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Midwest Gardening: Step on the Grass

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Lush, green lawns are a signature of Midwestern gardens. Fall is the best time to give them the care they need to look great and do their job in the landscape.

a healthy lawn

By Marty Ross

Fall is lawn care season in the Midwest. When a sweater or a jacket feels better than shirtsleeves, it’s time to give cool-season lawns the care and attention they need.

Pretty lawns are more than green carpets that set off homes or frame flowerbeds: They hold soil in place; filter and limit runoff; out-compete weeds; and absorb nutrients from fertilizers better than thin, worn lawns. Taking care of them keeps them healthy and beautiful, and helps them do their work.

lawn on a slight slope

Most lawns in our region are mixes of Kentucky bluegrass and fescue. Although summers in the Midwest can be warm enough for zoysia lawns, traditions—and conditions—favor cool-season grasses, and the vast majority of lawn care advice in the Midwest is tailored for them.

“For cool-season lawns, if you only fertilize once a year, do it in September,” says Ward Upham, extension associate with Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. The timing and fertilizer guidelines vary a bit across the region, so it’s a good idea to check your local extension office’s recommendations. (Search the name of your state, and the words “extension” and “turf.”) Generally the best time to fertilize cool-season lawns in the Midwest is September through November. It’s a great time to be outdoors too.

autumn leaves and grass

Autumn leaves shouldn’t be a problem. Just mow over them while you cut the grass. You save time and money: Instead of bagging leaves and paying for curbside pickup, mowing over them reduces them to mulch. It’s good for the lawn and for the environment. If you need crushed leaves for the compost heap or as mulch for flowerbeds, autumn is your chance: Pick up the leaves with the bagger attachment on your lawn mower.

After a summer of wear and tear, thin spots may develop in established cool-season lawns. Sow grass seed in early to mid-September, roughing up the bare soil first with a rake to insure good seed-to-soil contact. Check the label when you buy seeds: The percentages of “other crop” and “weed seed” on the label both should be zero.

periwinkle planted around tree

Growing grass under trees is a bit of an exercise in futility. Cool-season grass is not shade tolerant. “In shady areas grass is an annual plant,” says Larry Ryan, owner of Ryan Lawn & Tree maintenance company in Kansas City. Instead of repeatedly sowing grass seed under trees, he recommends mulching about one-third of the way from the tree’s trunk to the drip line. Mulch (or groundcover plants such as periwinkle) looks neat and protects the tree from being bumped by the lawn mower or ripped up with a string trimmer.

tree trunk damaged by mower and trimmer

Warm-season zoysia lawns go dormant when the temperatures cool off in fall. Mow them to about 2.5 inches high, and mow over or rake autumn leaves as they fall. Cool-season grass keeps growing until the end of October or early November and should be maintained at 3.5 to 4 inches tall year-round. When the last of the autumn leaves has fallen, mow one more time (don’t scalp the grass) and retire the lawn mower until next year. It’s time to take a break.

See more Midwest Gardening Articles.