The best way to prevent winter disease affecting a lawn is to promote best practices year-round, says Lance Forsee, president of Colonial Lawn & Garden headquartered in Yakima, Washington.
“This includes core aeration, the correct fertilization, mowing correctly with sharp blades and picking up the leaves when they begin to fall so they don’t accumulate on the turf,” he says.
In order to provide these practices to the fullest extent possible, Forsee says his company only offers full programs to clients, not partial programs. Colonial Lawn & Garden is a full-service lawn care company. Clients are approximately 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial.
“We want our clients to be on a full program, which is six fertilizer/weed control applications per season. By doing that, we’re giving their lawns everything they need,” Forsee says.
In the rare case a client comes on more than halfway through the year and shows signs of a weak lawn, Forsee says he would focus on core aeration of the turf and compost top dressing before winter.
The application timing of fungicides to treat spot patch or patch disease can be difficult.
“I’m not a huge proponent of fungicides, it’s more about providing the right cultural control practices. We’ll do compost top dressing. We’ll do whatever we can to make the turf as thick and healthy as possible going into winter,” Forsee says.
Forsee says he typically only uses fungicides for spot treatment if disease is noted in an isolated area of a lawn.
“Geography plays a huge part in what you should do for your lawn to get ready for winter,” says Mike Fitzpatrick, vice president of U.S. Lawns. “It all really depends on some proper horticultural practices, but it really depends on what you’re looking for, for that lawn to look like through the winter.”
U.S. Lawns operates a home office out of Orlando, Florida, and has approximately 30 employees there but has other franchises nationwide.
Lawn care clients in warmer climates may want their lawn to maintain a green hue through winter, while others may be okay with the turf turning brown, Fitzpatrick says. Up north, the turf may be covered with snow most of the winter and appearance has little importance.
If a lawn is going to be overseeded in the fall, the lawn will probably be scalped, and verticut or aerated. Then fertilizer will be added to stimulate growth, Fitzpatrick says. If overseeding is not part of the lawn care plan for fall, then a more aggressive weed control program can usually be put into place with broad leaf weed treatments and preemergents.
If new seed is planted in the fall, Fitzpatrick advises this should be done early enough in the season that the newly sprouted turf can be mowed three or four times before winter hits, allowing the turf to get established.
“You’re going to want to feed it, but you’re going to want to feed it with some very specific fertilizer that stimulates root growth, not top growth,” Fitzpatrick says. “You’re also going to want to feed it with some nutrients that it can store over the winter so that when it greens up in the spring, it greens up right away without you having to dump a lot of extra fertilizer on it.”
Regardless of geographic location, paying close attention to seasonal change is important.
“You’re going to want to understand your temperature ranges that are best to do things with the turf,” Fitzpatrick says.
Snow mold is a well-known offender when it comes to winter diseases, contractors say.
“Most of your fungus are due to moisture, so that’s going to be more up in the markets … where the lawn is covered is snow. Snow mold is probably the biggest one and the biggest way to prevent that is to make sure you don’t put too much nitrogen on that lawn in the fall and early winter because nitrogen and moisture make fungus,” Fitzpatrick says.
In the Pacific Northwest, Forsee says snow mold is only common with snow accumulation.
“We’ll get some powdery mildew,” Forsee says. “What we do in the fall does a lot to making your lawn less susceptible to any disease, season-long. Some of these summer patch diseases, necrotic ring spot is another one, they’re basically caused by excessive thatch, and less than ideal, healthy turf.”
Occasionally, Forsee says he sees rodent damage to a turf over winter.
“That usually happens when we get snow cover, but keeping the turf mowed at a relatively short height will help on that,” Forsee says.
Once winter hits, Forsee says it’s important to talk to clients about placement of snow and ice once shoveled or plowed. Salt injury typically shows up in the spring and appears as vegetation that has turned brown, Forsee says.
“If you don’t prep the lawn right for the winter, you’re going to have a much harder time getting the performance you want in the spring,” Fitzpatrick says.
This performance can vary depending on geographic location, but problems can include a lawn that isn’t “greening up” in the spring, overly rapid growth and weed control issues, Fitzpatrick says.
“If they’re doing leaf cleanup, definitely don’t allow the leaves to mat the turf.” Lance Forsee, president of Colonial Lawn & Garden
What to tell clients.
Forsee also points out that lawn cleanup is important if the client is doing it themselves.
“If they’re doing leaf cleanup, definitely don’t allow leaves to mat the turf. Make sure you rake the leaves off the turf. Don’t put away the lawn mower too early. And I would recommend reducing the mowing height going into the fall,” Forsee says.
In addition, irrigation should be continued until as late into the fall as possible and ideally until the turf stops growing, he says.
“Sometimes we’ll have a dry winter,” Forsee says. “Cool season turf grasses do not go truly dormant. They slow way down, but as long as there’s moisture, they’re growing, even as slow as it is.”
Fitzpatrick stresses the importance of contractors to communicate fall lawn care plans with clients as soon as possible.
“Prompt customers early enough in the year to get them prepared to take action,” Fitzpatrick says. “They are going to have a window of opportunity to do that when the temperatures are right, the soil temperatures are right and the turf is still in a growing mode, before it goes completely dormant.”
Saving time and money.
Planning for a successful spring in the fall can take a little forethought, but the results can yield long-term success.
“Aerating, top dressing, potentially even overseeing, those things, that if we can shift them into the fall, where they’re really more effective, it’ll save us as contractors time in the spring, because spring is always busy,” Forsee says. The natural tendency for contractors is to slow down in the fall, he says.
“We could do more work right now whereas in the spring, there’s this time window. And again, we’re talking about turf care, but there’s other things like soil injections on ornamental trees, a lot of times people do in the spring, but we’d rather do them in the fall, when we have more time. It’s more effective,” he says.
In addition to communicating with the client, they can also be educated over time via blogs, website content, social media and more, Forsee says.
“I think people are starting to get it. If you had to only fertilize one time a year, the best time to do it would be in the fall. If you did it two times a year, it’d be spring and fall,” Forsee says.