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Time to put your lawn to bed for the winter

"Each year at this time my husband, a fourth generation Washingtonian, smiles and sighs, Ahhhh! It's beginning to feel like autumn. And I always say, Please, don't remind me. Yes, the fall colors are pretty, and yes, there's football and pumpkin carving. Yes, there are crisp apples, cider and the smell of wood smoke. That's all very nice and romantic. But when I think of fall I fast-forward to winter and contemplate windstorms, power outages, black ice, cold, gray days. I tell him it's my Mediterranean genes; my father was born in Italy.I try not to get crabby as winter approaches. After all, I tell myself, when the garden is dormant I'll actually have a life inside our house. I'll have time to catch up on correspondence, read novels, paint watercolor landscapes. I may be kidding myself, but it does sound inviting and inspires me to get on with the fall garden chores. Autumn is an important gardening season, chock full of things to be done. It can't be covered in one column, so we'll begin with lawn care.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 now. You can think of the months ahead as a time for both you and your lawn to rest. But not quite yet.Continue to 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 to green up and grow in spring. May I suggest 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 your lawn looks 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, 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 the thatch is widespread, consider renting a power de-thatcher and a core aerator. Good news for procrastinators: spring is considered the best 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. But save yourself the expense. Invite your duffer buddies over to do some clog dancing 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 a major factor.For a minimal fee, you may obtain several useful lawn care publications from the Washington State University Cooperative Extension office in Coupeville (679-7327). Try Home Lawns (EB0482) and Lawn Renovation (EB0924). ---------Mariana Graham, a writer and former editor, is a Master Gardener certified through the WSU-Island County Cooperative Extension Service.If you have questions or comments, contact her at the Whidbey News Times, 675-6611; fax 675-2732; or e-mail wnt@whidbey.net. "

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