Bob Mugaas, UMN Extension Educator
The arrival of the Minnesota State Fair and its wrap-up on Labor Day weekend, mark the beginning of one of the best times of the year for initiating and renewing home lawn care activities. When it comes to repairing and rejuvenating your lawn after it has endured the stresses of another summer, avoid the temptation to also be winding down your lawn care efforts once Labor Day has passed. The main reason is that our grass plants are entering a very active period of growth triggered by a shortening of the days, cooler temperatures and usually a return to more frequent rainfall. Following are a number of brief lawn care tips that can help restore any lawn's health and vigor.
1. The middle of August through the middle of September is one of the best times of the year for lawn renovation and reseeding. Practices such as dethatching and aerifying are all best done at this time of year. Again, the primary reason for this is related to the grass plant's active period of growth and recovery during early to mid fall.
2. In addition, our soils are nice and warm from the summer heat. Warmer soil temperatures and ample moisture make this one of the best times of year to be doing some (re)seeding. Grass seed germinates and establishes more quickly increasing the chances of good winter survival. Also, because we have passed the time for many of our annual weed seeds to germinate and grow, there will be virtually no competition from annual weeds such as crabgrass, yellow foxtail, lambsquarters or common ragweed.
3. Putting down some nitrogen(N) fertilizer at the rate of one pound of N per 1000 square feet from late August through about the middle of September will be beneficial. This is the time of year when our grass plants readily absorb the nitrogen applied and use it to support various plant processes during the active fall growth period.
4. By later in the month, we are getting to the time of year when we can be most effective with herbicides at controlling those perennial broadleaf weedy plants such as dandelions, white clover, creeping Charlie and broadleaf plantain. Like our grass plants, these weedy plants are also actively growing and will actively take up and transport the weed killer throughout the plant giving better control. For example, dandelions are best treated from about mid-September to early October in the Twin Cities area. Plants will be killed this fall but the real difference will be observed next spring when there are few to no dandelions in what may have been a previously heavily infested area. However, this is not the time of year to be putting a preemergence crabgrass killer down hoping to have success next spring. Preemergence crabgrass killers are much more effective when used and applied properly in the spring.
5. One of the most common questions this time of year is, "How long into the fall should I continue to water my lawn?" The easiest answer is to continue watering so long as the plant continues to need water. In other words, if we have extended dry periods in the fall, grass plants will still need water to support active growth at this time of year. Remember that just because temperatures are cooler and days are getting shorter, soils will still dry out during extended periods of no rainfall or supplemental irrigation. It is desirable to gradually lengthen the time interval between watering to allow the soil to slightly dry before adding some water. This will help prepare the grass plants to better survive harsh winter conditions.
Likewise, these same conditions can make it easier to overwater and keep the plants too wet. Overly wet soils are very stressful for grass plants and can significantly increase certain diseases and just generally weaken the plant. As a gauge for your own lawn, check the soil moisture level periodically. If it feels damp to maybe just slightly dry and not wet and sticky that's probably about right for soil moisture during the late summer fall period.
6. At least during the month of September, mowing should continue on a regular basis maintaining a lawn height of about 2.5 to 3.0 inches. Heights can be gradually reduced back to about 2.0 to 2.5 inches by the time we get into late October. Remember that right now and for the next several weeks grass plants can take advantage of higher heights of cut by producing more food via photosynthesis due to more leaf tissue present. That also translates into very active root growth such that roots will extend deeper into the soil and in general develop a more robust root system. Both conditions aid in the uptake of water and nutrients from the soil thereby contributing to a healthier plant.
For many people, September marks the beginning of many family things like vacations ending, children going back to school, volunteer activities resuming and the like. With as busy as things can get in our family lives, try to remember this is also a time of new beginnings and renewal for our grass plants and lawns. Providing some additional nitrogen nutrition, watering during dry periods, mowing regularly and doing some reseeding to those injured and damaged areas of the lawn are all perfect activities for this time of year. In addition, restoring and maintaining a healthy lawn in the fall significantly contributes to better winter survival and a healthier lawn next spring.
For more information on any of the above topics see the lawn section on the University of Minnesota's website under Garden. You can also find lots of information about Minnesota home lawn care on the Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series website. Got an unfamiliar weed in your lawn? Check out our on-line weed identification guide at "Is this Plant a Weed?" from the Garden link mentioned above. You can also find out how to control many of the common lawn weeds on that site as well.