Lawn Care Lingo
By Amber Erickson Gabbey
Lawn care may seem like a summer task, with all the weeding, mowing and watering. But if you want a nice-looking, healthy lawn, the real work happens in the off-season, particularly in fall when grass is preparing for dormancy.
“Creating a living soil is the key to a healthy, lush and disease-free lawn,” says Brad Wolfe, owner of Organo-Lawn, an organic lawn- and tree-care company in Boulder. Living soils are full of beneficial bacteria, fungi, earthworms and microorganisms that are happiest when they have air, water and food. So instead of just focusing on the grass, improve your soil to give your lawn the most bang for your buck.
The following four steps will keep both lawn and soil happy over winter.
“The thing that most people unknowingly do wrong with their lawn has to do with watering,” Wolfe says. Most of us water too much early and late in the season, which leads to shallow roots. Overwatering also kills soil microbes because it limits their ability to breathe.
The proper way to water, Wolfe says, is to saturate the lawn completely and then let it dry out completely before watering again. This means you’ll need to water more often in the heat of summer, especially in the Front Range because it’s so dry. As the temperature decreases you’ll need to cut back on how often you water, and you’ll need to pay attention to the various microclimates within your lawn, and water accordingly. For instance, a shaded area will take longer to dry out than a south-facing section with full sun exposure. Watering the lawn this way creates deep-reaching grass roots that will help your lawn stay full and vibrant.
Wolfe recommends starting to water your lawn in mid-April, or when the snow has melted. Water about once per week when daytime temperatures are below 70 degrees, primarily in spring and fall. Water twice per week when daytime temperatures are between 70 and 85 degrees, and three days per week when temperatures rise above 85 degrees. Water either early in the morning or late at night so water is not lost to evaporation.
Snow mold is a gray fuzzy fungus that appears on grass in late winter or early spring after the snow melts, especially in shaded areas. The mold forms between grass and snow, and when the snow melts, sunlight is unable to penetrate the mold to reach the grass to green it up.
Getting rid of snow mold is easy: Just rake the grass to break up the mold and allow sunlight to reach the grass. Any turf killed by snow mold can be aerated and reseeded in spring.
And don’t entirely neglect watering in winter. “In winters with little snowfall and those multi-week periods of warm and dry temperatures, give your lawn and trees a good soaking once or twice a month,” Wolfe says. But hand water after winterizing your irrigation system. “It may be a bit more effort, but it’ll have a pretty significant impact.” Remember to detach the hose after watering so your pipes won’t freeze.
Even though it’s tempting to cut the grass short for a kempt look and less-frequent mowing, this doesn’t help your lawn’s health. The best practice is to mow on the blade’s highest setting, or around 3 inches. For the final mow of the year, sometime in fall, cut a bit shorter to 2.5 inches and leave mowed autumn leaves on the ground to build up organic matter in the soil. In spring, a single short mowing to remove some of the brown grass will help the lawn green up a little earlier.
Aeration allows nutrients, water and air to penetrate the lawn’s roots to support the living soil and prevent compaction. Colorado soil is generally high in clay, which compacts easily, so Wolfe recommends aerating twice a year in spring and fall to allow healthy soil microbes to breathe. Soil compaction damages living soil—and therefore the grass—by inhibiting microbes’ ability to breathe and limiting food and water’s mobility through the soil. Without adequate food, water and air, your lawn won’t thrive.
Rent a machine to aerate the lawn yourself, or hire a professional for this chore. Water the day before aeration to help loosen the soil, and make sure the lawn is thoroughly aerated for best results. If you hire a professional, aeration and fertilization are typically done during the same visit.
Now that soil microbes have adequate water and air, it’s time to feed them some high-quality organic matter. “Fall is the most important fertilizer application of the year,” Wolfe says. The slow-release nitrogen found in “winterizer” fertilizer slowly feeds the soil over the whole winter, “so it has the nutrition it needs to last until spring,” he says. In March, when the grass starts growing again, it’ll fill in quickly and easily, and before weeds have time to get established.
Wolfe recommends applying an organic fertilizer in fall. Quick-release fertilizers can’t support the lawn all winter, and chemical fertilizers kill the soil microbes you’ve worked so hard to build up. After fertilizing the lawn, water it well to help the nutrients soak in.
If you follow these four steps in fall and water a bit over winter, you’ll be rewarded in springtime with a full, vibrant, healthy lawn. It takes a little work, but stepping barefoot onto that lush grass next summer will make it all worthwhile.
Just because you properly cared for your lawn in fall doesn’t mean you’re off the hook come spring. Organo-Lawn recommends watering, aerating and fertilizing in spring as well to ensure the lawn starts the growing season with the necessary food, water and air to fully fill in. The only difference in spring is you should also apply an organic weed-control product. This isn’t necessary in fall, because the lawn is at the end of its growth cycle and weeds are no longer a concern. —A.E.G.