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Originally published Monday, September 10, 2012 at 9:00 PM

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Fall lawn care

The Gardener Within: Tips on maintaining a healthy lawn from Master Gardener and author Joe Lamp'l.

Scripps Howard News Service

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Fall is on the way, and for many areas the gardening season is drawing to a close. But for your cool-season lawns, such as fescue and bluegrass, fall is the time when you need to invest the most effort to get turf ready for the stress of the upcoming months and heat from the upcoming summer. The next few weeks are your window of opportunity for establishing new lawns and renovating those that need rejuvenation.

If your lawn is showing poor growth, or it's been a few years since you've checked the condition of your soil, start with a soil analysis. Your county agricultural agent or university extension service can test your soil for a nominal fee. All you have to do is provide the sample and follow the collection and shipping instructions provided.

Generally, the process is the same. Mix together samples taken from different areas of the lawn to provide about two cups of the blended sample for analysis. Place the mixed sample in the container provided and mail or carry the bag to the test facility or extension service office. The resulting report is a valuable tool to let you know what the soil is lacking and what steps are needed to correct it.

With or without a soil test, there are important steps you can take to improve your lawn. First, start with a clean surface by removing any thatch — that layer of dead grass and debris that settles on the soil. Over time, too much debris can build up as thatch, which can prevent water and nourishment from getting to the lawn's roots. To loosen the thatch, use a dethatching or stiff-tined rake on smaller lawn areas, or rent a power dethatcher for larger jobs. Then simply rake it up to remove it.

Over time, soil becomes compacted, especially in areas that get heavy use, like play yards and along driveways and walks. Aeration opens up space in the lawn to allow water, nutrients and air to get to the roots, making thicker and healthier turf grass. It also helps drainage and water runoff and can reduce drought damage. There are aerators for every size of job, from small step tools to walk-behind, self-propelled models and even ones towed behind lawn tractors. Whatever type you choose, make sure it's a "core" aerator. This type literally removes cores of soil rather than just punching narrow holes in the ground.

Once the aeration is complete, it's the perfect time to top dress the lawn with a half-inch of organic compost. The benefits of adding compost are many, but all lawns will benefit from the nutrients and organic matter provided by it.

If you can see patches of bare soil in your lawn, it needs to be over-seeded, and fall is the perfect time to do so. Over-seeding helps make lawns full and dense, keeps the weeds down and helps prevent disease.

Just before over-seeding, mow the lawn at the mower's lowest setting and rake the surface clean to remove all the cuttings and debris. This allows the new seed to have better contact with the soil for improved germination. The label on the seed bag will tell you how to set your spreader to apply the appropriate amount to your area. Once the seed is applied, water for short durations several times each day for the first two weeks or until most of the seed has sprouted. The key to good germination is to never let the seed dry out.

Grass stores nutrients in the roots to carry it over the winter months, so apply a generous application of organic lawn fertilizer. It's what I use for getting my lawn well-established and ready for the following spring. Fall is the best time to feed your lawn for winter hardiness and robust growth come spring.

Mow the lawn at the mower's highest level for the next several weeks. This minimizes the stress on the young grass blades as they settle in. In addition, keep debris off the area so the grass blades can absorb as much light as possible — an important part of a well-established lawn-renovation program.

Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com.

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