Caring for Your Lawn in Fall and Winter
Master gardener Paul James shares tips for seeding, watering, mowing and more.
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Master gardener Paul James re-seeded his entire lawn with 500 pounds of fescue, the preferred cool-season grass for his area. Ten days after that, he sowed another 100 pounds to fill in bare spots and areas where coverage was less than ideal. Once the grass was up and growing, James allowed it to reach a height of about four inches, before mowing it to a height of three inches. "And now," James says, "I'm pleased with the look of my lawn. It's lush and healthy and ready for winter."
But reaching lawn nirvana doesn't mean you can now ignore your verdant lawn. In the fall, perhaps more than ever, it needs your attention.
One of the most important considerations when caring for grass is water. After sowing grass seed, water frequently but shallowly to keep the seed evenly moist. "More specifically, I set my sprinklers to spray 10 minutes twice a day: once in the morning and again in the afternoon."
James also carefully times the afternoon watering so that the grass blades don't remain moist overnight, which minimizes the threat of fungal disease. However, once the grass is up and growing, it's time to revert to his preferred method of watering--deep soaking. In his case, that means turning on the sprinklers every four to five days for up to 45 minutes at a time. This allows the water to penetrate deep into the sub-soil and root zone of the grass, six inches deep.
"And believe it or not," James adds, "I'll water my lawn every now and then even during the winter months, especially if it's a cold dry winter, or if it's warmer than usual." Keep in mind that cool-season grasses such as fescue, rye or even bluegrass don't necessarily go completely dormant during the winter months. So it's a good idea to water them every now and then on a mild day when there's no threat of a hard freeze overnight.
James shares other fall lawn-care tips:
Fertilize. Fall is a great time to fertilize turfgrasses--both warm-season varieties, at least while they're still green, and cool-season varieties. The type of fertilizer you choose is extremely important, whether organic or synthetic. James recommends fertilizer that contains no more than 20 percent nitrogen. "And frankly, I prefer those that contain less than half that amount. Too much nitrogen can lead to rapid growth and winter injury, which is why for the past 25 years, I've used an all-natural product that contains just 6 percent nitrogen, 2 percent phosphorous, no potassium, and 4 percent iron."
Adjust cutting height. Cut your grass higher, especially during fall and winter months. Generally speaking, a grass root system grows about as deep as the grass blades are tall, and a deeper root system always results in a healthier lawn. It's never too late to let the grass grow taller. Raise the deck height of your mower each time you mow until you reach the desired height, which should be at least two inches for warm-season grasses and three to four inches for cool-season grasses. James recommends allowing the grass to grow even a little taller in densely shaded areas.
Remove fallen leaves. If you have lots of deciduous trees on your property or if your neighbors do, chances are you're going to be spending a lot of time dealing with fallen leaves. It's essential to control fallen leaves because they can smother turfgrasses, especially on newly seeded lawns. Moreover, matted leaves left on the lawn can lead to all kinds of insect and disease problems.
Be careful to avoid uprooting tender young grass blades. "In my experience," says James, "a bamboo rake works best because it seems to do less damage than steel or plastic models." You can also use a blower, although they can be noisy, and unless your seed has germinated, you may wind up blowing seeds all over the place.
Your best bet, assuming all seeds have germinated, is a mulching mower, which has the power to shred leaves into tiny particles that decompose in the lawn and add organic matter and essential nutrients to the soil. Depending on the amount of leaves on your lawn and the horsepower of the motor, you may need to make two passes with the mulching mower to pick up all the leaves. But the benefits for the grass make the extra effort well worth it.
Minimize traffic on new lawns. Minimize foot traffic on a new lawn as well, at least until it has been mowed two or three times. Young grass blades are tender, and if they're trampled repeatedly during their first few weeks of growth, they may not recover. James has even gone so far as to tape off newly sown sections of turf to keep kids off the lawn. "OK, so this is a little extreme," he admits, "but after spending a good 40 hours and no small chunk of change renovating my entire lawn, I like to give my grass every possible chance to grow."
Also avoid walking on the lawn when it's iced over. Doing so can lead to considerable damage to the grass blades. And in the case of clumping grasses such as fescue and rye, the damage can be permanent.
And finally, keep in mind that even if your grass propagation results are less than ideal, you can always re-seed during the spring and summer months, and then you won't have things like ice and leaves to contend with.