Ruling Over the Lawn in Winter


As the gardening season winds down briefly, it’s a good time to invest in some long-term lawn repair and maintenance that will pay big dividends next spring. It is also a time to prepare a strategy for the years to come.

If you do nothing else to your lawn, fertilize it. Fertilizing at the right times creates stronger grass, which resists weeds and diseases more effectively.

For cool-season grass, apply fertilizer in early fall, again in late fall and then in mid- to late spring. While most lawns can get by with fewer applications, don’t skip fall fertilizing.


Unlike spring feeding, which contributes mostly to top growth, fertilizing in the fall creates a stronger root system for your lawn--a key element in keeping your grass healthy throughout the year. Fertilizing also will help jump-start top growth in spring, because some of these nutrients are stored in the roots while top growth is slow in colder months.

Mid-spring is the best time to feed warm-season grass, just before the most vigorous growth spurt. But it’s also a good idea to fertilize in early summer and early fall. Fall fertilizing pushes the grass to stay green longer into fall or winter. Bermuda grass, in particular, responds well to this treatment.

Most grasses require 2 to 4 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet annually. The standard recommendation is to apply 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet each time you fertilize, to prevent “burning” the lawn.

But when using fertilizers with 50% or more slow-release nitrogen, you can apply up to 2 pounds of nitrogen in a single application. Always check the product label, and use a drop or broadcast spreader to distribute fertilizer evenly across the lawn.

Too busy? Professional lawn-care services typically charge $5 to $10 per application of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet of lawn.

Help It Breathe

You’ll need to aerate your lawn if it’s heavily used or if it’s growing in heavy clay or compacted soil. Not sure? If water puddles on the lawn or runs off without soaking in, you should aerate.


Aerating removes half-inch-diameter cores of compacted soil. This allows water, air and nutrients to circulate easily around grass roots. Aerating also helps break up thatch because the soil plugs contain microorganisms that help decompose the dead organic material.

How often you aerate depends on the type of soil and how the lawn is used. A heavily traveled lawn in clay soil may need aeration two times a year. A lawn growing in good loam without much foot traffic might need aerating just once every two to five years. You’ll pay $11 to $20 per 1,000 square feet of lawn for a professional to do the job.

Aerating is difficult work. The most practical and effective device for the job is a power core aerator that removes plugs of soil and deposits them on the lawn. Daily rental is about $50. Aerators with spikes that punch holes are less effective and can even compact the soil.

Make sure the soil is slightly moist before aerating. The holes should penetrate 2 to 3 inches deep with a 3- to 4-inch spacing between holes. Make a couple of passes in different directions to achieve this spacing.

Once the lawn is aerated, break the soil cores apart with a flexible-tine rake, smooth the surface as best you can and compost any remaining clumps of grass. Then fertilize and water the lawn.

Remove Thatch

If your lawn feels spongy when you walk on it, you should de-thatch it. Thatch is a heavy layer of living and dead grass stems, roots and crowns located between the soil line and the green grass blades. A little thatch is good, but a layer over half an inch thick keeps air, water and fertilizer from grass roots. This makes for a shallow-rooted lawn that is less hardy to drought, pests, heat and cold. Estimate the thickness of the thatch by poking your finger through it.


There are several ways to remove thatch. When thatch is under 1 inch thick, consider just aerating, which does less damage to the lawn.

For a small lawn, use a thatching rake available from Ames Lawn and Garden Tools ([800] 725-9500;; $18-$36), but be prepared for a real workout. The long, knifelike blades cut through and pull up thatch, but you have to be thorough, and it’s slow work.

For a large lawn with a thatch layer thicker than 1 inch, the most effective tool is a vertical mower. The blades on this heavy-duty, mower-like machine cut through the thatch and bring it to the surface. You can rent one for about $50 to $60 a day. A lawn-care company will charge $35 to $50 per 1,000 square feet of lawn. (Most of the cost of hiring a professional is in the labor required to rake up and haul away the thatch.)

Just before de-thatching, mow the lawn about 1 inch lower than normal. Next, make several passes over the lawn in different directions using the de-thatcher. Rake up and remove the debris, and then water and fertilize the lawn. Remember, the lawn should be moist when you do this.


After de-thatching, your lawn will look ragged for some time and over-seeding may be necessary to fill in the gaps. It’s also a way to introduce improved grass varieties to the grass you already have. Over-seeding is effective on a freshly aerated lawn as well.

Use a spreader to distribute seed evenly over the prepared lawn at the rate recommended on the package. Rake the lawn so the seed makes contact with the soil, and water to keep the soil moist.


Preventive Care

While certain types of grass, such as some varieties of Kentucky bluegrass and Bermuda grass, have a tendency to build up thatch, improper lawn care contributes to the problem in all lawns. To minimize buildup of thatch, avoid frequent, shallow watering; over-fertilization; infrequent, high mowing; excessive use of pesticides; and compacting the soil. Leaving clippings, however, does not create thatch.

Patch Dead Spots

Whatever the cause of dead patches, they are easy to fix. The goal is to remove the dead or damaged section of lawn and replace it with a piece of sod or by reseeding.

First, use a shovel or spade to remove the dead lawn and several inches surrounding it. Also correct underlying problems if necessary. Next, loosen the soil. If it’s sandy or heavy clay, mix in a few inches of compost and then level the area.

To plant with seed, spread the seed over the prepared soil and rake to cover it with a thin layer of soil. Another option is to cover the seed with about 4 inches of compost. Spindle a bit more seed on the surface and keep the seed bed moist until the seed germinates.

To plant with sod, cut a piece to fit the patch and press it in place to ensure good contact with the soil; then water well. Often, dead spots in lawns are a symptom of a problem that needs correcting. For example, if spilled fertilizer or dog urine is the cause, once you remove the dead lawn, drench the underlying soil with water to flush out the chemicals. If spilled gasoline or herbicide is the cause, remove several inches of the soil and replace it.

Get PH Right

If your soil is acidic (below 6.5), apply lime to raise its pH. If the measurement is above 7.0, the soil is too alkaline and you need to add soil sulfur.


Ideally, you should test your soil pH every two to four years. Simple test kits and electronic meters are sold at nurseries and garden centers (starting at $12); professional soil labs and many local extension service offices can run more precise tests and give recommendations to correct the pH.

Most lawn grasses prefer a pH around 6.5 to 7.0. Soils in that range favor the activity of microorganisms that release essential nutrients for growth and break down organic matter, including thatch.

In much of the arid West, soils are too alkaline for lawns. If the pH is above 7.0, add soil sulfur or apply an acidifying fertilizer, such as ammonium sulfate or urea, to lower the pH. Check with a reliable nursery on the best material for your situation and the amount to apply. Spread it the same way you would lime.

Although not essential, aerating the lawn before adding these amendments is generally a good idea. It allows the limestone or sulfur to react more quickly because it makes immediate soil contact.

Sound like a lot of work? Some of these procedures are, but along with proper mowing and watering they can literally turn your lawn around.

Lawn-care Schedule

Schedule lawn renovation projects, including aerating, de-thatching and patching, just before the grass grows most vigorously. That’s the time it can recover fastest.


Reprinted from the pages of Today’s Homeowner magazine. To receive more expert advice on improving your home, call (800) 456-6369 or visit the Web site at