Chances for green spring lawn grow with fall preparation

Overseeding lays groundwork for healthy grass, fewer weeds

In The Garden

September 26, 2004|By Carol Stocker | By Carol Stocker,New York Times News Service

Grass is wonderful stuff, and never more so than in early spring, when the earth serves it up as a green tonic to gray winter. So that's when you naturally think about "getting the lawn in shape." But fall is actually the ideal time to do those jobs -- seeding, fertilizing, aerating -- that will make the grass grow greener.

Early fall is best for starting grass seed. The soil is more consistently warm than in the spring and the new grass will have a big advantage against competing weed seeds next spring. Grub and weed control and aerating are also tasks to consider now. Fall is also the time for fertilizing and liming.

Start by getting your soil tested to see what fertilizers and pH correctives are needed. The University of Maryland no longer does soil testing, but its Web site, www.hgic.umd.edu, lists testing laboratories.

A dense lawn has fewer weeds. And overseeding really beefs it up. If your lawn is a mess, don't start over from scratch. Overseed it. And if your lawn is fabulous, you should still overseed it every third year.

Sound like too much work? Then just target areas where turf is thin, brown, or displaced by annual weeds such as crabgrass. Most lawn weeds are annuals and will soon die. Plant grass seed in these soon-to-be vacated patches and there will be no room for crabgrass to sprout next spring.

When buying grass seed, choose a mix, not a single variety of a single species. Lawn diversity provides protection from diseases and insects that might wipe out one type of grass. But don't try to save money with cheap grass seed mixtures because they are usually inferior. Shop at garden centers that stock mixes for your region. (Maryland Cooperative Extension says turf-type tall fescue is best suited to the Maryland climate.) Buy a full-sun mix if your lawn gets more than six hours of sun a day.

Whether you are patching, overseeding or starting a new lawn, the basic procedures are the same. A spreader will help seeds achieve even distribution. The key is to get the grass seed in contact with the soil. If you are patching bare spots, cultivate the ground first, then rake the seed in so it is slightly covered with soil, then firm it with the back of your rake.

Brian McMahon of Natural Tree & Lawn Care in Avon, Mass., recommends renting a slice-seeder (for about $75 a day) for seeding large areas. It looks like a mower with a seed hopper and plants your seeds at the proper depth. "When overseeding, make at least two passes. The second pass should be made at a 45-degree angle to the first," McMahon says. Plan to have fertilizer and seed ready and reserve rental equipment so you can do the job in a day.

Once planted, keep seeds constantly moist until they sprout. Fall rains will help with this, and though the air is cool, the soil is consistently warmer than in the spring. (Soil is like the ocean, slow to warm in the spring and slow to cool in the fall.)

Another way to boost your lawnis to rent a core aerator, which cuts plugs from the turf and deposits them on the surface, reducing compaction and invigorating grass roots.

If you have planted new grass seed, use a starter fertilizer for seedlings after they have sprouted. Otherwise, fertilize with a slow-release high-nitrogen synthetic fertilizer or an organic fertilizer such as cottonseed meal, manure, or Milorganite.

The ideal pH for lawns is 6.5, which allows grasses to make full use of the fertilizer. Our soil tends to grow more acid with time, so it's smart to spread 50 pounds of lime per thousand square feet of lawn every three or four years, or as soil-test results recommend.

Keep mowing,but lower the height of the blade to 1 1/2 inches to make fall leaf raking easier. A mulching mower can chop fallen leaves finely enough that they can remain in the lawn over the winter to feed earthworms and beneficial soil microbes.

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