Autumn is in full swing and winter will be here before we know it. While you’re busy whipping your home into shape – tuning up the furnace, checking the insulation, bringing out the storm windows, and cleaning the ducts – don’t forget to prepare your yard, too. Follow these steps to ensure a lush lawn next spring:
Cool Season Grasses
Cool season grasses such as fescue, ryegrass, bluegrass and bentgrass are hardy enough to withstand winter’s cold and snow. Without large amounts of water, they usually enter into a semi-dormant state in the high heat of summer, and revive with the cooler weather of autumn. These are the grasses that benefit from a good winterizing program. Although growth may slow somewhat in autumn, cool season grasses are actually busy building energy resources for winter. Here are a few tips to help your lawn get through winter’s icy blast and emerge in spring looking better than ever:
– Weed. Pull the dandelions and other broadleaf weeds to prevent them from stealing all of the available nutrients and water from your lawn. Eradicate weeds that are forming seed heads so that they don’t reseed themselves in your turf.
– Minimize the thatch layer. Thatch is composed of organic matter that is slow to decay. If the thatch layer is too thick, it will affect grass health. Raking will help control thatch. You can also aerate your lawn in autumn (or in spring) to reduce the thatch layer, improve drainage and air circulation, and minimize soil compaction. Aeration will also assist in the uptake of nutrients.
– Deal with the fallen leaves. You can either remove the leaves altogether and compost them (or utilize them as mulch in your garden beds), or you can use the mulching blade on your lawn mower and chip them into small pieces that can remain on the lawn. A heavy leaf layer can be detrimental to lawn health.
– Sow seeds. It may seem strange to plant grass just before freeze-up, but broadcasting grass seed over your lawn is one of the most important things you can do to give your turf a leg up in the spring. Use a spreader to distribute the seed evenly.
– Water. If there is no rain in the forecast around the time you plant your grass seeds, a deep watering will be necessary. You can water right up until the ground freezes.
– Check your soil’s pH. If your soil is too acidic, amend the soil with lime. Turfgrasses generally prefer to grow with a soil pH hovering near neutral.
– Feed. At this time of year, use a fertilizer high in potassium (the third number on the fertilizer bag). Potassium increases the cold tolerance of cool-weather grasses. If you do not wish to use synthetic fertilizers, a spray of compost tea will do the trick. Always apply fertilizer according to the rates listed on the package; never use more than recommended, as it may burn the leaves of your plants.
– Mind your mowing. Cropping your lawn too short in autumn may stress the plants. Long grass can also be a problem: matted lengths of wet grass can promote molds and other diseases in spring, and it may provide winter habitation to unwanted animal pests such as voles and mice. Raise your mower blades slightly higher than your usual summer height — the extra leaf length helps with production of the food stores grass needs to survive the winter. If you have a mower capable of mulching, you can leave the grass clippings on the lawn for added cold-weather protection and nutrition.
– Prevent lawn problems once freeze-up and snowfall occur. Do not walk or park on your frozen lawn to reduce the chance of winter kill. Ice melting salts can do extensive damage to your lawn. Be careful when applying salts to your driveway and sidewalk so that the chemicals do not leach onto your turf, or use a more environmentally-friendly product such as coarse sand.
In some regions, grasses such as Bermuda, St. Augustine and zoysia slow their growth and enter dormancy during the winter. Winterizing the lawn in warm climates is not as necessary as it is in colder parts of the country, but there are still some steps you can take to keep your lawn in tip-top shape:
– Do not use “winterizing” fertilizers. Like cool-season grasses, warm-season varieties need potassium, but it should be applied in the spring as part of a balanced nutrition program. (If a soil test shows that your lawn is deficient in potassium, amendments are acceptable). Fertilizing warm-season grasses when they are ready to go dormant is not recommended. To prepare the lawn for winter dormancy, stop fertilizing with high nitrogen fertilizers in late summer.
– Keep your lawn tidy and healthy during the winter. Weed and remove or mulch fallen leaves as necessary. Amend your soil with lime if a soil test indicates that it is too acidic.
– Green your lawn. Although your warm-season grasses will stop growing and may turn brown during winter, you can maintain lush green growth by seeding your lawn in autumn with cool-season grasses such as fescues.