By Scott Sutherland*
ALEXANDRIA,VA- Lawn challenges almost constantly bring customers seeking advice into our garden centers. They have issues with bare spots, weeds, disease, and insects.
Like many other plants we all grow, lawns have certain key seasons. Early fall is the best time to plant grass seed. Why? The soil is warm, having warmed all summer and by the middle of September, the air begins to cool down. Warm, moist soil means grass seed sprouts quickly and successfully. Cool weather and gentle watering will be easy on the young blades of grass after they sprout. These factors combine to grow strong roots through the fall. Roots get firmly established and take hold in time for winter.
Strong healthy roots set you up for a healthy, beautiful lawn the following spring. If you have a lawn that is 1/3 or more grass, your likely best approach is to renovate your lawn in September. If it’s more than 2/3 weeds you may want to kill what’s there and start over.
To begin, consider your existing situation. The amount of sun you get will affect the grass varieties you should plant. Consult the bags of seed or staff at your garden center to determine the right varieties.
With our heavy clay soils in northern Virginia, two actions are helpful to create soil conditions that will foster grass root growth. The first is to periodically aerate your lawn. Aeration pulls “plugs” of soil from your yard, allowing oxygen and water to permeate dense soil and helps loosen the soil for months to come. You can rent a machine to do this yourself or hire a lawn/landscape service to do it for you. I recommend core aerating at least every other year. I choose to do it in the fall when planting seed.
The other action needed is to run a power rake or “Verticut machine” over your lawn. Small lawns can be hand raked. I alternate years between power raking and core aerating. Power raking cuts shallow grooves across the top of your lawn’s soil. It also dislodges accumulated thatch allowing you to rake and remove it. That provides an excellent “canvas” for planting grass seed. Lawn/landscape services can perform the work, or these power rake machines can also be rented.
After core aerating, or power raking and removing thatch, rake 1/4 to 1/2 inch of peat moss or LeafGro across your yard’s surface. Then spread lawn starter fertilizer across the soil and apply grass seed. To assure even application, both fertilizer and seed are best applied with a spreader. Top this off with a mere ¼ inch of LeafGro or peat moss. Slightly covering your seed will help keep it evenly moist as it is germinating and helps reduce disturbance from birds.
Many garden centers have free detailed instruction sheets on lawn renovation. The important thing is not to wait. This small window of time is in September. This is the absolute best time to plant seed to improve your lawn for the coming year.
*This month’s guest columnist, Scott Sutherland, is the Greenstreet Gardens in-house expert on lawn renovation and the person to consult about your lawn issues.