Fall fertilization can help your lawn in winter

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“Don’t fertilize your lawn in the fall because you don’t want your grass to grow until winter comes.” The lawn fertilization in autumn sounds a little catchy. Why on earth would we want to increase growth in the fall, like our lawns try to settle in for the winter? But autumn fertilization – done right – will keep your grass happy in winter and get it running at full speed in spring.

Author of the article:

Jim Hole

Release date:

September 02, 2016 • • September 6, 2016 • • Read for 3 minutes • • Join the conversation Fertilizing your lawn in the fall can help keep it healthy during hibernation. Fertilizing your lawn in the fall can help keep it healthy during hibernation. Photo by file photo

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“Don’t fertilize your lawn in the fall because you don’t want your grass to grow until winter comes.”

The lawn fertilization in autumn sounds a bit uninteresting. Why on earth would we want to increase growth in the fall, like our lawns try to settle in for the winter? But autumn fertilization – done right – will keep your grass happy in winter and get it running at full speed in spring.

A little science

In spring and summer we fertilize our lawns to enjoy the beauty of thick, rich, green blades of grass and to feel their luxurious softness under our feet. But as soon as autumn comes, fertilization takes on a completely different role. As the days shorten and temperatures drop, fertilizers are used to increase sugar storage in the grass canopies (base of leaves) rather than creating a few spike growths on our lawns. Robust, sugar-filled crowns are not only more resilient and disease-resistant in winter, but also turn green faster in spring, which gives our lawns a good starting shot for these hideous weeds.

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If the goal is to build canopy rather than stimulate leaf growth, there are two things you need to consider: the right fertilizer and the right timing. Nitrogen – the first number on the label – is king when it comes to boosting chlorophyll when harvesting sunlight in blades of grass. More chlorophyll simply means more stored sugar in the crowns.

Avoid high-phosphate fertilizers (medium number), as established lawns require surprisingly little at any time of the year, let alone in the fall. In addition, phosphate is the main culprit for algal blooms in lakes, rivers and ponds. However, if you find that your lawn is deficient in phosphate, apply it in the spring when the risk of the fertilizer prills being washed off the lawn is lower.

When it comes to timing, you don’t want to apply the fertilizer too late in the fall or it will be largely wasted. When nitrogen rests on the surface of the soil, it can “volatilize,” which is just a fancy term for your precious, solid nitrogen prills that turn into gas that literally evaporates into the air.

A good target time for nitrogen application in our region is around three weeks before the soil freezes. Blades of grass stop growing around five consecutive days with temperatures in the range of 7 to 10 degrees Celsius, accompanied by night temperatures at or below minus 1 degree. When does this happen in our region? Mother Nature is pretty capricious at best, especially in our part of the world, but I’ll try and say that a good target time for fertilization to start is usually the second week of October.

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What should i do?

Choose a fertilizer high in nitrogen like 46-0-0 and keep it handy. I’ve missed the ‘Window of Opportunity’ more times than I want to remember, and now I only have one bag in the garage for the summer so I can get started when the opportunity arises.

When you apply the 46-0-0, apply it with a good spreader and apply half the recommended amount of fertilizer in a north / south direction followed by half the amount of fertilizer in an east / west direction. The hatch pattern ensures a much better distribution of the fertilizer and reduces the risk of scorching your lawn.

If you still find the concept of fall fertilization difficult to wrap your head around, just think of your lawn as something analogous to a bear. Just as a bear benefits from consuming tons of extra calories before its long hibernation, so does your lawn. Unfortunately, as we all know, this strategy doesn’t work very well for members of our species.

Jim Hole owns Hole’s Greenouses in St. Albert and is a certified professional horticulturist with the American Society for Horticultural Science.

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