October 6, 2013

Maine Gardener: Feeling fallish? Your lawn is, too

By Tom Atwell

All of the experts say fall is the best time to work on your lawn -- whether you are trying to improve an existing lawn or to plant a new one. You still have two or three weeks to tackle such a project.

The simplest thing is fertilizing. A pamphlet published three years ago by the Maine Yardscaping Partnership said that lawns that are more than 10 years old probably do not need to be fertilized.

But if you are going to fertilize, you should do it only once or twice a year. If you do it once a year, it should be early to mid-fall, while the grass is still growing. And lawns in Maine do not need either phosphorous -- which causes algae in fresh water -- or potassium.

There is a caveat to that. If you get a soil test, and the test shows your lawn needs those two common fertilizer ingredients, then use it. But barring a soil test telling you otherwise, use a fertilizer rated as 19-0-0, and then use only half the amount of fertilizer recommended by the instructions.

I fertilize only in the fall for our lawns, but our lawns are hardly perfect. 

This spring, however, I did apply some corn gluten meal on our lawn as a pre-emergent weed control for crabgrass, plantain and dandelions.

I had limited success, with fewer of those weeds than we have had than in previous years. But I have since read that the ideal time to use corn-gluten meal is just as the forsythia begin to blossom, and I was a little bit late getting to that this year. Next year, I will do it at the correct time.

A side benefit of corn gluten is that it contains a lot of nitrogen, so you get the benefit of a spring fertilization.

Planting a new lawn in the fall makes sense because grass prefers cool temperatures, and the grass seeds need to be kept moist until the grass is a couple of inches high. In late spring and summer, it takes a lot of watering to keep the seeds moist. In fall, the dew and fog will dampen the lawn most nights, and the moisture will be slower to evaporate in cooler temperature.

A lot of manuals say that you should plant your lawn in September, but when we first planted our lawn many decades ago, we did not put the seed down until mid-October. The grass did not look lush when the first snows hit, but by the following April we had a gorgeous, green lawn.

Fall is also a good time to aerate and de-thatch your lawn, and then over-seed with an endophyte-enhanced grass seed, which will help ward off pests. Use fine or tall fescues because they do better in shade and dry spells. For bare spots, perennial ryegrass is good, because it sprouts quickly and will keep out weeds.

We actually rake our lawns using a rake (rather then a leaf blower), both in the fall and the spring, so that also helps get rid of thatch.

Fall is also the best time to spread lime on your soil. Maine has naturally acidic soil, and acid rain adds to that, so most Maine lawns need lime. But lawn lime is ground limestone, and it dissolves very slowly. By putting it on in the fall, more of it will get to the roots of the grass when it is needed in spring.

Almost all year long, we mow our lawn tall -- having the mower blade up 3 inches high. In the fall, however, I cut it shorter -- dropping about a half-inch for each mowing beginning in mid-September. This makes raking easier and prevents the longer grass from getting matted down. 

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