Grass doesn't die in the winter; it goes to sleep just like a bear hibernating. Like that bear eating incessantly before its winter slumber, your lawn can build up reserves to get it through winter and on into spring. As temperatures cool, your lawn slows its growth. This is the perfect time to preserve your lawn for the winter months so it can come back strong in the spring. Feed it well during your fall lawn care routine and it will look healthier than ever.
By the Numbers
To preserve your lawn for the winter, it needs certain nutrients to thrive. You will see these nutrients listed on the fertilizer bag as a set of numbers, such as 4:1:2. In order, these numbers represent percentages of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K). In most cases, your lawn doesn't need phosphorous unless you have done a soil test that tells you otherwise.
You want a fertilizer that is higher in nitrogen, because that's what helps your lawn develop strong roots and leaves. It also gives you that rich, green lawn that will make your neighbors jealous. Just don't go crazy with nitrogen or you'll end up mowing more than necessary. Potassium is also important for root growth, as well as helping your lawn bounce back from stressors like insect damage, drought, or weeds. Choose a fertilizer with a 1-0-1 or 2-0-1 nutrient ratio. Ideally, it will have a controlled-release form of nitrogen.
As a general rule, you should apply about 1 or 2 pounds of nitrogen for each 1,000 square feet of lawn. Figure this out by turning your first number on the bag (nitrogen) into a decimal. Divide 1 by that decimal. Multiply that number by the square feet of your lawn. Now divide that number by 1,000.
For example, if you want a 15-5-10 fertilizer for your 5,000 square foot lawn, you would take 1 divided by .15, which is 6.7. Now multiply 5,000 by 6.7, which is 33,500. Finally, divide that number by 1,000, which is 33.5. This tells you that you'll need roughly 34 pounds of fertilizer.
Time it Right
Now that you have your fertilizer, you need to know when to apply it. Fall is the best time because it gives your lawn time to build strong roots and store up plenty of nutrients to get through dormancy. Apply fertilizer during the late summer/early fall – usually around August or September depending on where you live. This will help your lawn to recover from summer damage from heat, drought, heavy traffic from kids and pets, and insect damage.
Fertilizer should be applied again later in the fall, around October or November. Time the application so that your lawn has time to absorb enough nutrients before freezing temperatures hit. By doing this, your lawn will be preserved through the coldest months with nutrients in reserve to wake it up again in the spring.
Apply it Evenly
If you wear gloves, fertilizers can be applied by hand, but this can be difficult if you have a good-sized lawn. Instead, apply fertilizer with a spreader - either a drop spreader or a broadcast spreader. A drop spreader provides more even coverage. However, many people prefer a broadcast spreader because, if not used carefully, a drop spreader can cause striping. You can use a hand broadcaster for smaller lawns or a walk-behind broadcaster for larger lawns. The type of spreader you choose is simply a matter of personal preference.
Taking the time to give your lawn some extra TLC will result in big benefits. A healthy lawn has fewer weeds, and of course, it looks fantastic. This small investment in time will give you a lawn that is the envy of the neighborhood and one you can be proud to show off.