Fall’s the time to rejuvenate lawn for next summer

It seems as though we’ve just celebrated the Fourth of July, but the signs of autumn are inescapable. Walk into any supermarket and our eyes are assailed by neon orange piles of Halloween candy. We must remember to slow down in school zones again. The sun is setting so much earlier that it’s nearly dark at dinnertime.

In the woods behind the garden, squirrels forage for fir cones. The flicker’s plaintive call echoes over the fields. Sunflowers droop their heavy heads; asters explode into starbursts of purple and magenta. It’s time to pull on that old garden jacket and think about getting the lawn ready for winter.

Fall lawn care means shifting from the summer routine to maintenance practices that promote healthy grass during the shorter, cooler, wetter days ahead. Cool season grasses demand less mowing right now. You can think of the months ahead as a time for both you and your lawn to rest. But not quite yet.

Mow until the grass stops growing. Go ahead and mow over the first sprinkling of autumn leaves. The shredded leaves will add nutrients to the soil. As leaves begin to drop in greater numbers, either rake them into the compost pile or mow over them with the bagging attachment. The chopped leaves make great mulch for your garden beds.

Late fall is probably the most important time to fertilize the western Washington lawn. Grass, like other perennial plants in your garden, must have time to slow its growth and harden off before the weather gets cold. As winter approaches, grass accelerates storage of nutrients in its roots; nutrients that will help it green up and grow in spring.

We Master Gardeners suggest using a good, organic, slow release lawn fertilizer that will feed the grass naturally and not add synthetic chemicals to the soil. In addition, a light top dressing of compost or composted manure makes a fine chemical-free treat for your lawn.

If the lawn is just plain beat up, you may need to do more than just feed it. Is the grass brown and patchy, showing bare ground? Are there more dandelions than grass? Is the soil hard and compacted? Is there more than an inch of thatch, that thick layer of roots, stems and leaves between the soil and grass blades? If so, renovation may be in order.

A thin layer of thatch is actually good for the soil. It provides impact absorption, wear tolerance, and insulates the soil from extreme temperatures. When thatch gets thick, weak, unhealthy grass grows in the thatch instead of in the soil.

If you’re ready to rejuvenate the lawn, first, dig out those weeds. I know, but you’ve got to do it or you’ll have 10 times as many in the spring. If there’s just a little thatch or dead grass, you can use a sharp metal garden rake to get rid of the stuff, allowing air, water and nutrients to reach the soil. Aerate the soil in these areas and apply an organic fertilizer according to package directions. Spread new seed (turf-type perennial rye grasses and fine fescues are best for our area) and water well. If thatch is widespread, consider renting a power de-thatcher and a core aerator. Good news for procrastinators: spring is considered the ideal time to remove heavy thatch.

Thatching may not be much fun, but aerating can be interesting. There are actually such things as spiked aerating shoes; I’ve seen them advertised in garden supply catalogs. But save yourself the expense. Invite your duffer buddies over to line dance on your lawn in their golf shoes.

There’s a misconception that grass clippings cause thatch buildup. Grass clippings, in moderation, are beneficial. Thatch is the result of either not enough or too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer, combined with heavy watering. Also, the higher you set your mower blade, the greater the tendency to produce thatch. Using the wrong grass for our area is another major factor.

For a minimal fee, you may obtain useful lawn care publications from the Washington State University Extension office in Coupeville (679-7327). Try “Home Lawns” (EB0482) and “Lawn Renovation” (EB0924).

Island County-WSU Master Gardener Mariana Graham is on vacation through the end of September.

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