When is the "right time" to apply your first round of fertilizer?
As soon as you see that bright beautiful sunshine breaking through those dreary winter time clouds, you begin to see the almost forgotten neighborhood activity starting up again. Kids out playing, neighbors walking the dog, maybe one brave enough to endure the still crisp winds to wash the car in the driveway, those Christmas lights finally coming down! You may also take notice of your lawn. Still looking kind of pale, still laying down a little, patches of pink or white "fuzzies" (better described as snow mold, I'll address that in a later blog). You're thinking it's all ready for a good heavy dose of fertilizer to wake her up. Well hold on, not so fast! Let's take a look back to last fall and the last application you put down and the real purpose of that application when winter was fast coming upon us.
The Ohio State University Extension Office recommends we put down our heaviest dose of nitrogen right when our grass has seemingly stopped growing and appears to be done for the season (October and November). The reason is because even though you are ready to put your lawn mower away for the year and the grass seems to be done growing, there is plenty of activity going on in your soil. Root growth of cool-season turf grass continues during the fall after blade growth has slowed or completely stopped. This is because roots grow well when soil temps are between 40 and 65 degrees. This is the turf plant roots best opportunity to continue the development it has been working on since those hot summer days and muggy nights ceased typically sometime in September. It is also why your best opportunity to aerate your lawn is in September and October where you open up the soil for increased root activity. Other advantages of late season fertilizer include better fall and winter color; earlier spring green-up; increased density; improved fall, winter and spring root growth and enhanced storage of energy reserves within the turf plant.
Did you catch that last sentence? All of that from last years winterizer application! So if all of that is happening from last years application, why are we running out to throw more fertilizer on our lawn on the first warm weekend of the year? We shouldn't be! The truth is, as soon as we put a heavy dose of nitrogen down in the spring, our grass goes from root development mode to grass blade growth mode. The exact opposite of what we want. Granted, we want to get our crabgrass preventer down before crabgrass germinates, but we have plenty of time for that. Actually, crabgrass preventer only lasts so long as well, so the later we put that down, the longer our crabgrass prevention can potentially last. So, what is the recommendation? I recommend watching ground temperature. Seed will not germinate until the soil is about 50 degrees. There are great websites to help measure this for you. Also look for the bright yellow flowers of forsythia (pictured above) to also give you a clue. This plant flowers at those same temperatures. Your crabgrass preventer should be down before forsythia is done blooming. Also, consider finding a fertilizer/crabgrass preventer that has a lower ratio of nitrogen. This will also help with causing all that much more blade growth that you will just have to keep up with, with extra mowing anyway!