Fall maintenance is important for establishing a healthy, green lawn next spring.
The modern lawn is amazingly resilient. During the hottest, driest weeks of summer, it goes into protective dormancy where growth slows and color fades. But then in late summer, after a few good rains and cooler temperatures set in, most lawns bounce back with the return of lush, green growth.
But if you’re under the impression the lawn care season is over and you should just let your lawn coast until spring — think again. Late-season lawn care plays an important role in overall lawn health, and it will minimize the amount of time you'll spend on maintenance come spring.
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Fall lawn mowing tips
Continue mowing cool-season grasses as long as new growth appears.
Raise the mower blade and cut the grass to a height of 3 inches. Don’t assume mowing short (the buzz cut) will reduce time spent on lawn care. During fall, lawns focus more energy on root growth than blade growth. Scalping a lawn puts considerable stress on the root system, making it harder for lawns to resist weeds and pests, and survive the winter chill.
As leaves start to drop, mulch them into the lawn (grass clippings too). While this topic often leads to heated debates among lawn-loving homeowners, studies have shown how mulching leaves causes no negative effects to lawns, turf or soil pH.
Just don’t let the leaves pile up. If you mow each weekend in fall, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Fertilizing in fall
A couple of fertilizer applications throughout fall should help your lawn recover from the summer stress, improve color, root structure and density, and help it survive winter so that it comes back stronger the following spring.
The No. 1 rule when using fertilizer is to always follow the instructions on the product label, including when to apply the fertilizer and how much to use. Fertilizer misuse can cause environmental hazards, and even destroy a lawn.
Lawn fertilizers are made up of three main nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and by law they’re identified in that order with a three-digit, numerical code prominently displayed on the bag.
The numbers represent the percentage by weight of each nutrient. Nitrogen is the most important nutrient for lawns, so the first number in the ratio on the fertilizer bag should be the largest.
So how much fertilizer should you use?
Typically, you want to apply 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn. To calculate how many pounds of nitrogen to apply per thousand square feet of lawn: Take 100 and divide it by the first number in the fertilizer ratio.
So, if your lawn is 1,000 square feet and you have a bag of 25-0-5 fertilizer, you’d want to use 4 pounds of product per application.
If using granular fertilizer, make sure to use a broadcast spreader to ensure even application. Too much fertilizer in a given area will cause lawn burn and potentially kill your grass.
You have several options for battling weeds, including pulling them out by hand and applying herbicides. Some people make their own formulas using vinegar and water.
For large infestations, consider using a broadleaf herbicide. It comes in selective and non-selective forms. Selective means the herbicide only attacks specific plants (dandelions, clover, etc.) while non-selective herbicides kill everything they touch. For weeds within the lawn, use a selective herbicide, otherwise you’ll kill the grass.
If you’d rather not use a herbicide, you can always dig out weeds by hand, just make sure you pull out the root system or they’ll return the following spring. This method isn’t always practical for large properties or lawns covered in weeds.
Seeding lawns in fall
Cooler temperatures and warm soil conditions make late-summer to early fall an optimal time to sow grass seed. Just don’t wait too late in the season or the grass won’t establish by the time temperatures drop.
For repairing dead patches in the lawn, remove the dead grass down to the bare soil, use a rake to rough up the soil (the seeds will stick better) and then add grass seed.
Germination usually takes around 10 to 15 days. It's important to keep the soil moist but not drenched during this period. After it starts to grow, you should continue to water on a daily basis to encourage root growth and to prevent it from drying out.
Hiring a lawn care service
If you’d rather spend your weekends watching football, or simply don’t feel comfortable handling herbicides and fertilizers, consider hiring a local lawn care company. As with any service provider, make sure to check ratings and reviews before making a hiring decision.
Avoid any company that can’t or won’t explain the products they use and their application schedule. Many states require licensing for fertilizer application. You can use this tool to check licensing laws in your state.
For specific questions related to your lawn and landscaping, contact your local County Extension Office.
Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article originally published in September, 2012.