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We’re approaching a key date for fertilizing lawns in our area. Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day are good to use as reminders to fertilize cool-season grasses such as tall fescue and Kentucky bluegrass.
Your lawn should receive two‑thirds of its yearly fertilizer in the fall when the grass will store the food in the stems and roots. Applying heavy rates of fertilizer in the spring and summer may encourage excess top growth.
The recommended rate for each of the three applications is one pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. This rate will coincide with the directions on most turf grade fertilizers, however, for those using 8‑8‑8 or 10‑10‑10, the application should be 10 pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet of lawn per application.
For the February application, a lighter rate of one‑half to 1 pound of nitrogen may be enough. This will encourage spring root growth and help the lawn make it through the summer stress period. It is better not to fertilize cool-season grasses after March.
Fall is also the time to seed or overseed your lawn. Cool‑season grasses are best seeded from mid‑August to mid‑October, depending upon where you live. In western North Carolina, cool‑season grasses should be seeded before the end of September.
A soil test is the recommended way to begin fall lawn care. The test will tell exactly what a lawn needs in the way of amendments such as lime or phosphorus. The N.C. Cooperative Extension, Macon County Center can provide information on how to test soil. It usually takes two to four weeks to learn the results of a soil test.
Next comes soil preparation. One of the secrets to growing a healthy lawn is good seed to soil contact. Simply scattering grass seed about without first preparing the soil is usually a waste of seed and time. If small bare spots are the problem, a rake, hoe or shovel can be used to loosen the top 4‑6 inches of soil. Low areas should be filled in and the surface smoothed, then the area can be seeded.
If, on the other hand, what once was a lawn no longer contains much grass, the homeowner may be better off starting over from scratch. In such cases, the soil should be tilled to about 6 inches in preparation for seeding. The soil should be relatively fine, with clumps no larger than pea-size. Soil amendments such as organic matter, lime, and fertilizer should be added during tilling.
The best way to till the soil is to use a garden tiller. Tillers, which are relatively expensive, can usually be rented from garden centers or equipment rental businesses.
Homeowners may wish to kill the old vegetation with a herbicide prior to tilling. Some weeds will not be removed by tilling and will return with the new lawn unless they are killed with a herbicide.
Use either a rotary or drop‑type spreader to sow grass seed. Sow half the seed walking in one direction, then cover the same ground applying the remainder by walking at right angles to the first pass. This technique assures uniform coverage.
Turf type tall fescue seed may be used at a rate of 6 pounds per 1,000 square feet. An alternative is a mixture of 5 pounds of tall fescue and 1 pound of Kentucky bluegrass per 1,000 square feet of lawn. In heavy shade, 1 pound of fine‑leaf fescue should be added to the mix.
The benefits of combining grasses, particularly some of the new tall fescue varieties, are a finer lawn texture, better performance, improved shade tolerance, and a darker color.
A start‑up fertilizer, such as 10 pounds of 5-10-10 per 1000 square feet should be applied at seeding or preferably 3 weeks after seeding. Lightly cover the seed with soil by raking or by dragging a piece of carpet or chain‑link fence over the soil. Then spread the seeded area with 50 to 100 pounds of grain straw per 1,000 square feet ‑ about one or two bales. You should be able to see about 50 percent bare ground after applying straw. The straw mulch will help conserve moisture and control erosion until the lawn becomes established.
Grass seed should be kept moist until it germinates, which takes one to three weeks. If possible, water the area lightly each morning and afternoon. The frequency of watering should be