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Ending Lawn Activities and Looking Toward Spring

As we put our lawns to bed for the winter, I’ve collected some tips from a variety of Purdue experts about lawn care for the end of fall, what to do during winter months, and how to get started in early spring.

The first question that may come to mind is how late you should mow into the fall. “The answer is to keep mowing as long as the grass continues to grow, which is normally into late October or early November,” said Zac Reicher, former Purdue Extension turfgrass specialist. “Frequency of mowing can decrease but continue to mow into the fall.” He added that we should avoid the urge to set the mower down and scalp your yard so that photosynthesis may continue. The higher the photosynthesis, the more energy a grass plant will store for winter and next spring, and the healthier a grass plant will be. Conversely, unmowed grass that gets too tall may become more susceptible to a damaging turf disease called snow mold.

Entering winter through early spring, John Orick, Purdue Extension Master Gardener state coordinator, urged homeowners to follow these four tips, with editorial comments following each tip.

  • Remove excessive leaf debris from turf areas. Excessive leaf debris can block the utilization of light and the exchange of gasses during the winter months. While we generally encourage mowing leaves into turf, excessive leaf debris may cause turf loss.
  • Avoid fertilizer and broadleaf herbicide applications once the turf is dormant. Winter dormancy means the plants are not able to utilize nutrients, and many broadleaf herbicides need minimum temperatures of about 50 degrees to be effective.
  • Prepare your mower for spring. Winter is a great time to change the oil, sharpen mower blades, and other normal maintenance tasks. Mowing with sharp mower blades is healthier for turf plants by making a clean cut rather than a ragged one, and it looks nicer. Fresh fuel in spring is best, so run it out of fuel in fall if possible.
  • Avoid walking on turf areas before the frost has melted. Ice crystals inside leaves burst with added pressure and damage plant cell walls. The result will be foot-shaped areas of brown grass blades.

Cale Beigelow, Purdue Extension turfgrass specialist, offered some spring mowing tips. “Probably one of the biggest mistakes homeowners make is not starting to mow their lawns soon enough,” he said. “Remember the mowing ‘rule of thumb’ – for optimum turf health ‘try not to remove more than 1/3 of the leaf blade during any one single mowing.’” He said that for a lawn being maintained at 3 inches, you should not be removing more than 1.5 inches of leaf tissue, or mow when the turf reaches 4.5 inches. He adds:

  • Remove any lawn debris prior to mowing (twigs, sticks, leaves, children’s play equipment, etc.)
  • Make sure your mower is tuned up and ready for the season: check the oil, gas, etc.
  • Use sharp blades! Dull blades equal increased turf stress and poor mowing appearance.
  • Generally, it is better to return clippings back to the lawn as they are a significant source of plant nutrients and it takes less time to mow.
  • It does not hurt the turf to mow slightly (1/2 inch) lower than the normal 2.5-3.5 inches for the first mowing or two as this may remove some of the brown dead tissue from the leaf tips. But, don’t scalp your lawn.

Finally, we occasionally see volunteer maple and other tree seedlings growing in lawns in the spring. If they are in a good location, you can stake them and nurture them (or transplant to a desirable location).  If additional trees are not desired, regular mowing is the most effective control method.

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