Crisp blue skies and coloring sumac spell many things… the aroma of evening outdoor fire pit, football games, and glorious less encumbered weekends to putter outdoors with the fall lawn.
For the Midwest, gardening mostly under a continental climate of hot dry summers, this is above all else lawning season.
From August in the north and the high plains, to September at St. Louis is the time to get good bluegrass started… whether one is beginning a lawn or remaking an old one.
The ABC’s of Fall lawn care changes little.
Fall Lawn Basics
Basic practices of autumn lawn care, which have stood the test of time, promise lasting satisfaction without miracles. Briefly:
- Till the lawn soil to at least three or four-inch depth, adding nutrients through lawn fertilization.
- Rake or drag level, rolling only if “fluffy,” breaking clods but not pulverizing to dust.
- Sow quality seed of reliable brand, compounded mostly or entirely of the basic grasses (Kentucky bluegrass, fine fescues and bentgrasses)
- Mulch if possible; avoid nurse grasses except on slopes.
- Soak (water the lawn) slowly to avoid surface run-off (await a soaking rain if you wish; dry soil will not harm unsprouted seed). Read – Watering The Lawn Here
- Once soaked, keep surface moist by frequent, light showerings. Sprouting can occur in as little as a week if moisture is constant.
- As seedlings grow, reduce frequency of watering but keep deeper soil moist.
- Mow when grass is two to three inches tall. A light feeding of fall fertilizer for lawns to month-old grass might prove helpful.
Now for Fall Lawn Care Details…
Usually we must live with the soil we have. “Topsoil” is becoming increasingly scarce, expensive, and may be of dubious value (weedy; possibly of no better structure nor fertility; unmixed with the original soil it can form a discontinuous quick-drying layer).
Flourishing grass builds topsoil. That’s how rich prairie soils were formed. We can follow nature’s method on the lawn, quickened by regular feeding.
Some of the best lawns are on foundation subsoil, weed-free (because there were no weed seeds that deep). But ample fertilizer is mixed in before planting, and supplementary feedings made every few weeks through the growing season.
Most midwest soils are basically good, containing clay and silt that hold fertility and moisture. In autumn, even clays should be workable.
Soil tillage is preferably custom done to a several inch depth with large equipment – tractor-drawn disc or rotary tiller. For small lawns a declining but still feasible art is hand spading.
Newly tilled soil must be raked or dragged level. A light rolling can point up soft spots resulting from rotary tiller stops and starts. Rerake until firmly level.
Tillage can be overdone. Soil pulverized to a dust-like consistency may cake into imperiousness after first watering.
Soil lumps from pea to golf ball size make quite an acceptable surface, into which small grass seeds lodge with no need for raking and rolling.
First rain or watering effectively plants the seeds, and the “lumpiness” gradually melts to insignificance. Seeds sprout well around the edges of protecting soil clusters.
Just after leveling is a good time for fertilizing 20 or 30 pounds of a lawn fertilizer for each 1,000 square feet. Unless soil test has indicated special practices, a complete fertilizer (containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potash, the analysis listing in that order) would be suitable for most soils. An analysis might be 12-12-12, 10-6-4, or something similar.
A baker’s 1/2 dozen reasons….
WHY Autumn Seeding for the Midwest?
- 1. Bluegrass grows well in cooler seasons, most weeds don’t. Weed threat lessening instead of increasing.
- 2. Soils are more easily and safely tilled than in spring, are not soggy.
- 3. Shorter days, cooling temperatures, make lawn watering and seedling care easier.
- 4. Bright sunny days encourage seed sprout, while crisp nights avoid grass debilitation.
- 5. Bluegrass will have a head start; be established by spring, better able to withstand 2009 heat, drought and crabgrass.
- 6. Fall rains, when they come, are usually gentle, penetrating.
- 7. As season tapers, there are fewer gardening chores competing for attention.
Sowing Seed for Fall Lawns
The lawn can be no better than the choice of grass. For climates from Tennessee northward Kentucky bluegrass has traditionally been the mainstay. Red fescue lends good support for dry shade, poor or sandy soils. Bentgrasses for damp shade, may be blended for special purposes.
