Preparing your Lawn for Winter
11/8/2019 6:00:00 AM
Tips for helping grass survive cold weather
It’s not welcome news, but it’s inevitable: winter IS coming. To put that into perspective, it’s only about six more Saturdays until the northern regions of the United States and Canada start seeing snowflakes. And if the long-term 2019 / 2020 winter forecast for the United States is anything like the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting, it’s going to be a doozy. Cold and snowy is the fate that awaits, and after intense summer sun, heavier foot traffic, too much or too little water and invasions by weeds, pests diseases and fungi, welcoming winter is like beating a lawn when it’s already down.
Fortunately, autumn’s allows lawns to recover. Less-abrasive, hot temperatures often favor top growth and root strength among cool-season grass breeds that grow in the United States’ midsection and into Canada. Additionally, this period is a great time for you to grab a pumpkin spice latte, put on some flannel and work outdoors comfortably to prepare your lawn for the long, cold winter. But why is it so important right now?
Why it’s important to prepare your lawn for winter
Your lawn is no use when it’s brown or covered by a blanket of snow, but a lawn’s transition to fall and winter is one of the most critical seasonal changes to its health. Preparing it for dormancy by checking the following items off your lawn care list today will help it bounce to life more quickly and grow healthier when spring returns.
Steps for preparing your lawn for winter
1. Mitigating chances for snow mold
Thatch is the layer of dead grass that falls to the soil bed. Some thatch is good, especially for winter insulation, but lawns overrun with thatch are prone to winter injury. Thatch shelters disease-causing organisms like snow mold. Snow mold occurs when excessive moisture (from snow) gets trapped in a lawn bed and creates a fungus. Like other harmful fungi and bacteria, snow mold can kill grass and leave behind large brown patches and can be a source for disappointment when spring brings life back to the rest of the lawn. However, as with many lawn issues, there are preventative measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of snow mold – one being dethatching.
Dethatching is pulling the layers of dead grass from a lawn bed. This can be done in one of two ways: raking is a cost-effective measure in reducing thatch from a lawn bed, but depending on the size of your lawn, this could take several hours. For faster results, look into renting or buying a dethatcher, which is almost like a powered rake. A dethatcher uses thin, flailing tines to pull thatch from lawn beds quickly.
Though using a dethatcher will save hours and hours of time, homeowners should be aware that inexperienced use of a dethatcher could do more harm than good. Aggressive dethatching could remove too much thatch from a lawn bed, leaving it less insulated for winter’s cold temperatures. If you’re not comfortable using a dethatcher, hire a professional in your area.
In addition to helping reduce the potential for snow mold, dethatching helps lawn soils breathe better, promoting stronger roots and helping grass survive winter more effectively.
Homeowners can also aerate their lawns to help avoid snow mold. Core aeration pulls cylindrical plugs out of the lawn, loosening the soil and stirring up the microorganisms that help break up thatch.
Aeration also has benefits beyond preventing snow mold and the spread of lawn fungi. In nearly every region of the country, fall is prime time for core aeration because fall is also the best time to seed a lawn. Seeding and aeration together is the most effective for growing new grass. See step 9 for more information. Additionally, aeration relieves soil compaction resulting from lawn mowers, foot traffic and even just the weight of the soil. The more compact the soil is, the harder it is for water, air, and nutrients to reach the roots of the grass. Lawns that go years without aeration are bound to become overcome with weeds, which fare better in compact soil than grass does.
2. Improving soil pH
A soil’s pH level is its measure of acidity or alkalinity, and if it’s within its pH range of 6.5 to 7.0, which is in the slightly acidic to neutral range, its chances of surviving winter are much stronger.
Testing your lawn's pH level can be done on your own with a kit from a gardening store. Test your soil by taking three to five soil samples from about 4 – 6 inches below the soil surface in different areas of your lawn. Remove the grass so you're sampling soil only. Mix the dirt together and spread around on a disposable surface so it can dry out over a 24-hour period and test according to the instructions of your kit.
If the soil is too acidic (pH 0 – 6), add wood ash to your lawn. If the soil is too basic (pH 8 – 14), add sphagnum peat to your lawn. Just be aware that it may require some tilling to fully incorporate the sphagnum peat into the soil and for it to take effect. Another option is to add fine mulch and compost to your lawn.
3. Eliminate weeds before winter
Steps can be taken before and during the winter to help prevent weeds next spring. An interesting fact about weeds and cold weather is that weed control is more effective in the fall. When perennial weeds feel winter approaching, they move their food storage from their leaves to their roots. So, as you shower those weeds with an herbicide or vinegar spray, they move their own poison to their central nervous system – their roots – which kills them more effectively.
If you live in a region with warm-season grasses, which grow in the midsection of the United States and south, continue mowing to help stifle weed growth. Though that grass is less tolerant to cooler temperatures and will go dormant when temperatures start falling below 55 degrees on a consistent basis, winter weeds will continue growing. Though it may seem silly to cut over grass that’s approaching its dormancy stage, weeds in warm-season grasses can’t survive repeated cuttings.
Mow the weeds at the same height you would normally cut grass to eradicate those pests from your lawn. For best results, mow with a bagger to help prevent the weed spores from spreading throughout your lawn and germinating in other places.
4. Remove Leaves Before Snowfall
So what if leaves cover the grass? Leaves are just organic material and it doesn’t matter if they’re raked or not, right? Well, there’s actually purpose in raking leaves from a yard beyond aesthetics. It’s for the health of your lawn.
