Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Mondays in Steamboat Today.
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Quite often by the time the kids go begging for treats in downtown Steamboat Springs on Halloween, we've experienced some snowfall and certainly much cooler weather. So before winter kicks in and you lose the opportunity to give your lawn a head start on next spring's growth, take time to care for your lawn this fall.
If you have fallen leaves covering your lawn, it's best to remove them before they become soggy and smother your grass. Raking them up or shredding them with the lawn mower are good ways to keep air and water flowing freely in your lawn.
Speaking of mowing, you may continue to cut the grass until it stops growing. The last cut of the year should be slightly shorter than your normal cut to eliminate the possibility of snow mold and dead growth caused by long blades of grass bent by heavy snows. Then, once you've made your last cut, be sure to drain the gas from your mower and clean it up before storing it until spring. And, don't forget to blow out your sprinkler system so it doesn't freeze and break during the winter.
For cool season grasses, which is what most of us in our Zone 4 mountains grow, fall is a great time to apply fertilizer containing nitrogen as well as phosphorus (the N and the P in NPK percentages listed on fertilizer labels). Apply fertilizer after the grass is dormant. Keeping grass lush green into later fall months increases the chances of getting snow mold. The nitrogen helps with top growth, which occurs again in the cooler weather after a hot summer, and the phosphorus is great for helping the root system withstand a cold winter. Phosphorus also aids the grass in winter storage of nutrients, spring root growth and reduces spring disease problems.
Fall is also a good time to apply herbicides should your lawn be littered with perennial weeds. Note the type of weed cropping up in your lawn: broadleaf, perennial weedy grasses or annual weedy grasses. Then use the appropriate herbicide for that type of weed, or simply get out your digger tool and start pulling out the roots of these lawn interlopers. For fall herbicide application, make sure the perennial weed still is green and growing, usually through the month of September.
Another maintenance item for a healthy lawn is to eliminate compacted soil by core-aeration at least once a year. Aeration allows oxygen and water to penetrate to the roots. It's best to aerate in the fall once the weather begins to cool. However, aerate only if the ground has moisture so that the aerator actually penetrates the soil.
Finally, if you're noting some bare spots in your lawn, throw some seed down, water it to give the new seed an opportunity to begin sprouting, and then cover with mulch, straw or grass clippings for a protective blanket through the winter. Wait until late October to seed so it has no chance of germinating until next spring.
Take care of your lawn this fall, so your springtime work will be minimized.
Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825.