With the extreme variability in weather conditions from one year to the next, it is vitally important to properly prepare the landscape for the transition from hot summer months into the roller coaster ride that is winter throughout the temperate regions. The variations between sunny 60-degree days and bitter, sub-zero evenings can take a nasty toll on plant material, even though plants are traditionally resilient organisms.
This is the first in a three-part series designed to provide some guidance on how to best prepare the landscape for winter’s constant curveballs. Beginning with the turfgrass lawn, moving into woody plants and perennials, and, finally, irrigation and water features, the list of tips will help guide the property owner in increasing the sustainability of the landscape environment throughout the winter and early spring seasons
Part 1: The Lawn
The lawn is probably one of the easiest, yet most necessary areas of the landscape to properly winterize. Contrary to what many people think, turfgrass, depending on the species, does not “die” when it turns brown and stops growing during the winter. In fact, it goes dormant, as a survival mechanism, and is still very much alive, using food, water, and air daily. The consumption rates of these inputs may shrink drastically, but the inputs are still needed. This is where proper winterization comes in.
The first step to proper lawn winterization is aeration. Aeration is necessary to increase airflow to the turfgrass roots throughout the winter months. When the ground freezes and water supply is diminished to naturally-occurring precipitation, less oxygen is carried to the roots and ambient air exposure is necessary. Also, in regions that receive a heavy blanket of snow that sticks around for a while, aeration can help keep the lawn from suffocating.
While there are many ways to aerate a lawn, the most common and most effective method is plug aeration. Plug aeration consists of an aerator machine rolling across the lawn, pulling out hundreds, if not thousands, of two-inch to four-inch long plugs of soil. Plug aeration can be outsourced through a local landscape contractor or can be done by the property owner by either buying or renting an aerator from a local store. The most important tip for aeration is that, if underground lawn irrigation is in place, be sure to mark the heads and boxes with flags to prevent damage by the aerator.
Aeration is a great place to start with lawn winterization. Pretty easy, huh?
The next step to proper winterization is to apply a fertilizer. Fall fertilization serves two purposes. On one hand, the lawn needs fertilizer during the winter, although a much smaller dose than during the growing season. On the other hand, it’s too difficult to predict exact timing on when everything will start growing again, so it’s important to get a jump on spring, by fertilizing in fall.
Fall fertilization can be done with the same products used during the growing season, and in the same manner. There’s really no major trick to it, other than to make sure there is adequate water for the week following application to prevent the grass from getting burned. If the irrigation system has already been blown out for the winter, it is best to apply fertilizer right before a rain or snow. This is a great segue into the final step of lawn winterization.
The last step is an activity that may or may not be necessary, depending on the region and natural precipitation. Some states can have incredibly long stretches of mild winter weather. While it’s great to be able to go outside and enjoy a 60-degree December day, all of the plants, including the turfgrass, are freaking out. Water needs of a plant can fluctuate greatly during the winter and plant stress only makes it worse. Plants transpire on a daily basis, and the higher the temperatures and wind speeds, the higher the rates of transpiration. With little plant cover shading turfgrass areas, evaporation adds to the reduction in soil water content.
In areas with fairly warm, dry winters, it is a good rule of thumb to supplement any natural precipitation with at least one inch of water per month. Winter watering can be done by starting up the system, running the sprinklers and re-draining the water from the lines, or it can be done by hand-watering with a hose. Most smaller home yards can be done either way, but larger properties find it most efficient through hand-watering with a large hose connected to a tank on a truck, because the cost of charging and re-draining irrigation lines throughout the winter can be far too much.
All in all, the costs associated with proper lawn winterization are fairly minimal, and the time allotment is less than a day for a typical residential property ranging from 1000 to 10,000 square feet of turfgrass. The results are worth it. The upfront inputs are a fraction of the inputs necessary for revitalization, should the lawn turn unhealthy for six months.
Follow these steps and have a happy lawn come spring!
Next up is the proper winterization of the landscape plants.