Leaves block sunlight, smother the grass and prevent moisture from evaporating from a lawn. If fallen leaves aren’t just depriving your lawn from sunlight, they’re also creating an environment that promotes lawn disease. This can be especially impactful in regions with snow, because as with excessive thatch, leaves can trap snow’s moisture and cause disease and fungi like snow mold.
Raking leaves is a good start and allows you to balance hours sitting on the couch watching Saturday college football, Sunday professional football… and some more football on Thursday and Monday nights. However, if your schedule is busy enough and you’d rather exchange hours of chores with hours of more free time for yourself and your family, consider one of the following options:
Mulching kits for leaves
This is by far the fastest way to clear leaves from a yard. Installing a mulching kit to your Ariens zero turn lawn mower recycles those leaves into tiny pieces of mulch that allow your lawn to breathe while absorbing the nutrients released by those leaves when broken down. Zero turn mulching kits for Ariens lawn mowers are available at an authorized, local Ariens dealer or online at the Ariens parts and accessories website.
Learn more about zero turn mulching kits from a blog post we wrote earlier this year.
Lawn mower baggers for leaves
Compared to using a rake, bagging leaves is once again a much faster solution, but has some tradeoffs with mulching. Bagging will take a bit more time than mulching because the leaves will need to be dumped somewhere on your property, the curb or at a local dump site. However, the benefit of a bagger over mulching is that they’ll wipe lawns clean of leaves and leave them in pristine shape for an extended entertainment season. As an added bonus, you can dump your bagger in two piles to cushion each backyard football end zone for healthy and safe family fun.
Added strength from fertilizer can help your lawn weather a long winter, but there's more to it than simply picking up a bag of fertilizer at your local hardware store or nursery and spreading it across your lawn. The most important things to do before applying any fertilizer or nutrients to your grass is understanding your grass type and knowing the pH level, or level of acidity / alkalinity, in your soil. Fertilizer isn't a one-size-fits-all product. There's different types for different conditions, and if you get it wrong, you could do more harm than good to your lawn.
Click the linked heading to read the blog we published earlier this year about grass types, including their classifications as warm or cool-season grasses. This is important to know before fertilizing because different grass types take different types of fertilizer. For instance, cool-season grasses like Kentucky Bluegrass, perennial Ryegrass and Fescue breeds require nitrogen-rich fertilizers. Some organic options include bone meal, blood meal or manure. Warm-season grasses actually won't need extra fertilizer to make it through winter. A better option is to wait until warmer weather comes back before spreading nutrient-rich organic compost on those grasses.
Test Your Grass
Applying any nutrient to your lawn without knowing its pH level is like playing Russian roulette with your lawn. As we talked about in step 2, soils have varying levels of acidity or alkalinity. With just a soil test kit from your local hardware store, you can find that measurement and learn which fertilizers will work best with your lawn.
6. Keep off the grass!
For the first time ever, there might be some sense behind the scolding from your cranky neighbors. Grass is much more vulnerable in it’s dormant state, and while it may seem harmless, consider your grass’ short, brown and uninviting appearance as your own queue to keep off the grass. Even if the ground is completely frozen in northern regions and think it’s impossible to hurt it in that state, it’s still possible.
Dormant grass has none of that elasticity that it did when it was warm. Step on it in the warm months and it’ll spring back to life. Step on it during its dormant period in the fall or winter and it could break – requiring extra recovery time in the spring, meaning it stays brown longer as the healthier areas turn green faster.
Even if the grass is completely snow-covered, diversify your walking paths across the yard. Trekking over the same locations compacts the soils in that area, restricting the ability for the roots to absorb water and nutrients come springtime. Help discourage others from walking across your lawn and harming it by keeping your driveway and sidewalks clear of snowfall. Find your snow-clearing solution by viewing the complete Ariens snow blower lineup at ariens.com.
7. Remove annual plants
Annuals die every year, and if left behind, these dead plants become luxury condos for lawn- and garden-killing insects to thrive and reproduce. Before winter starts, pull up the dead plants entirely – including their roots. Remnants can be discarded in the trash, or better, in your compost pile.
8. Mulch the perennials
Like grass, other perennials in your yard might appear to be dying when cold weather moves in, but they’re merely going dormant. Be confident they’ll return to brighten your yard in the spring, even if they’re trimmed down to the surface level. Trimming dormant perennial vegetation is suggested because it helps keep its roots intact through the winter.
If your lawn is blanketed with insulating snow in the winter, perennials should survive into next season. If there’s little to no snow cover in your region, consider protecting the perennials with two or three inches of mulch, such as shredded leaves or pine needles.
9. Remove items from your yard
So many of us are guilty of it. Storage space in the garage runs slim and we’re forced to keep junk in the yard. Even as sunlight hours quickly disappear, grass that’s covered by junk and other objects can go brown and die in just a few days. And when spring brings everything to life next year, those spaces will be left in the dust – demanding time and money spent to correct the issue that was 100 percent avoidable.
10. Fixing bare spots in your lawn
Fall isn’t too late to think about overseeding, which is filling in bare spots of your lawn with grass seed. In fact, fall is one of the best times for cool-season grasses in the midsection of the United States and north, to grow and thrive. By overseeding now, you’ll help ensure a full-lush appearance in your lawn when spring returns.
To improve the effectiveness of overseeding, sprinkle grass seed around your yard right after aeration. When grass seed falls into holes created by aeration, they sprout more effectively.
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