If you want your yard to thrive come spring, fertilizing your lawn during autumn is an essential maintenance step.

By Blythe Copeland
July 07, 2020
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By fall, the main items on your outdoor to-do list probably include tasks like leaf removal and snow preparation, but early autumn is also the right time to start thinking about next spring's yard. "After the heat of summer, there is little left of the lawn's root system," says Bob Mann, lawn and landscape expert for the National Association of Landscape Professionals. "That root system needs to be restored in the cooler days of autumn, leading to the point where the lawn finally goes dormant for the winter. Inputs such as overseeding and fertilizing may take a long time to bear fruit; the key words for successful lawn care are patience and persistence."

Why Fall Is a Good Time to Fertilize Your Lawn

After the stress of hot summer weather and hard sun, the shorter days and lower temperatures of fall give your grass a respite that allows it to prepare for the following year. "Cooler fall temperatures are ideal for lawn recovery from stressful summertime weather and proper fertilization feeds that recovery process," says John Crossmock, director of technical operations at TruGreen. By fertilizing in the fall, you're focusing on developing the root system of your grass, which helps it store nutrients over the winter. "Ample roots means ample storage of food the plants need when they emerge from dormancy the following spring," says Mann. "Lawns that are properly fertilized in the autumn will stay greener longer and will green up sooner the next spring."

The Best Time to Start Fertilizing

No region has a precise date on which you should start fertilizing, so you need to watch the weather. "The trick with fall fertilizer is to apply it in such a way that it is taken up and utilized by the turfgrass plants prior to when those plants go dormant," says Mann. "That time is earlier in the northern states and later in the south as winter approaches." If you have a lawn service, the team should know when to apply the fertilizer; if not, Mann recommends following the advice of a local university cooperative extension program. Crossmock suggests a simple guideline: "Fall fertilization can be done any time after temperatures begin to moderate—early to mid-September—until the ground freezes," he says. "The earlier the better is a good rule of thumb in order to get [the most] benefit from a fall lawn fertilizer application."

Fall Lawn Fertilizer Key Ingredients

For your lawn, nitrogen is the key nutrient to look for in fertilizers; it helps the grass process other nutrients and allows the roots to spread more effectively, say the experts. But if you're fertilizing other types of landscaping—like your vegetable garden, flower beds, or shrubs—you'll want a different fertilizer for each. "It is absolutely true that different types of fertilizer are needed for different landscapes," says Mann. "Fertilizers formulated for lawns are designed to encourage vegetative growth, meaning leaves. For shrubs and flowers, fertilizers are formulated to encourage blooming. Look for fertilizers that are advertised for each for best results."

How to Apply Fall Lawn Fertilizer

The most important step you can take when applying fertilizer to your lawn, agree the experts, is carefully following the label's recommendations for the quantity of fertilizer you need and the type of spreader you should use. "Fertilizer must be broadcast over the lawn evenly to avoid striping, which can be described as a pattern of light and dark green grass that follows uneven distribution of fertilizer," says Mann. "I would recommend using a broadcast spreader—one that has a spinning disk below the hopper that you fill with fertilizer—as opposed to a drop spreader—one that simply drops fertilizer on the surface. The chances of striping a lawn with a drop spreader are far greater than with a broadcast spreader." Both experts emphasize that using more fertilizer doesn't mean you'll have a healthier lawn. "Just as it is with human beings, the diet must be properly administered in order to optimize overall health," says Mann. "Five minutes of preparation followed by adhering to those directions makes all the difference."

Other Fall Lawn Maintenance to Consider

In addition to fertilizing, the cooler temperatures of fall make it a good time to add seed to your lawn's thinner patches. "Young grass plants can use favorable weather this fall and next spring to develop and mature prior to the hot summer months that await the next year," says Crossmock. If you wait until the spring to plant new grass, they may not have time to establish themselves before facing the stress of hot weather. "Spring seedings seldom succeed, because just as the new seedlings are beginning to mature the heat and humidity of summer hit, often killing the new plants before they can fully establish," says Mann. "Competition from pests is lower during the fall as well, especially from troublesome weeds such as crabgrass. I recommend that homeowners perform some sort of cultivation like core aeration followed by overseeding each fall to keep their lawn vigorous and healthy over the long haul."

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