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A hot, dry summer can be tough on gardens, but lawns are suffering as well. If yours looks like the winner of an ugly lawn contest, don’t despair: There are a few things you can do to help it recover and improve its looks for next year.
Start with healthy soil. Fall is the perfect time for a soil test to see what nutrients yours is lacking and fertilize accordingly. Add lime or wood ashes if the pH is too low; a pH between 6.0 and 6.8 is optimum. Wood ashes are also a good source of potassium.
In the fall, the best thing you can do this fall is spread a thin ¼-1/2 inch layer of compost or well-rotted manure over your lawn and rake it in to add some organic matter to the soil. It helps feed those essential microbes over the winter and also improves your soil’s ability to hold water.
In the spring, for a truly “green” lawn, steer clear of chemicals that can kill the microbiota in your soil. They can also run off into lakes and streams, polluting groundwater. Instead, use organic fertilizers with slow-release nitrogen to green up your lawn and promote strong root growth.
Mow high, keeping grass at a length no shorter than 3 inches. Tall grass shades out weeds and keeps the soil cool and moist. Cut only when the grass is dry and be sure the blade is sharp to avoid tearing the grass.
Leave the clippings on the lawn. They are a natural fertilizer, returning nitrogen to the soil.
Be sure to water deeply during the early morning if possible—1 inch once a week is optimal. Watering lightly or too often encourages shallow roots which are more vulnerable to drought, diseases and pests. To see if it is time to water try the footprint test. If your grass stays flat after you walk on it, it needs a drink!
Summer dormancy is going to happen unless your lawn is diligently watered. Even grass mixes labeled as drought-tolerant will go dormant during prolonged hot dry spells. Dormancy is a survival technique. Continue to water your dormant, dead-looking grass to prevent it from actually dying. A half inch of water every two weeks will keep the roots alive. When the cooler weather and frequent rains of fall return, your cool season lawn should green up and grow again. Warm season grasses such as zoysia and Bermuda grass go dormant in the fall.
In the fall, consider overseeding the whole lawn. After you have spread some compost, scatter grass seed then lightly rake it in to cover the seed.
Consider white clover. A mix of plants builds healthy diversity so instead of grass seed we use white clover. It stays green even during hot, dry summers, adds nitrogen to the soil, and the bees and other beneficial insects love it. If you don’t get it planted this fall you can scatter it in the early spring and it will be up and growing before you know it! See more about clover.
Choose the right grass for your region. There are hundreds of grass seed varieties to pick from. Look for ones appropriate for the conditions in your yard. Sun or shade? Wet or dry? Cold or hot? For most yards, planting a mix of seed types is better than growing a single variety. Fall soil is still warm and the seeds should germinate fast. Even if you plant too late for the seeds to sprout, they will emerge first thing next spring.
Make your last mow of the season a little shorter to decrease the chances of snow mold developing. It is that fuzzy white growth that occurs on matted grass.