Some of us live for the ultimate lawn — that perfect, emerald carpet of weed-free blissfulness. You sharpen your mower blades twice a week. You precision trim the path and drive edges with a toenail clipper. And you proudly take neighborhood barbeque attendees on barefoot walks over your agronomic kingdom.
Others maintain what I refer to as MGS. In polite company, that stands for Mowed Green Stuff. This portion of the homeowner population looks at the lawn as little more than the thing that provides the necessary space to temporarily pile weeds, sticks and other debris when they’re working on the “real” part of the garden. Such folks see the lawn as the thing you walk on to get to the good stuff.
To each their own — but regardless of which camp makes you feel most at home, there are a number of no-brainers that can minimize labor time and improve the quality of your lawn, especially as we head into the fall season.
Rethink your mowing height to combat weeds
I’ve harped on this one more than just about any topic over the years — but for good reason. Mowing your lawn at a 4-inch height is the single most effective thing you can do to combat weeds, encourage deep rooting and keep your lawn looking good. A 2-inch mowing height results in a scalped lawn that reduce the lawn’s drought tolerance, encourages lawn weeds and just looks bad.
And as we move into the cooler season — perfect grass growing season — correct mowing height is essential. As night temperatures drop into the low 60s and even 50s, we also start to see the germination of some of the cooler season weeds. Keeping the lawn a bit on the longer side makes the turf more competitive than the weeds. And it’s a lot cheaper and healthier than broadcasting pounds and pounds of herbicide, much of which ends up getting washed down the storm drain anyway.
Mulching vs bagging lawn clippings
Mulching your lawn clippings in place is often the best way to reduce yard waste volume, return nutrients to your lawn’s soil and, quite frankly, save you work. But for this to work well, you’re mower has to be up to the job.
The current movement to rechargeable mowers has been a great industry change. Better to not have all those poorly tuned gas-powered mowers belching smog into the atmosphere. But the downside is that some of today’s homeowner-grade rechargeable mowers lack the power to sufficiently mulch your grass clippings.
In the middle of summer, you might get away with it as the grass tends to be a bit thinner and doesn’t produce the same bulk mass to be mulched. But both spring and fall, when the grass is growing like gangbusters, the story is a bit different.
Last year I gave up my Sears Craftsman, 22-inch (1989!) gas mower for a 17-inch rechargeable model. And while I love just about everything about the new mower, the one thing it lacks is power.
During the dry summer weeks, I can get by with mulching as long as I don’t wait more than seven days between mowings. But in spring and fall, when the lawn is at peak vigor, mulching is just asking too much. It leaves trails and clumps of grass that would then have to be raked. Those large clumps of grass don’t break down quickly enough and end up building up as a layer of grass-choking thatch that you then have to manually rake out of the lawn.
Why you should fertilize in the fall
While most of the lawn care industry is firmly entrenched in the spring fertilization model, I prefer fall. Fall fertilization sends your turf into winter in peak condition rather than starved and sad. It also can reduce the sometimes insane amount of growth generated by spring fertilization. If you’re growing Bermudagrass or Zoysia — two of the hottest, hot season grasses, a little summer nitrogen can go a long way. But for the most common grasses in the temperate part of the country, fall fertilization works best.
So just how much is enough?
Well . . . it depends. As always, it is good to start with a soil nutrient analysis test to determine what’s already in your soil. And that works well for phosphorous and potassium, two of the most important soil nutrients for turf growth. But typical soil tests don’t do a great job on nitrogen. And since nitrogen also doesn’t hang around in the soil all that long, most experts recommend one pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per application. I like to do that around the first of October and then a week or two before Thanksgiving — and then nothing in spring.
So, what does that mean?
Now it can be a bit confusing to determine how much fertilizer you have to spread to apply one pound of nitrogen. Most of us have seen the three-number listing on every bag of fertilizer: 10-10-10, or 25-5-10. And while it may seem like a big mystery, it’s no trade secret meant to keep you in the dark. It’s simply the percentage of nitrogen, phosphate (P2O5) and potash (K20) in the bag.
The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service has an excellent lawn fertilization publication available online that I recommend reading. In its example, it reviews a fertilizer with an analysis of 10-6-4 — 10% nitrogen, 6% phosphate and 4% potash. So if you are using a 10-6-4 fertilizer and you want to apply one pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn, you would apply 10 pounds of fertilizer — 10 pounds fertilizer times 10% nitrogen equals one pound of nitrogen.
Paul Cappiello is the executive director at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, yewdellgardens.org.