How to fix those patches, pick the right grass seed and more fall lawn care tips

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

Lawns… the favorite punching bag of today’s garden glitterati. In order to be allowed admission into the Socially Responsible Garden Club we’re supposed to eschew the cultivated lawn in favor of sweeping masses of wildflowers and grasses and sedges. If we don’t want others looking down their collective nose at us we’re instructed to remove the lawn and plant for the bees… or the butterflies… or the whales…

Now I don’t mean to make light of what is actually a serious issue. As a people, we do have way too much lawn to mow across North America. In some cases there are much more environmentally friendly ways to design and maintain large, open sweeps of greenscape. Just throwing out some grass seed and then mowing and mowing and mowing all summer long doesn’t take much imagination or thought. It’s just easy. 

But there are places where a lawn – a closely clipped (but not too closely clipped!) expanse of green – is exactly what the doctor ordered. Playing soccer on a field of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) just doesn’t do the trick. Diving for a frisbee and ending up headfirst in a massive globe thistle (Ecinops ritro) would be a memorable experience, and for all the wrong reasons. Care for a barefoot walk across the (North American native) prickly pear cactus (Opunita humifusa)? Yeah… I didn’t think so.

So for our present purpose, let’s just assume you 1) have a lawn, 2) want to keep your lawn and 3) need to give your lawn a little TLC. Our goal today is to get you set up to do what needs to be done this fall.

You see the autumn season, with its bright sunshine and cooler temps, is the perfect time to make improvements to the lawn. The lower soil temperatures make for more reliable seed germination, less stressful growing conditions and happier gardeners. 

The problem with fall lawn improvement is… well… sometimes we just wait too long. We don’t think about it until we’re in the middle of the best time of year to do the work which also just happens to be the peak of the kid’s soccer season and band competition. And then there’s that long list of scraping, painting, window caulking and other homeowner tasks you’ve promised your spouse or yourself you’d get too when the weather is better. 

So why are we talking about fall lawn rehab in the middle of August? Like so many efforts it’s the planning that takes most of the time. If you spend the time now to create the plan and assemble all the supplies you’ll be good and ready in September and the task will get done in a snap. 

Step 1- Assessment:

You can’t fix a problem unless you have a pretty good grasp on the cause. If your lawn is thin and struggling, pulling out the rototiller or slicer/seeder or any other type of military grade lawn contraption won’t do much if you don’t look into the cause of the lawn’s struggles. And there are lots of reasons lawns struggle.

If your lawn is struggling because of what we in the business refer to as, “canine-sourced, localized over fertilization” you can do all the reseeding in the world and you won’t fix the problem. If like many, Covid has nudged you into a newfound love affair with delivery services – milk and bread and socks and books and dog food and, yes… even daily deliveries of actual physical mail parcels… foot traffic across the lawn may be causing wear and tear paths. Again, all the horticulture science in the world can’t fix use pattern problems. 

But sometimes lawns just get a bit tired. The constant assaults from grubs and skunks and locusts, boils and the raining down of frogs can take their toll on the lawn. Or maybe you’ve just been a little lax in your lawn management activities and the whole thing just needs a bit of a boost. 

Step 2 – Supplies:

If reseeding is in order, you’ll obviously need some seed. Of course you’ll have to look at whether you have sunny or shady areas and buy seed accordingly. Fortunately, most bags of seed available at retail stores will tell you exactly where to use their contents – generally fescues for shade and rye or bluegrass for sun. 

And if you have a penchant for overpaying for products, you can spend all the money in the world for those “lawn repair kit” bags that contain seed, fertilizer and some fiber mulch that generally contain sufficient material to cover about 3 square millimeters at an average finished cost of about $365,000 per square millimeter. Generally I find that good quality seed and a little bit of elbow grease and an iron rake work just as well and at a slightly more reasonable unit cost.

On the other hand, if your lawn problem is due to overactive weed competition, fall is a great time to tilt the field in favor of the grass. Personally, I’m perfectly happy to have some clover in my lawn. Bermudagrass, on the other hand, is a scourge on the face of the planet. It will spread into nearby planting beds, growing about 12 football fields per day and has been known to completely ensnare unattended children and moderately sized dogs in a matter of hours. I do my best to kill every blade of it anytime it has the temerity to pop up its little head. But be sure to read the label of any “weed killers” to be sure to know how long you may have to wait after application to reseed.

Step 3 – Soil Test:

If you’re going to do some seeding or really any kind of fall lawn maintenance you’ll want to do a soil test. It’s easy to do but you can’t do it in the morning and get the results in the afternoon. Now is the time to hit up the local cooperative extension office for a soil test kit, collect your sample and send it off for analysis. That way you won’t be left, literally, holding the bag and wondering how much to apply.

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on August 10, 2022.

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