Winterizing Your Lawn

So, you’ve been caring for your lawn for 6 months now, and it’s time to be done.  Right?  Wrong.  Even though, it’s not growing at a fast growth rate, as it was in May, there are still steps to be taken to ensure that it will be there in 2018, in good shape, so that you can reap the benefits of an entertaining space, erosion prevention, a durable recreational surface for soccer and croquet, noise/dust reduction, oxygen production, carbon dioxide sequestration, groundwater pollutant protection, heat dissipation and intruder protection.  Four steps/actions are necessary:

  1. Watering – The roots need to be kept moist, not soggy or dry.  If rainfall has not been received in recent weeks (such as in 2017), hooking up the hose, turning on the spigot and keeping track of amounts delivered with tuna cans is a good hydration activity.

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    Winter kill on turf from lack of irrigation (Photo by Rob Elder; Omaha Organic Lawns)
  2. Fertilizing – It’s been a little while since the last recommended fertilizer application for bluegrass, ryegrass and fescue lawns, so a small amount is helpful at this time.  New research from UNL has revealed that a light application is better than a heavy one, using about a third of the amount indicated on the fertilizer bag.  Use turf math below to determine how much to apply, or simply adjust the spreader setting accordingly. Turf Math:  The amount of fertilizer to apply can be easily calculated. Divide the pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. desired by the first number in the fertilizer analysis expressed as a percentage. The result of this calculation provides the amount of fertilizer product to apply over 1,000 square feet of turfgrass.  Next, simply multiply the amount of fertilizer product needed by the number of 1,000 sq. ft. units in your lawn. For example, if 0.3 lb N/1,000 sq. ft. is desired on a 5,000 sq. ft. lawn, using a 28-3-6 fertilizer analysis, multiply 1.07 by 5 to determine that 5 lbs. of fertilizer should be applied to the lawn.
  3. Picking up leaves – Lots of leaves on the lawn can smother it, causing it to thin and become weak, eventually leading to invasion of weeds.  If there are only a few to a moderate amount of leaves on the lawn, it’s reasonable to simply mow them with a mulching mower and recycle the nutrients from the tree leaves back to the lawn.  The key to knowing how many leaves are too many is if a few patches of turf are visible here and there, it’s okay to mulch them.   If the entire turf surface is covered, and a depth of an inch or more is present, it’s best to pick them up and add them to your compost pile.
  4. Mowing – If you’re not lucky enough to have trees in your landscape, you won’t be picking up any leaves, but it’s still important to mow often enough to follow the 1/3 rule.  Going into winter, even though the growth rate has slowed, it can still plod along like a hare in the old tale and enter winter in an excessive height.  The consequence of long turf blades in late fall is two-fold.  Long blades can mat down after ice storms, causing a smothering or suffocation of the crowns and roots below, leading to death of the individual plants.  The result is large dead spots in the lawn in the spring.  As well, a disease called snow mold is also favored by excessive top growth, with the same April outcome, so it’s wise to keep mowing until growth completely stops.

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    Failure to mow late in the year can lead to matted turf (Photo by Brian Strauch)
John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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