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Fall is the best time to grow or manage a cool-season lawn to ensure a beautiful yard in the spring.
“Late summer to mid-fall is the best time to establish cool season turfgrass,” said Michael Goatley, a Virginia Cooperative Extension turfgrass specialist at Virginia Tech. “Warm days and cool nights provide ideal conditions for seed germination and establishment of tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, fine-leaf fescues and perennial ryegrass.”
The first step to a healthy lawn is testing the soil. A cost-effective diagnosis of the soil’s fertility and pH status is often the answer to why turfgrass that was planted may have failed previously, Goatley explained.
“Many of Virginia’s soils are very acidic and probably require a supplemental lime application,” he said. “The fall and winter months are ideal times to make lime applications, because it takes weeks to months to fully realize the benefit of standard lime treatments.”
It is best to test your soil at least once every three years to determine whether supplemental lime or nutrients other than nitrogen are required. Contact your local Extension office for soil sample boxes and information sheets, or visit soiltest.vt.edu.
Selecting the best turfgrass
Selecting the best cool-season grass is important for a successful lawn. Extension guides for selecting appropriate grasses are available on Virginia Cooperative Extension’s website.
“Very specified grass cultivars may not be available at your local garden center or a large retailer,” Goatley cautioned. “If you want the best varieties available, you will need to go to a specialty nursery or turf and landscape supply store to obtain more superior cultivars.”
For new plantings, tilling bare spots to a 4- to 6-inch depth is ideal. “This gives you an opportunity to put the information from the soil test to work and incorporate any recommended lime or starter fertilizer that will aid
turf establishment,” Goatley explained.
A starter fertilizer will emphasize phosphorus levels as compared to nitrogen and potassium. Typical nutrient rations in these sources are 1:2:1 or 1:2:2 of nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium. A few passes with an aerator or vertical mower can be used to prepare the soil prior to planting to encourage seed-to-soil contact. “Simply applying seed over the top of existing turf without soil prep usually does nothing more than feed birds and wildlife,” Goatley warned.
Irrigation, mowing strategies
After planting the seed, irrigate lightly and frequently until seed germination and initial establishment is complete. Avoid excessive amounts of water, because this may wash away or drown seed,” Goatley said. “As establishment progresses, gradually cut back on the amount of water you apply in order to start promoting a deep root system.”
Mow turf when it needs to be clipped according to its recommended cutting height, and follow the one-third mowing rule that says you should never remove more than one-third of the leaf blade during any mowing. If you need to make supplemental nitrogen applications later in the fall after establishment to boost growth or color, remember the acronym “SON,” which represents September, October and November. “This can help you make a smart decision on when to apply nitrogen to cool-season grasses,” Goatley said. “Never apply fertilizer to frozen soil.”
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