Reflections on your lawn’s future – autumn activities

H.E. Gibson

As Indian summer finally sets in, there is time to reflect on the past summer’s glories and plan for next year’s landscape. Once temperatures drop and evenings are cooler, your lawn is probably providing a second surge of green.

Aeration and fertilization are the two major lawn care tasks awaiting you before the leaves begin falling in earnest. These chores can give your lawn a healthy start toward looking good next spring.


If the kids have been playing baseball and soccer in the yard, chances are the soil is compacted. There are two easy ways to test for soil compaction. First, take a screwdriver and gently probe it into several turf areas. If it penetrates easily, your soil is probably in good shape. If it moves with difficulty or won’t budge at all, you have compacted soil.

Another test involves a coffee can. Use a can opener to remove both the top and bottom. Press the can halfway into the ground. Fill the can with water and time how long it takes for the water to percolate down into the soil. If it takes several hours, aeration is advisable.

Aeration has many benefits. It improves nutrient availability, reduces thatch, allows air and moisture to penetrate the soil and encourages deep rooting. There are several methods of aeration, but core aeration is the most popular. Core aeration utilizes a power-driven machine or other device to drive core tines into the ground. The tines remove cylindrical plugs of turf and soil, allowing air, water and nutrients to penetrate the soil.

Fall is the best time to aerate cool-season grasses like fescue and blue-grass, because the cooler conditions allow the turf to repair itself. The turf sends out new, deeper roots in the aerated soil, helping it to survive winter dormancy. Aerate in early fall while the turf is still actively growing.

Walk-behind aerators are expensive machines. Most homeowners won’t use a large machine often enough to justify the purchase price. Therefore, your best alternatives are to rent a machine or hire a lawn service company to do the work. If you opt for renting, talk with a neighbor or two. Sharing a daily rental will be cost-effective for everyone involved and you will have some help loading and unloading the machine.

A good rental shop will give you tips on operating the machine. For Saturday use, you may need to call ahead to reserve a machine. Be sure you and whoever else will be using the machine hear both the safety and use instructions.

For smaller yards or selected compacted areas, there are a couple of manually operated aeration devices available at a more reasonable price. Several garden supply catalogs offer aeration sandals. Although they may look silly, they do perform the function of opening up the soil. Just don’t get carried away; jumping up and down can compact the soil even more. Also, if you have a severe compaction problem, the tines may have difficulty penetrating the soil.

Hand-held aerators work on a similar principle to the sandals. However, you use your arms to make the tines penetrate, which can be tiring if aeration must be done over large areas.

Don’t expect aeration to perform miracles. If the soil is heavily compacted, it may take several treatments to relieve the compaction. You can aerate problem areas again in the spring. Continue following a turf care program to take advantage of the aeration benefits.


Fall and spring are the most popular times to fertilize lawns. Traditional fall applications occur between mid-August and mid-September. However, new research has shown that late-fall fertilizer applications can help turf green up quicker in the spring.

In early fall, fertilization shows immediate results, enhancing the late-season surge of turf growth. Late-fall applications should be made in late November or early December, after the turf has stopped producing clippings. Daytime temperatures should be at least 50 degrees. A high-nitrogen product will give you the best results for late-fall applications. Instead of using the nitrogen for green growth, the turf-grass uses the nutrient for root growth or stores it for future use.

Traditional fall fertilizer application rates are 1 to 1-1/2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn. However, check the product label for proper application rates.

There are several types of fertilizer applicators, but drop spreaders and rotary spreaders are the most popular tools used to apply granular fertilizers.

A drop spreader is a walk-behind unit with a hopper supported by two wheels. A hand-operated lever controls the product flow. This is the most accurate type of spreader because it reliably distributes a precise amount of product across the width of the hopper. It is easy to calibrate because you know exactly much product you are applying.

The challenge of using a drop spreader is to make straight passes across the lawn and start the next pass on the edge of the last pass. You also need to walk at a steady pace.

Rotary spreaders are similar in design, but cover a wider area in less time than drop spreaders. As the wheels move, they propel a rotating disc that broadcasts the material in a wide swath to either side of the spreader. Although easy to use, it is less accurate than a drop spreader because you must overlap the edges of the spread pattern. The unit’s operating manual should give complete calibration instructions.

Drop spreaders and rotary spreaders are both available with either plastic or metal hoppers. For home use, a plastic hopper will probably provide plenty of durability.

By combining fertilizing and aeration programs in the fall, you can improve your existing lawn. The care you take in the fall also reduces the need to fertilize in spring.

COPYRIGHT 1997 KC Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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