Green Scene

Fall Is a Great Time to Build a Healthier Lawn

A thriving lawn can do all sorts of good, and what you do in the fall can make a big difference.
A thriving lawn can do all sorts of good, and what you do in the fall can make a big difference. (By Sandra Leavitt Lerner For The Washington Post)
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By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, September 26, 2009

A well-managed lawn performs several functions every homeowner would consider essential. It can help to control dust, dissipate heat and noise, reduce glare and lower fire risk. And, with proper care, your lawn can improve soil and water quality by allowing rainwater to slowly percolate into the soil, which reduces runoff into rivers and streams.

Fall is the ideal time to stimulate strong networks of roots and growth on your lawn. Cool-season grasses are good varieties for the Washington region because they thrive in moist, well-drained soil and require six hours of sun or more. Here are some tips for keeping your grass green, thick and healthy:


Mow regularly, cutting off no more than one-third of the grass height. Cutting too much leaf surface shocks grass and results in longer recovery time between mowings. Set the mower blade for 3 to 3 1/2 inches in height. If areas are scalped when mowing by using a lower blade height, bare spots in the turf are exposed and crabgrass and broadleaf weeds can get a foothold.

Keep your mower blades sharp. Dull blades tear grass and can cause browning. Mow your grass into tiny particles, which help to fertilize the soil. If the grass clippings become too thick, grind them up with the mower or rake them over to the compost pile. If clippings get matted on the lawn, they can weaken and kill otherwise healthy grass.

Continue mowing until growth ceases in November or December. This greatly reduces the chance of having snow mold or other winter-fungus-related lawn diseases.


Enrich the soil under your lawn by aerating with a core aerator, available from a local tool-rental company. Walk over the lawn at least three to four times. For the aerator to penetrate properly, the soil should be moist but not soggy. Be sure to use an aerator that removes plugs of soil, not one that just punches holes.

Spreading compost is an integral part of the aeration process. Sprinkle it into aeration holes, but don't cover blades of grass. If compost is fine-textured, try using a broadcast spreader. Otherwise, sprinkle with a shovel or by hand. Commercial compost products such as Leafgro are fine-textured enough to use in a spreader and fall through the grass blades into the soil. Your own organic material will work well if it is dry and powdery enough. After a few years, compost alone will make your lawn thick and green enough without the need for supplemental fertilizer.

Have your soil tested at a local garden center or county Cooperative Extension Service before amending the root zone with compost or fertilizer. This will alert you to shortages in specific nutrients and give the pH. Test results will provide information on necessary amendments.


Laying fertilizer over the soil surface after aerating and sprinkling compost offers the opportunity for it to get into the roots where the grass needs it. Use a broadcast spreader if you're sure there's no weed-killer residue in it.

Products that are 40 to 50 percent organic or that have 10 to 20 percent slow-release or water-insoluble nitrogen (WIN) on the label are my preferences. Planet Natural ( offers Premium Lawn Fertilizer, an all-natural lawn nutrient. A couple of synthetic fertilizers are Scotts Lawn Pro Super Turf Builder and Greenview Fairway Formula Late Fall Fertilizer. Do not use fertilizer containing weedkiller when seeding.

Natural nutrients are derived from dehydrated poultry waste, blood, bone or feather meal, natural minerals and other organic materials. If you're a pet owner, you might not want organic products because dogs love the ingredients, especially bone meal. Research indicates that natural and synthetic fertilizers are equally effective for lawns.

Follow all labeled instructions when spreading lawn nutrients. If application rate isn't given, spread at about five pounds per 1,000 square feet.

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