Fall lawn care 101.  (© George Doyle/Stockbyte)Click to enlarge picture

Fall lawn care 101.

When it comes to lawn care, people tend to think in terms of spring and summer. As soon as the weather turns warm and the grass starts growing, they break out the spreader, the mower and related gear and get to work. What they fail to realize is that not only can they repair summer damage to the lawn in the fall and over the winter, but that they can actually improve the lawn so it will be healthier and have fewer weeds in the spring. For a few quick pointers on this, Popular Mechanics spoke with Ashton Ritchie, a lawn-care expert, author, agronomist and employee of Scotts lawn-care products for nearly three decades.

What is the most important thing a person can do in the fall to see the lawn through the winter and prepare it for next spring?
Feeding is the most important thing you can do for your lawn this fall. Many folks who feed their lawn for the first time in fall remark, "I can't believe the difference in my lawn!" the following spring.

At first, a lot of the improvement in your lawn will be dramatic, as you see recovery from summer damage. But don't stop there. The real improvement comes with the second feeding in late fall. This second fall feeding helps to lock in the early fall gains in turf vitality and carry them forward into next spring.

This late-fall winterizing gives your grass everything it needs to prepare for winter. The roots will absorb and store these vital nutrients. The grass will continue underground root development until the ground freezes solid. Once spring arrives, the grass plant will quickly tap this stored-up nutrition to stimulate growth and burst into a vibrant, deep green lawn. In fact, a lawn fed twice in the fall will be the first to green up in spring.

What is the most common mistake that people make in preparing their lawn for winter?
Homeowners make three common mistakes: 

  • They let the grass starve, thereby letting the lawn go into the winter without the kind of nourishment that can really build up the roots.
     
  • They allow tree leaves to smother the grass, robbing the lawn of the sunlight it needs for photosynthesis.
     
  • They discontinue mowing. Grass should be mowed until it stops growing. Maintain the same mower height setting throughout the fall. Don't be tempted to mow the grass short going into winter.

Is there anything about leaf removal or mulching that can improve or harm a lawn?
If leaves are quite heavy, and you are using a mulching mower, you might consider depositing the grass clippings and chopped up leaves on your compost pile rather than letting them sit on your lawn. This will help keep the clumps of chopped leaves from smothering the grass.

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Is potassium the key to seeing the lawn through the winter? For example, I've noticed that Scott's Winterizer (22-3-14) has a high amount of potassium (14) compared to spring fertilizers.
Scotts Winterizer is high in nitrogen [the first number] and potassium [the last number]. These are the most important nutrients for fall feeding. They work together to nourish the grass plant during that important root-growth period in fall. The phosphorus [the middle number] is the lowest, as mature grass plants do not require much phosphorus. [Note: When seeding, you should use a special starter-type fertilizer that is high in phosphorus.]

Here's an extra tip: Spend a buck or two more for a higher-quality fertilizer. There is a big difference in how fertilizers work, even if they have the same nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium [N-P-K] numbers on the bag.

Are there other tips that you can give our readers about regarding fall watering, dethatching and aerating?
Fall is a great time to go after weeds like clover, ground ivy and dandelions. In fact, you can save time by using a special winterizer weed and feed instead of regular winterizer. Just be sure to apply your weed and feed to moist foliage on a day when rain is not forecast for 24 hours. You will find that come spring your lawn will be virtually free of broadleaf weeds like dandelions.

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Also, lawns need about an inch of water a week to thrive. If you are not getting enough rainfall, you may need to water your lawn. Tip: Use a rain gauge to determine how much rainfall you are receiving and how long you should run your sprinklers. It's best to apply a half-inch of water when irrigating to get the water down deep.

Finally, aerate the lawn if you find that it has more than a half-inch of thatch. [Cut a test plug from your lawn and measure the brown, dead material that is between the roots and the green growth.] Aerating will help the thatch to decompose and will open the soil to more oxygen. Leave the plugs on the lawn surface where they can break down.

For more information, visit the Scotts Web site or call the company at 888-270-3714.

By Roy Berendsohn, Popular Mechanics