Seven Steps to a Healthy Lawn

Spring is the time for renewal. But when it comes to lawn care, it's what you do in the fall that is going to make all the difference come springtime. Think of it as similar to getting your body ready for beach season. If you want washboard abs come July, you better start working out a lot earlier than that.
 
It's the same for your yard. If you want a lush, green lawn that's the envy of the neighborhood, you've got to be its personal trainer in autumn to whip it into shape for the following year. So prime your lawn in autumn by breaking a sweat on these seven steps to blade splendor.
 
Soil Testing
Good fall lawn care begins by calling an agricultural extension agent to perform a soil test, says Randy Hoesley, owner of Forever Green Lawns in Minneapolis.
 
"Most people don't know what their lawn actually needs as far as nutrients are concerned," he says. "So the easiest thing people can do is to take soil samples from two to three sections of their property and have their local university analyze the results. They can tell you exactly what nutrients your lawn needs and in what amounts."
 
Mowing and Raking
How often you mow your lawn depends on the type of grass and how quickly it grows, says Sally Alcock, horticulturist with Hastings Nature and Garden Center in Atlanta. If it's a cool season grass -- such as fescue or rye—you should mow every week or two at a height of three to four inches as long as it continues to grow.
 
Fertilizing
Just because grass growth slows or stops during cooler weather doesn't mean roots stop absorbing and using nutrients, lawn expert David Luckie says. The type of grass and soil test results will determine when and how often you need to fertilize, he says. Cool season grasses should be fertilized in September, October or November, while warm season grasses should be fertilized between July and September since they go dormant earlier.
 
In either case, homeowners should apply a potassium-rich fertilizer once at the end of the growing season, he says, since the nutrient enables grass to be stronger during winter.
 
Watering
Once again, lawn experts say the type of grass determines watering frequency. Since warm weather grasses are dormant during the fall, they require little, if any, watering at all. Cool weather grasses require a watering about every week. And, newly planted grass seed should be watered three to four times a week until it sprouts.
 
Bug-busting, weed-whacking, disease-fighting
For upkeep's sake, be sure to watch for insects, weeds and any colored patches on your grass as they can impair the health of your lawn in spring. If you notice insect damage, spray with an all-purpose lawn insecticide. All weeds should be pulled and immediately destroyed because they can become a nuisance if they're allowed to seed. Alcock recommends spreading a pre-emergent and grass-specific herbicide in September, unless you've re-seeded your lawn. In this case, wait four to six weeks, otherwise the seed won't germinate. And if you begin to notice white, tan or brown patches, spread lawn fungicide.
 
Aerating
Hoesley says it's important to aerate (supplying the soil with air by poking holes in the ground throughout the lawn) each fall because it reduces soil compaction, controls thatch, and helps water and fertilizer move into roots. He adds that aeration is most effective when actual cores or plugs of soil—about two to three inches deep and two to four inches apart—are pulled from the lawn. Plugs are easiest to pull if you thoroughly water your lawn the day before.
 
Overseeding
Many homeowners don't want to wait until spring for green grass—they want it in autumn, too. That's why Alcock says many customers overseed their existing lawn with annual or perennial ryegrass or blends of cool weather grasses in October. (Any earlier and she says your existing lawn will compete with the new grass.) Overseeding allows homeowners to look out at a carpet of green, even if leaves are turning yellow, orange and brown.
 
"Regardless of where you live or what kind of grass you have, the basics of proper lawn care are the same," Luckie says. "You need to know what kind of grass you have, you need to learn what the mowing, watering and fertilization requirements for that grass are, and you need to develop a seasonal maintenance schedule that meets those needs."
 
Follow those training tips and you'll be sure to have a pumped-up, lean, mean, green machine of a lawn come springtime.
 
If it's a warm season grass—bermuda or buffalo—you should mow once in late summer, once when it starts to brown (usually in early October when it goes dormant), and once in spring when it starts to grow again.
 
Raking is also important, Alcock says, since unattended leaves can block air and sun and damage the grass.