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Brightly colored sumac leaves in the fall

Brightly colored sumac leaves in the fall

When it comes to fall activities, fall lawn care is often at the bottom of the list for most people. That’s too bad, because early and mid fall are key periods. During the last days of the fair season, you can give your lawn the boost that will help it make it through the dormant season unharmed, as well as spring to life with more energy when the days start to get longer and the air warmer.

Turf grass and fall lawn care

There are many reasons why the fall is a good turf grass season.

  • More sun reaches the grass, as there are less leaves in the trees, but the sun’s rays are less harsh, so they don’t burn the grass. Especially if you have a shady lawn, your turf grass must benefit from the fall sun.
  • There is usually more rain. Always bear in mind that water is your lawn’s second best friend (sun being the first). If the summer was somewhat dry, the autumn rains will do your turf grass a lot of good.
  • The air is cooler. When the temperature drops, turf grass grows slower, but cool weather grass (fine fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and tall fescue) actually does best when the scorching days are over.
  • If you sow them in early fall, many turf grass seeds will germinate and establish themselves very well before the whole lawn goes dormant. Plus the risk that your seeds will dry out is much lower.
  • A good fall fertilization program helps develop roots and store energy in the root system. This helps your lawn get a good head start when spring finally comes, but may also help fight disease and resist droughts all summer long.
  • Whatever energy you spend fighting weeds is likely to pay off much more if you do it in the fall. When fall comes, weeds start to drain energy away from their leaves to store it in their roots. For more information on this topic, see Weed control below.

Note that in late fall, when the ground has started to freeze, the soil becomes more “flaky”. You may notice a sort of “spongy” feeling when you walk on it. That’s because the water in the soil has frozen and the expanding ice crystals have moved the dirt particles apart. All this to say that the soil is more sensitive to compaction in late fall, so trampling on your lawn during that period is not a good idea. Compacted soil is less permeable to water and air, and therefore less likely to harbor life.

By the way, don’t forget to have a look at our Lawn care page.

Fallen leaves and fall lawn care

Raking leaves is the traditional fall lawn care chore. You should know that a number horticulturists actually recommend leaving the leaves on the ground, especially when fall is starting to turn into winter.

  • Let’s start by considering the cons of leaving a thick layer of dead leaves on your lawn.
    • The sun’s rays are blocked and your lawn can’t soak up the energy provided by the fall sun.
    • Less rain will make it through to the roots, as more water will remain in the leaves or be lost to evaporation.
    • Less air will reach your lawn.
    • The combination of the above factors will promote lawn disease, especially during early and mid-fall.
  • But fallen leaves also have advantages.
    • Many of the nutrients your trees took from your yard in the growing season are returned to the ground and can be used to feed the cycle of life.
    • Dead leaves form a shield that can protect more sensitive roots from the cold.

How to best use fallen leaves on your grass lawn

In early and mid-fall, you should keep mowing your lawn and you should at the same time mulch the dead leaves laying on your turf grass. Do it a on day when the leaves are dry, as then they will be virtually pulverized. You will be amazed to see the leaves almost disappear when you run over them with your mower-mulcher. The chopped up leaves will no longer block the sun and rain, they will let the air reach the grass, and they will start to decay very fast and will thus provide rich nutrients.

Another way to mulch leaves is to use a mulching machine. Some models will mulch only leaves, while others will chop up twigs and acorns.

In late fall, when your turf grass has gone almost completely dormant, you can leave the newly fallen leaves alone. A small cover of leaves may protect from over drying on those windy, sunny winter days (especially if there is no snow cover). And since diseases and bugs have also gone dormant, they can’t do much harm. You will have to wait until spring is well under way before picking up these leaves. Just as lawns are more sensitive to trampling in late fall, they are also sensitive in early spring, when the soil is drenched in melted ice and snow.

How to best use fallen leaves around your trees and plants

Around bushes and small trees, as well as in your flower beds, fallen leaves can be very beneficial. Let’s see what benefits fallen leaves have in this case:

  • If they may prevent some of the rain from getting to the plant’s roots, they will help keep the soil, damp as they will block evaporation. When the soil is wet and the temperatures fall below zero, the ice that forms around the roots protect them from drying. The ice also stabilizes the temperature and protects the roots from extreme cold and early thaws.
  • Once again, dead leaves are extremely rich in nutrients. They not only feed your plants, but all the insects and micro-organisms that make your soil rich and alive. In mid spring, when your plants have started to come alive, you may choose to leave some of these leaves on the ground and mix in some compost or top soil. You will thus help the cycle of life feed your soil and plants.
  • A more important cover of leaves can also help protect those less winter hardy plants in your flower bed. You may consider covering the leaves using geotextile fabric, so as to ensure that the leaves will not be blown away. Your plants will thus be better protected during those harsh winter days, when the temperature dips and the wind starts to blow.

By the way, using mulched leaves has big advantages:

  • Fallen leaves may tend to stick together and they can form an almost impenetrable barrier, so they may prevent water from reaching your plants’ roots. They may even smother your plants as they try to spring to life as the days get warmer. Mulched leaves are broken up into small pieces, so they don’t pile up and stick together so much.
  • Mulched leaves turn into compost much faster. When the spring comes, they may already have disappeared into the ground, making the soil that much richer.

Seeding and sodding

Two of the problems most often encountered by many lawn enthusiasts are weeds and scarce grass. One way to fix both problems is over-seeding, or adding seeds over existing grass to make it fuller. A fuller grass lawn always looks better, plus it fights weeds better. So over-seeding should be a part of most gardeners’ fall lawn care program.

The best time for sowing grass seeds is in early fall, as it gives the seeds sufficient time to germinate and start growing before winter starts. This is especially important in those cold regions where there is little or no snow (snow works as a blanket that protects the seeds from the cold and can keep them dormant all winter long).

You can sod your lawn from early fall to mid-fall, although early fall will give you better results, especially if there is little snow to melt or little rain the following spring.

Soil quality is of utmost importance when seeding or sodding, so you should consider testing your soil and adding whatever your it needs to provide your lawn with all the nutrients it needs.

Fertilization

A complete fall lawn care plan should include fall fertilization. You should choose fertilizers rich in phosphate, which is good for root growth, and potassium, which is good for hardiness. You should consider using green fertilizers.

Adding a thin layer (enough to make a difference but not so much that you will smother the lawn) of fresh soil or compost over your lawn is also highly recommended.

Watering

If the fall brings little rain, or if you live in a region that generally gets little rain in the fall, regular watering may be very helpful. Water helps turf grass prepare for the dormant season and keeps the roots from drying. You can stop watering once the ground is frozen.

Mowing

You should always keep your grass fairly long, because long grass has long roots and long roots are better able to get and store water and nutrients. There is a single exception to this rule: you can mow your grass shorter (about two inches for cool-season grasses and half that for warm-season grasses) in late fall, just before it goes dormant.

Weed control

When they are nearing the end of their growing season, broad leaf weeds start to draw nutrients out of their leaves and into their roots. If you use Eco-friendly weed control products, such as iron-based solutions, they will be sucked into the roots as well, where they will cause damage to the root system. So chances are that the weeds will not be able to spring back to life when the lawn wakes up from its dormancy.

Other things to consider

Your fall lawn care program may also include dealing with such problems as lawn drainagechoking lawn or thatch. Lawns are not always easy to keep top shape. To maximize your chances, you must have a comprehensive lawn care program.

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