There are major benefits to giving lawns some attention in the fall, when the daylight hours are shortening and the air is cool, according to local lawn and garden guru Chuck Wiley of Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury.
Some lawn-obsessives seem to enjoy the challenge and the partial victories (some consider them Pyrrhic victories) of lawn maintenance, preferring to have a green carpet-like lawn over the alternatives of moss and weeds, bare dirt and sand, vegetable gardens, wheat fields, orchards, pet and livestock corrals, forests, solar arrays, or used car and boat lots. (This is just a partial list.)
If having a picture perfect grass carpet is the goal, Mr. Wiley’s fall lawn tips can help keep a lawn green and growing next summer.
There is no better time to install a new lawn than the fall. There is no better time to upgrade an existing lawn than the fall. The month of September is the best time to feed lawns, according to Mr. Wiley.
There are multiple reasons why fall is such a good time for lawn improvement.
Successful lawns in New England use “cool season grasses,” according to Mr. Wiley. “They grow better in the spring and fall when it is cooler and we tend to have more rain. In the summer they are stressing, from drought and heat.” Fall fertilizing, which he highly recommends, builds up the root system, helping the grass to spread during its late growing season. “If you want a dense, thick lawn you have to fertilize and there is no better time to fertilize than the fall,” he said.
He pointed out that if you prefer a more natural “Vineyard lawn, which many people do, you don’t need to fertilize or to fertilize as much as you would with a heavier lawn.”
Crabgrass is a persistent problem that can wreck the plans of all but the most intent lawn growers, and fall is the best time to set the conditions for a successful crabgrass battle.
Crabgrass is particularly a problem when trying to establish new lawns. It is an annual, which means it dies off each year, usually at the first frost unlike regular lawn grasses, which are typically perennials. Crabgrass has to reseed itself in order for it to return and it is a master seed producer. Mr. Wiley said that each crabgrass plant can produce tens of thousands of seeds. These seeds take advantage of the weakened condition of the lawn grasses during the hot dry summer days. They also work their way into any voids left by weeding, according to Mr. Wiley. The crabgrass seeds take root and a lawn can be overtaken by crabgrass with the first good rain.
Crabgrass likes hot weather, can do frustratingly well in dry weather, and it has a long germination period. It can germinate throughout the growing season if conditions are right. It does not grow during the fall when the skies are often grey and it rains, perfect conditions for starting a new lawn. The cool season grasses can flourish and make it more difficult for the crabgrass seeds to find room to grow the next summer.
Mr. Wiley said that he recommends the use of Pre-Emergent herbicides in the early spring to kill off the crabgrass seeds before they germinate but that proper fertilization and watering in the fall can produce the thick lush lawn that can choke out the crabgrass.
Summer’s end is the perfect time to top-dress a lawn, according to Mr. Wiley.
“Sprinkling a quarter inch layer of topsoil or compost over the lawn with a little fertilizer and even some seed in areas that need more grass would be the premier or Cadillac approach.” New seed should be kept moist for up to 21 days. The fall weather helps keep the new seed moist without a lot of watering, he pointed out.
“We lime late fall. I like to lime five to six weeks after topdressing and top seeding. Liming should be done at least once a year,” he said. Lime helps balance the acidic conditions found on the Vineyard and helps the grass absorb the nutrients from the soil and the fertilizer.
Mowing and aerating
Mr. Wiley advises to mow as long as the grass is growing. “Some of my clients want to just let their lawns grow when they are not here in the winter.” He said that when the long grasses get wet or are bent down by snow, they can rot, leaving brown patches with no grass in the spring.
“Here our falls are long and warm grass can keep growing until November. If it’s in the 40s it will keep growing,” he said.
Fall also is a good time to aerate or core a lawn. He said that soils with a lot of clay or that see a lot of activity and become compacted can benefit from being opened up to allow the grass roots to get more air and water. “All plants grow better when the soil is not compacted. Aerating in the spring actually gives room for crabgrass to grow, unlike the fall. A thatcher can be used to chop up the plugs if you want to leave them on the ground. They can act like a top dressing.”
If you have moss, learn to love it, Mr. Wiley said. “There isn’t much that can be done about moss unless you are willing to change the conditions. Moss is telling you that it is shady, that the soil is acidic, and that it is moist, common conditions on the Vineyard. Moss grows better than grass under trees.”
Fall garden care
Mr. Wiley suggests waiting until the first frost to cut back flower gardens.
“The frost makes it real easy to know what to cut and what not to cut,” he said. “The first frost will kill the plants that need to be cut back. Plants like certain lavenders and others that stay green after the frost don’t get cut back.” Perennials will keep growing until the first frost, requiring a second trimming if they are cut back too soon, he added. He said perennial gardens could be fertilized or mulched in the fall and that most fall garden work is clean up work.