No matter the price per pound, it is not economical to choose seed high in temporary, short-lived or coarse grasses such as ryegrass. Look for the required listing on the package, which should read high in bluegrass and other permanent species. Ryegrass, redtop and so on, sometimes dubbed “nurse grasses,” will compete with good grass at the critical seedling stage, holding back establishment of permanent turf.
Incidentally, bluegrass contains over two million seeds to the pound, rye-grass only about one-eighth as many. So quality blends, seed for seed, are actually cheaper, and go farther.
Two pounds of high quality seed to 1,000 square feet is ample, if it can be uniformly distributed. Well-designed seed spreaders will achieve even distribution at this rate, or for hand sowing seeds might be extended with dry soil, sand, cornmeal, or even fertilizer.
In hand sowing, to assure good coverage, distribute half the seed one direction, the second half crossways over the same area. Quick flicks of the wrist, with seeds held loosely between the fingers, will toss seeds in a wide arc that settles thinly to the seed-bed.
On a pebbled surface, mentioned earlier, seeds will settle among the crevices and no raking-in is needed. With finely pulverized soil, and the seeds perched on the surface, dragging an upside-down broom-type leaf rake will imbed seeds the desirable 1/8 inch or so.
Mulch consists of any loose covering that helps protect against drying, or puddling and washing during watering.
Usual mulch materials are clean straw or soaked sphagnum peat moss, although grass clippings, ground corncobs or even pebbles can be used.
Mulch should be only a fraction of an inch thick, say three or four intertwined straws deep, so that sprouting grass has no difficulty emerging. It can be left in place to decay, and will soon be obscured by the young grass.
Mulching is the best insurance for a quick, complete lawn start. It helps protect the soil against wash, and unlike fast-sprouting nurse grasses, contributes to the well-being of good grass instead of competing for water and food.
A mulched and frequently showered new lawn will probably show some green fuzz in a week if the weather stays warm.
Permanent grasses are a bit slower than nurse grass, so don’t become impatient if the neighbor’s “cheap seed” looks better at first; next summer you’ll have last laugh. Moreover, each bluegrass plant has the capability of enlarging underground by rhizomes, unlike the bunch grasses of the poor mixtures.
Nature is capricious, and every autumn some parts of the mid-continent suffer lack of rain. A soaking rain replenishing soil moisture, is a big help for starting a lawn. Then light sprinklings will maintain the necessary moist environment.
But sometimes that soaking rain doesn’t come soon enough. The only alternative is thorough sprinkling.
On the heavy soils generally characteristic of the Midwest, irrigation devices which apply a slow gentle “rain” are most appropriate. This permits good soaking without slaking the soil to a mud-pie surface which resists further water penetration.
Carry through fully any sprinkling program (check water pressure, coverage, capacity of hoses and sprinklers). Although seeds can lie indefinitely in dry soil, once it is sprouted the seedling becomes very vulnerable.
Sprinklers placed on the edge of the new lawn and spraying into it will prevent tracking the soft soil.
The New Turf
As roots of seedling grass grow deeper, watering can be shifted from a once or twice daily schedule to intervals of a week or more.
A dryish surface is imperative at first mowing when the seedlings reach nearly three inches to prevent making wheel tracks and pulling up seedlings. I prefer to keep the mower set high year-around, at two inches or so.
Mid-autumn is a good time for a booster feeding, especially in middle latitudes. There, where summer forcing can hurt lawn grass, it helps to promote all the autumn and early spring growth possible.
Spring fertilizer applied after soil temperatures drop to 50 degrees or less will not be lost, but will stay in the soil and grass stems for ready availability next spring. There is some grass growth, at least underground, all through winter during the occasional warm spells.
A feeding at this season encourages tillering, the branching that makes fullness. Autumn is the season for low, tight growth, so don’t be disappointed if the seeding looks thin. Each little plant is husbanding resources for a big spring push.
On lawns started early there may be time for weed control. Weed killer is best not applied to new grass until it is old enough to have had a few mowings.
An herbicide for lawns will kill cresses, dandelions (Fall is the Best Time To Control Dandelions) , probably chickweed, henbit and other winter weeds, if used on a warm day… although the results of the work on the fall lawn may not be fully apparent until spring.