, it’s early fall. Aerate so that grass will have at least four weeks to recover and grow before frost arrives. If possible, spread fall fertilizer on cool-season lawns shortly after aerating. It helps fuel recovery growth in the lawn.
The best way to aerate a lawn is with core aeration, where you physically pull small plugs of soil from the lawn. Some lawn mowers have an aerator attachment, or you might rent an aerator for this task. If you go the renting route, have help handy. Maybe split the cost with a neighbor. The machine is heavy and requires strength to move and operate. For small lawns, try a manual aerator.
Overseed With Ryegrass
If you want to keep your zoysia lawn green through winter dormancy, overseed with annual ryegrass. Avoid using perennial ryegrass. The annual type dies out as summer heat arrives, while the perennial type keeps growing—and might outcompete your desired turf grass for water and nutrients. Before overseeding, ask yourself which you can’t stand more: the sight of a dormant lawn or more months of (ryegrass) mowing chores.
Revisit and revise lawn irrigation schedules. This is especially important if you have an automated irrigation system and fall brings rains to your region. Once lawns are dormant for winter, grass doesn’t need irrigated. Where lawns stay green, lower fall and winter temperatures reduce turf’s water needs. Cutting back on lawn irrigation conserves water and also saves you money. Continue to water newly seeded lawn areas or sod until grass is actively growing.
Lower the Mower Before Snow
In coldest regions where snow piles up on the lawn, lower the mower for a final cutting before the snow starts flying. Your goal is to get grass short so it won’t develop snow mold. Cut grass as short as 1 inch. Use the grass catcher for this mowing to collect any debris, leaves and weed seed pods. Before you stow the mower for winter, raise the height to a normal setting so you don’t scalp grass in spring.
Justin Spillman is the manager for Wrigley Field Playing Surface. For those who may not follow baseball, Wrigley Field is arguably the most iconic ballpark in the country and home to the World Series champion Chicago Cubs.
As the Cubs marched towards their first championship in 108 years, the players weren't the only ones under pressure to perform. The field maintenance can actually give the home team an advantage by cutting the grass shorter and putting more moisture on the clay to slow down a fast team. "We're [the grounds crew] the 10th person on the field for the team," says Spillman, who feels the pressure in terms of sod coming up or a ball taking a bad hop off the field. "I just sit there and watch every play and in the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'that's all my responsibility.'"
Spillman works with a crew of about nine to maintain every inch of the playing surface. The grass, which is a four-blend Oregon bluegrass grown in Wisconsin, keeps its green color throughout the long baseball season, thanks to constant fertilization.
"A good fertility program is the key to a green field," says Spillman, who starts in the spring and treats the field every 10 to 14 days throughout the season. "Most homeowners can't fertilize as often because they have clay-based soil and it doesn't percolate as well as Wrigley Field," he adds. The Cubs play on a 100 percent sand-based field (similar to the greens on professional golf courses) that has irrigation underneath that sprays the grass, ivy and warning track.
During the hot summer months, Spillman pumps the grounds with moisture to keep the roots alive, but as cooler weather approaches, Spillman weans off irrigation to avoid suffocating the grass with too much moisture, which can lead to yellow spots.
But you don't have to host a professional baseball team to have a beautiful fall yard. Here are Spillman's top tips for homeowners looking to prep their lawns for autumn:
Aerate. This relieves the compaction from the soil.
De-Thatch. The thatch will hold moisture over the winter and can cause disease in the spring.
Fill in Low Areas. Level them out with top soil and, then reseed them.
Fertilize. This keeps grass green and vibrant.
Apply Weed Control. Liquid weed killers can be helpful for returning pest plants, but don't apply in areas where you'll be reseeding. Some weed killers can keep new seeds from sprouting.
If your lawn has sections that are worn out from summer activities, there's a quick fix for that. Spillman uses a sand/seed mixture to regenerate areas that have been beat up by the players, but he recommends homeowners use a topsoil/seed mixture and spread by hand.
Lastly, if you really want that major-league-ballpark look, you have to have the striping effect, and it's pretty easy to do at home. The trick? Pull the grass away or towards the sunlight depending on the look you're going for. "I've seen people drag a tire or some kind of weighted pipe behind their mower," says Spillman. At Wrigley Field, it takes three to five days to wipe out a pattern and lay a new one down.
With these tips, your lawn will be ready for 'October' (and beyond).