Question: I have always heard to NEVER apply fall fertilizer as plants get ready for winter. However, my neighbor keeps pushing me to “put down” a late fall fertilization.
Should I apply the best fertilizer for our grass in autumn lawn feed, along with fertilizing the bulb beds and other plants in the landscape? Will it create too much soft growth and only killed off by winter cold? Nathan, Charlottesville, Virginia
Answer: Nathan, feed plants in early fall? Yes, indeed.
Early autumn is the time for organic fertilizers on new and old turf, cover crops, and perennial and bulb plantings. The compost heap as well will be grateful for a “handout” now, while fall garden residue is swelling its proportions.
In fact, every really self-respecting soil management program for fall lawn care takes advantage of fall feeding wherever and whenever the practice is applicable.
In the North, vigorous autumn growth of Kentucky bluegrass, bent, tall fescue, creeping red fescue, weeds and other permanent lawn grasses will minimize winter damage and give lawns a running start next spring.
During fall, grasses store up reserves of carbohydrates in their root zone. In early spring, the grass converts this food into the first shoots and leaves.
Once actively growing new foliage or grass blades, the grass takes over the manufacturing of sugars and starches and converted into more growth.
Feeding the lawn area in autumn, will keep it growing and protect your lawn or turf. The grass will store greater supplies of root reserves than if it were to go into this period dependent upon whatever plant food remains from last spring.
You can also make use of thatch layer, a combination of plant matter such as straw, grass clippings, dried leaves, rhizomes, roots and others.
When to fertilize your lawn in the fall? In southern states, a September feeding of Bermuda grass overseeded with ryegrass for a winter lawn is a little too early. However, keep it in mind for October.
North or south, a satisfactory fall lawn fertilizer application rate of a good complete plant food is 2 to 3 pounds per 100 square feet of lawn. Water it in thoroughly.
After feeding the lawn, rake and reseed large bare spots left by crabgrass, but rely on the established sod to fill in small spots.
Late summer is, of course, the very best time to seed a new lawn in the North, since cool temperatures and more even moisture distribution favor germination and growth of the young grass. It is also important to conduct a soil test to know the acidity level of the ground before applying anything. This allows you to pick the right amount of NPK ratio (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) to apply on your lawn grass.
Providing a ready supply of plant nutrients will insure good initial growth, and by spring the new healthy lawn will become established and require no tedious reseeding.
The simplest way to maintain good soil structure in the vegetable garden is to sow a cover crop – a perennial ryegrass or annual ryegrass – between the vegetable rows in September. Spade under next spring. The cover crop serves the same purpose as crop rotation in any garden.
Plant food applied to the cover crop stimulates abundant growth. When plowed under, the extra plant food releases down deep where growing vegetables need it most.
You actually get double duty from one plant food application. Then, too, the soil bacteria will appreciate it, for they won’t have to rob the garden soil of nutrients when they go about decomposing the green material.
Perennials & Bulbs
Prepare borders and beds for fall planting by enriching with 2 pounds of plant food per 100 square feet for silt and clay soils, 3 pounds for sandy soils. The slow-release fertilizer during fall will give the perennials a good start before winter. Established perennials, too, will appreciate a fall feeding.
New and old bulb plantings may be fed now or next spring. Although feeding will have no effect on next spring’s blooms, it is essential for subsequent vegetative growth which is so necessary for bulb survival and reproduction.
Garden residues and leaves will soon require disposal, so why not convert these waste products into homemade soil conditioner?
Here’s the secret to quick one-step composting. Sprinkle plant food on each layer of residue when added to the pile, and soak the fertilizer in thoroughly.
The soil micro-organisms or bacteria which help to break down the raw, fibrous residues and though microscopic, the billions of them require appreciable quantities of plant food.
If semi-starved, when working on breaking down coarse, fibrous stalks and leaves, they slow down their activities which delays the composting process. When you incorporate some good garden soil in each layer, the fertilizer is all the activator you need.
Many of us use bagged potting soil, but for those who want to make your own mix… lay away a supply of potting and grass seed flat soil now while the ingredients are dry and unfrozen.
To each bushel of the usual mixture of sand, soil and organic matter, add one 3-inch potful of plant food.
Spring Feed With Fall Fertilization
Soil scientists find that when applying fertilizer to medium to heavy soils with a temperature below 50° degrees Fahrenheit little or no winter loss of plant food occurs by leaching.
To reduce their heavy spring workload, northern gardeners can apply spring fertilizer to lawns, shrubs, borders and vegetable gardens in November or early December.
You could call it “winter fertilization” – by simply winter storing the plant food in the soil so that it can be absorbed by the grass roots. It’s also called application of winterizer fertilizer, a solution applied during late fall to increase the chance of a plants survival in winter season and rapid root growth during spring. I’ve seen excellent results from feeding the lawn in the fall season.
The potentials for fall feeding very nearly approach those of spring in importance, if not in actual quantity of plant food used. So take advantage of fall feeding whenever you can and enjoy its benefits.