Editor's note: This is the first of a series of columns on lawn care.
As the summer heat begins to cool and timely rains start to fall, many homeowners are asking "Is my grass still alive?" It's a logical question, as once-lush green lawns look brown and dead. With the best time of year to overseed and renovate your turf just around the corner, here are some helpful tips to get your fall lawn-care program off to a good start.
The first step to renovation is to determine how much damage has been done to your lawn. Many cool-season grasses go dormant in late summer because of heat and drought stress. Lawns with automatic sprinkler systems that get regular waterings are usually able to maintain their color, but many homeowners do not enjoy that luxury.
To check if grass is dead or just dormant, pull up an individual plant and separate the leaves from the crown (the area between the leaves and the roots). If the crown is still hard but not papery and dry, the plant is still alive. If it is brown and dry, that plant is dead and overseeding is a must this fall.
Once you determine how much renovation work is required, the next step is to prepare the seed bed. If large areas of turf are dead, the best option is to completely till the area. Do not remove dead material first, because it will add organic matter to the soil when tilled.
Similarly, if the grass is gone and weeds have taken over, apply Roundup to the entire area and till after the weeds have died.
If just spots or patches need attention, verticutting or core aerating is a better choice. These machines are designed to loosen the soil and allow seed, water and oxygen to reach deep down. These less-drastic measures can be done the day you are ready to seed. However, when using these machines, pay attention to soil moisture. If the ground is too dry, they will not work well. If it's too wet, they create a sloppy mess.
After the seed bed is prepared, spreading seed is the next step. You can use either a drop or a rotary-type fertilizer spreader to apply the seed. Anywhere a seed falls becomes a potential place for a grass plant to grow, so be careful to avoid flower beds and other grass-free areas.
Overseed using fresh, weed-free seed. Apply it at the rate of 5 to 8 pounds per every 1,000 square feet. For areas that have been completely tilled, seed at the rate of 8 to 10 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet.
The process ends with spreading a starter-type fertilizer and then watering it all in. Try to keep the seed bed moist. Once the grass has grown 3 to 4 inches, begin mowing and back off on the watering.