By Jeff Burbrink
Extension Educator, Purdue Extension Elkhart County
GOSHEN — By November, most people are ready for yard work to end. Irrigation systems are winterized, hoses are drained, and there is great anticipation to put mowers and rakes away for winter. Still, there is yard work to do in November that has a big effect on the health of your lawn next year.
Lawns can see a big benefit from fertilizer applied in November. Most lawn fertilizer companies have winterizer products. An application of fertilizer in late October or early November helps to boost the root system of your lawn, and keeps it green into winter, with minimal amount of top growth.
How does an early November fertilization help your lawn? It promotes good root development. While the above-ground portion of your lawn slows significantly in late November, the root system continues to grow well into January. Once the soils warm up in the spring, those roots sent up shoots to fill in some of the bare spots in the lawn.
Try to resist the temptation to mow too low. Many people lower their mower deck during November, in part to chop up leaves. Ideally, it is better for your lawn to mow at least 2.5 inches high, even during the final mowing of the year. I prefer to mow at 3 to 3.5 inches, even for the last cutting of the year. The extra leaf surface allows the turf to pack away extra carbohydrates which helps the plants survive the winter.
Mowing higher than 2.5 inches is a good strategy year around. It helps crowd out weeds. It shades the soil. It conserves water. There is a tendency for people with weedy lawns to mow lower. Weeds generally outcompete grass if the grass is mowed too short. It’s better to mow high one extra time than it is to scalp your lawn.
What about leaves? Do you really need to rake them all up? The answer is, it depends on how thick they are. There has been considerable research at major universities such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Clemson and North Carolina suggesting that a 10-20% coverage of your lawn with chopped up leaves is actually beneficial, essentially serving as a mulch, and eventually recycling valuable nutrients.
Paraphrasing one turf grass article from Iowa, if you cannot see the grass, you probably need to remove the leaves. If, after mulching the leaves, you can see 80% of the grass, your lawn will probably benefit from the leaves.
From personal experience, some types of leaves, like those from silver maple or honey locust, shred quite easily when I run the mower across the yard. Others, like coarse textured red and white oak leaves, require multiple passes. Those thick textured leaves can smother the lawn if left on too thick, for too long. For the most rugged of leaves, during the heaviest part of leaf-drop season, I simply have to rake them away and put them on my compost pile or that section of lawn is overwhelmed. Overall, I think this strategy has cut my leaf handling time almost in half, with no noticeable difference in the quality of the lawn.
Finally, it has been a dry fall. Turf benefits from water, even in November and December. Yet many of us have shut down our irrigation and drained our hoses. If you are trying to improve your lawn, particularly new seedings, water should still be applied until the weather pattern changes. Woody plants like trees and shrubs, and herbaceous perennials like hosta and phlox need to go into winter well hydrated. About 1 inch of water a week is a good rule of thumb if nature does not provide for us.