GateHouse News Service Cooler weather and some rain means fall is be around the corner, but never count out Mother Nature to remind us that we donít control the weather.
However, the calendar does tell us it will get cooler sooner or later, and that means we must muster the courage to do some physical labor to counter all that summer threw at us.
Lawns are the biggest headaches right now, though Labor Day weekend is the ideal time to get the turf back in shape. Unfortunately, it may be more difficult this year. Is the grass dead or dormant? Thatís the big question.
Most lawns are in a dormant state. However, some are dead. Get down on your hands and knees and peel back the brown leaves and stems. If you run across a green center, the plants are alive. If you come across nothing but brown, stock up on grass seed, or think about covering the yard with something else.
If your grass is still alive
Letís assume the crowns are still green. Water, fertilizer and cooler weather will stimulate grass into new growth. Youíll still be left with all the dead above-ground parts, which could lead to a thatch buildup. The key word is ďcould,Ē as a healthy soil and mowing might break up the stems before they cause much thatch.
Of course, if you are still under water restrictions, donít fertilize unless you are using slow-release fertilizers that are activated by water, whether from a good rain or thorough irrigation. Quick-release fertilizers should not be used unless you know water will be available.
The fertilizer package will say whether itís water soluble or water insoluble. Choose the water- insoluble kind, which is the slow-release. Water-soluble or quick-release fertilizer can burn whatís struggling to remain alive in the lawn, usually the roots and some crowns.
If you have the ability to water, use a fertilizer that dissolves and provides some nitrogen to stimulate growth. However, you must continue to water every week.
With the fertilizer, water and cooler temperatures, you should see the lawn green in a matter of weeks, meaning youíll be able to get your mower out again.
You can choose granular that will dissolve with water, or a liquid fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro or Rapid-Gro. Follow the directions. Do not think more is better. More will probably kill struggling plants.
If you canít water, slow-release or water-insoluble fertilizer is the way to go. Because water and cooler temperatures are needed to dissolve the granules, you just wait until Mother Nature is ready to provide.
If your grass is dead
The tough part comes with the realization the lawn is dead and wonít come back.
At this stage, you need to seed or sod the lawn.
Donít put sod on top of dead grass. You need to till the soil and dead grass and then lay the sod. Itís lots of work, but you can get the instant gratification of a new lawn. Of course, youíll have to water it regularly while itís getting established.
Seeding is probably the best route. There are two methods. The first involves tilling the dead grass and seeding over it. Youíll need to water it daily to keep the seed bed moist while the seed germinates. You donít have to water deeply, as the seeds should only be buried a quarter of an inch deep. But you donít want the seeds to dry out.
Probably the best method is slit seeding, a method that does some dethatching while cutting slits in the ground and dropping seeds in the narrow slot. Watering closes the soil over the seed. Seeds germinate in narrow rows, but soon fill out.
You can rent silt seeders; you might be able to go in with your neighbors and do several lawns in a morning. Many lawn care companies offer the service.
There probably is a third method of just throwing seed on top of the dead grass, watering and hoping it comes up before the birds eat it. Thatís not the best thing.
Seeding doesnít have to be done Labor Day weekend, but the sooner you can get the seed in the ground, the better chance it will survive the winter. In central Illinois, the third weekend in September is usually the last chance to seed and have guaranteed success. Every week after that, winter kill becomes greater.
On the other hand, as long as you have four weeks before the ground freezes, you can sod.
One thing you can say about the drought is it caused cracks in the ground.
Think of the ground as a dry sponge. When you add water, it swells up a bit. That makes the soil a little looser, creating various sized pores. The smaller pores hold moisture while the larger ones allow roots to grow.
Aeration does something similar, though unless the lawn is green and the ground is moist, itís not ideal to aerate now. Wait for October.David Robson is a specialist with University of Illinois Extension. For more gardening information or for your local extension unit office, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/mg.