Amidst the distractions of football, pumpkin patches and falling leaves, your lawn is crying for a little attention. The ongoing drought has been brutal on grass, but a little fall renovation can get it in shape to better withstand the pressures of whatever next year’s weather brings us.
High-quality grass seed is going to be the first step. Look beyond the pretty pictures on the bag and find the label that lists the actual varieties. Every bag of grass seed has one of these. Since turf-type tall fescue is still the most drought-tolerant and disease-resistant cool-season grass in variety trials in northeast Kansas, look for grass seed that includes three to four varieties of turf-type tall fescue.
When I say fescue, people sometimes think of a variety called K-31 that is occasionally used in lawns. K-31 is a pasture-type tall fescue that is coarse-bladed and grows in distinguishable clumps. Turf-type tall fescues are finer bladed and darker in color than K-31. They also have a growth habit that results in a denser, fuller lawn than one planted with K-31.
Kentucky bluegrass can be acceptable if your lawn is irrigated but is generally preferred in areas that receive more annual rainfall. Perennial ryegrass is susceptible to disease that will leave you with bare spots in the lawn every summer. Fine-leaved fescues such as creeping red fescue, chewings fescue, hard fescue and sheep’s fescue are not recommended for Kansas because of their inability to withstand heat and drought.
Rhizomatous tall fescues, or RTFs, have gotten some attention in the last few years, but save your money for the regular turf-type tall fescues.
The word rhizomatous refers to how the plant grows. Rhizomes are roots some grasses produce that help them spread.
The idea of a rhizomatous tall fescue is great, but in the field research at Kansas State University, RTF spread at the same rate as regular turf-type tall fescues and performed equally in color, density and appearance.
Pay attention to the percentages of weed seed and other crop seed that are also listed on the label. High quality seed will contain very low percentages of contaminants.
When you get ready to plant, there are a couple of options: the full-scale renovation (best method) or the something-is-better-than-nothing approach.
Full-scale lawn renovation
Rent a core aerator and a verticutter from a hardware or rental store. A power rake or dethatcher will provide the same benefit as a verticutter and the names are sometimes used interchangeably.
Core aerate first. Run the verticutter over the lawn next, and rake up the debris it pulls out. Plant the seed at a rate of 6 pounds to 8 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet of lawn. After dropping the seed on the ground, run the verticutter over the entire lawn again, at a 90-degree angle to the first course.
Apply fertilizer and water if rain is unlikely. Unless a soil test indicates otherwise, a fertilizer containing mostly nitrogen is all that is recommended. Nitrogen is the first number in the three-number ratio found on every fertilizer bag and represents the percentage of the nutrient. Fertilize at a rate of 1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn. That means it would take three pounds of a 33-0-0 to make one pound of actual nitrogen, so you would apply a 33-0-0 at a rate of three pounds per 1,000 square feet.
Something is better than nothing
The lawn may be less of a priority than other things in life right now, but improving the health of your lawn means less weeds and less watering next year. Also, turfgrass holds soil in place better than shallow-rooted weeds and is effective at reducing soil erosion.
The bare minimum for fall lawn care is to seed the bare spots with high-quality, turf-type tall fescue seed. Use a garden rake to loosen the soil surface. In large areas, consider using a cultivator or even a tiller to create a good seed bed. Fertilize with a high nitrogen fertilizer as described above.
• For either option, fertilize again with a quick-release nitrogen source in late November.
• Buffalograss, bermudagrass and zoysiagrass are warm-season grasses that are green in summer but dormant during spring and fall. Management of warm-season grasses is different, and information can be obtained at K-State Research and Extension—Douglas County or on the Kansas State University Turfgrass Information pages at ksuturf.org.
— Jennifer Smith is the Horticulture Extension Agent for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. Contact her or an Extension Master Gardener with your gardening questions at 843-7058 or firstname.lastname@example.org.