Winterize? Some truths about cool season lawn care

by Don Trotter

ello fellow Earthlings and welcome to the front yard. I'm standing on your lawn and asking you why you're using that stuff in the bag that was advertised on television to "Winterize" your lawn. I must say that your lawn looks pretty good now. Why are you messing with it?

During the cool season, your lawn only requires two things -- some minerals and some organic matter to feed your soil while you take a break from weekly mowings, constant feeding, and being swayed into buying the latest snake oil that "guarantees" the best lawn in the neighborhood. I'm here to tell you how to save some money, ensure better soil structure, and do a heck of a lot less work this winter while your lawn goes through some seasonal changes.

Cooler weather and cold weather create slower metabolic rates in many plants, including turf grasses. This slower metabolism results in slower growth, less water consumption, and a drastic reduction in the need for nitrogen inputs. I actually recommend that, from the first of November to the first of March, no nitrogen-rich fertilizers be applied to turf grass. This allows for the plants to rest a little during cold weather and to minimize potential damage to soft growth from occasional frost. Stimulating the growth of your lawn during cold weather can be dangerous because the tender growth is susceptible to a multitude of problems, not the least of which is total tissue destruction from extreme or lingering frost and sustained snowfall.

Any lawn food with a nitrogen content higher than 5% (identified as the first number of three on a fertilizer package) will unnaturally stimulate growth of your turf grasses during cold weather. Chemical fertilizers put all or most of their nitrogen out to the plants immediately after dissolving in water. This puts way too much available nitrogen where the lawn can use it, and thus rapid growth occurs at a time of year when none should.

Lawns don't have to be growing at warp speed to remain lush and bright green. Quite the opposite is true. The chemical manufacturers want you to continue to buy their products all year so they invent marketing strategies to convince you that your lawn really needs their products if you don't want to be the laughing stock of your neighborhood. Boy, have they got it wrong.

Smart turf management professionals utilize the cool season to rebuild the mineral content in their soils and to feed the soil with a little bit of organic matter so that in the spring and summer they don't have mineral deficiencies that can result in numerous disease and pest problems. The organic matter they add to the soil feeds beneficial microbes and larger organisms like earthworms. These helpers convert the organic matter to humus, which help to minimize runoff of water, increase water retention so they don't have to water so often, and improve the physical structure of their soils.

One of the best things this organic matter addition can do is to stimulate the larger organisms in your soil, such as earthworms, to stay in your lawn because food is there. Earthworms also have the added benefit of tunneling around in your soil, creating deeper and improved water penetration while feeding on thatch. Thatch is the name given to the dead and decaying remains of the summer's growth. Thatch is a good thing when a lawn is cared for naturally because the beneficial organisms inhabiting your soil actually convert this thatch into plant food that your turf can use when the weather warms up. The whole mechanical dethatching thing just cracks me up. If the people that spend all that money on removing this valuable material would just feed it to their soils, they would have better soils and healthier lawns.

"Winterizing" your lawn should only include a mineral supplement and some organic matter, as mentioned earlier. I love to apply a good calcium source such as Kelzyme fossilized kelp (available from Environmental Health Science Corp 1-800-833-1379), lime or agricultural gypsum mixed with soil sulfur, soft rock phosphate, and sulfate of potash magnesia (sul-po-mag) at a 5-1-2-1 ratio. Apply Kelzyme or the mineral mix at a rate of 10 lbs. per 1,000 square feet of turf. Water after application as always. I then love to use worm castings as an organic matter addition. If no worm castings are available at a reasonable cost in your area, fully composted steer manure or a material known as greenwaste compost make great substitutes. These two materials are widely available at most garden centers. I use the worm castings at a rate of 4 cubic feet per 1,000 square feet of turf. For the fully composted steer poop or the greenwaste, I like to use either of them at a rate of 8 to 10 cubic feet of material per 1,000 square feet of turf. This makes for a great winter meal for all of the good guys that live in the soil beneath your lawn. If you use fully composted steer manure there is no need to be concerned with high salt content. Fresh or dried fresh manures have way too much sodium and chloride to be useful for adding directly to plants. Using composted manure also eliminates the possibility of burning your plants.

By adding these two ingredients to your lawn at this time of year you will be truly winterizing your lawn. The other really great thing you won't be doing is contributing to the pollution problem that often occurs when chemical fertilizers run off of poorly maintained soils into the storm drain system, resulting in contamination and accelerated bacterial growth in our oceans and fresh water supplies. Just add some minerals and some organic matter and in the spring your lawn will be way ahead of any other in your neighborhood and will remain lush and green throughout the winter. See you in the Garden!

Got Questions? Send the Doc an Email at Don Trotter's natural gardening columns appear nationally in environmentally sensitive publications. Read Don's books Natural Gardening A-Z, The Complete Natural Gardener, and Rose Gardening A-Z for lots more common sense tips on tending your garden spaces. His books are available at all bookstores and on-line booksellers from Hay House publishing