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Fall is the best time to prepare your lawn for next year, says MSU expert

Russ White
Kevin Frank

Kevin Frank joins Russ White to talk about what you can do now to prepare your lawn for 2019. Frank is an associate professor in MSU's Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences and a MSU Extension turf specialist.  

White:What kind of summer are we coming out of, and what, if any, interesting challenges is this particular year presenting for lawn owners?

Frank:This year was probably one of the more interesting we've had in a while. I know it's hard to remember back far enough, but April was cold. We got a late start to the season, and then, like everybody always jokes, we kind of went from winter to summer. I don't know that spring maybe lasted a week or two, and then it was over, and June through July and into August was very hot, as I think everybody recalls. That's not too far away now.

Also, on top of that, depending on where you were in the state, many areas of the state were very dry, especially down through the Grand Rapids, Lansing, Detroit corridor, where there was probably six weeks there where we hardly had any precipitation, and combined with those high temperatures, if you weren't irrigating your lawn, it was toast brown, it went dormant. A lot of people took that as an opportunity to get off the mower. You might not have had to mow for at least a month in some cases. Even if you did, it might have been trimming some weeds back and not really cutting a lot of grass.

So, coming out of that, that's kind of what our challenge has been as we've moved through fall. What I've really noticed is, I haven't really seen any areas that died from that drought and heat. That's the number one question everybody has when they don't irrigate, or even for some people that irrigated and just couldn't keep up, was: “If it went dormant, is it coming back?” I think, typical to Michigan, our dry periods aren't long enough to kill, especially our Kentucky bluegrass lawns. I've seen almost everything come back.

Now, I've seen some spots where not everything's come back a hundred percent, and that's where the question becomes. We saw a lot of crabgrass come in late. Whereas typically that would have been June, I think we saw new populations sprout up end of August, early September that filled those voids quickly. Also, I've seen a tremendous resurgence in dandelion, which is no surprise. It happens every year. People just forget about it. But those voids have been filled by weeds now.

The thing to keep in mind, especially with something like crabgrass, it's a summer annual. We're not far from frost, and some places we might have already had a little bit of early frost. As soon as that first frost hits, all those summer annuals such as crabgrass are going to die. It might be an eyesore right now, but it's not worth, in my opinion, going out and trying to kill crabgrass at this time of year.

White:Kevin, people love to get out in the spring after winter and work on the yard, and that's great. But you always like to remind people the best time to have an impact on your lawn for next year is the fall. Why is that?

Frank:It tends to be a good time. The plants are recovering, especially from a summer like this. A lot of key things I always tell people is if you haven't fertilized maybe since early this summer, this would be a good time to do it. I'd like to see you get it done before mid-October, if you get it done in early October, it helps the nutrient get into the plant so the plant can still use it to grow a little bit this fall before it shuts down going into the winter.

The second thing, which I already talked a little bit about with respect to crabgrass, is different weeds, such as those dandelions, those tough-to-control broadleaf weeds, whether you consider white clover, dandelion, things like black medic, which people might not be as familiar with. A lot of people certainly know Creeping Charlie or ground ivy. Those weeds can be very effectively controlled with an early October application of a broadleaf herbicide. So, if you're lacking density, if those weeds have become a problem, you're going to more effectively get them now than you will be able to next spring and into summer. 

White:Anything particular this fall, again, because of the dry summer you mentioned we had?

Frank:I think also some people might still be thinking about should they reseed some patches, especially if they haven't come back. If you put on fertilizer, you've got too big of a void to creep over yet this fall. We're getting late on seeding. This is the time of year, when you get towards the end of September, early October, if you're thinking of doing a complete reseeding of your lawn, like new establishment, I'd venture caution then. If you're just looking at some patch areas to sprinkle some seed in, I would go ahead and do that. I mean, even if it doesn't completely work out, it's not that big an area. Hopefully, it didn't require too many resources of your time and money. I'd do it then.

The big areas in this part of Michigan, mid-Michigan through southeast, we typically say If you're not done seeding by about the third week of September, you're probably getting too late. Certainly, as you go further north, you can see that that date moves forward in the calendar. So, kind of on the edge. Small areas, I'd go; large areas, I would probably consider waiting.

White:Kevin, I think you like to remind people to mulch up the leaves instead of picking them up. It's good fertilizer.

Frank:Yeah, absolutely. It's good fertilizer. There is a limit, depending on your lot size and the number of large trees you might have. Yeah, it's good organic matter, and especially for a lot of our suburban, urban soils that we grow our lawns on. Many of these soils are not the greatest, and putting some natural organic matter back in through chopping up leaves through mowing is a great way to get that organic matter back into the soil. It's going to be a little bit of a slow-release fertilizer also. Some of the work we've done over the years, although it's a little sketchy on some of the results, they do appear to have some effect on some of the broadleaf weed populations.

So, I think that overall it's just about creating a healthy turf environment. The thing I always like to talk about: The more density you have in your turf, the less problems you have with things like weeds encroaching. So, whether that's fertilizer, whether that's mulching leaves, mowing high, all those principles help your lawn to be the healthiest it can be in the long run.

White:Any other tips, Kevin, as we move through the rest of the fall, then?

Frank:I think the thing, as I see it, as you go through the rest of the fall, keep the leaves cleaned up. Don't let them smother the lawn. Don't let them sit there. You don't want to get to the point where there's a snowfall event and you had leaves sitting there on the ground all winter long. That could be bad for the lawn.

I'm not a big fan of bouncing around with mowing heights either. If you mow three inches all year long, I personally would just keep mowing it three inches. I don't think you need to drop it down as you go into the last one of the year. Some people really like to do that. They think, "I'm going to clean up the lawn a little bit." But what I've found is, for lack of a better description, turf almost gets trained to a mowing height. It's like, if you mow three inches all year long, and then all of a sudden you decide on the last one, "I'm going down to two," for example, you're going to scalp areas you haven't touched all year long. So, I think in most cases I would just stay consistent with your height of cut.

White:You do a lot of work with Michigan's golf courses, too. What's the state of our golf courses?

Frank:I think they've rebounded very well. It certainly was a challenging summer for golf courses. Just like everybody saw with their lawns, golf courses were trying to keep things going with no Mother Nature rain. That is a big factor for everybody out there. You never realize in some cases how inefficient some of the irrigation systems really are until Mother Nature isn't covering up those inefficiencies. That creates some problems. For a lot of golf courses it's a labor standpoint of they don't have the personnel always to go out there and hand-water hotspots late in the afternoon.

So, there were some tough weeks there. They made it through. They're recovering very well this fall. I think all the golfers in the state who are like me who are already using the excuse of, "I've got to get out one more time, because the weather could get bad next week. So, I've got to go now" are going to be in great shape this fall. Go out and enjoy it while you can.

White:That's Kevin Frank. He's an associate professor in Michigan State University's Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences. He's also an MSU Extension turf specialist. Follow him on Twitter, @MSUTurf, and a great website with tons of information is simply turf.msu.edu.  

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on WKAR News/Talk 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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