Fall Fertilizer Applications: How Making the Right Choices Now Can Improve Results in 2019
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Fall Fertilizer Applications: How Making the Right Choices Now Can Improve Results in 2019

While much of the U.S. is still experiencing summer-like temperatures, there’s no doubt about it – fall and winter are fast approaching. If you’re in the lawn care business, that means it’s time to think about preparing your customers’ lawns for Spring 2019. And that preparation should include a fall fertilizer application.

All turfgrass lawns in the U.S. go through some level of winter dormancy before “waking up” in the spring. To prepare for that dormancy period, the plant’s physiology transitions from an actively growing state to one where it’s storing carbohydrates for later use as an energy source. Growth at the shoot level decreases and root growth increases, making it possible for the plant to increase its energy reserves. By fertilizing lawns in the fall, you’re providing the turfgrass with nutrients it can store away for the next growing season.

“Fall fertilization allows turfgrass to gradually transition in and out of dormancy,” says Chris Derrick, field sales agronomist for Koch Turf & Ornamental (Koch). “Both cool-season and warm-season turfgrass species can benefit from a fall fertilizer application, but timing that application appropriately is key to developing healthier, more attractive turf.”

Sarah Mack, sales and operations manager for Central Services Co., Inc. of Waukesha, WI says that fall fertilizer applications help her customers’ lawns get as healthy as possible before the grass goes dormant.

“By enhancing the lawn’s energy reserves in the fall, you’re going to see quicker green-up in the spring for a better-looking lawn earlier in the year,” she explains. “Fertilizing in the fall improves shoot density and root growth. The grass is able to start off the following spring in good shape, and if it’s strong and healthy to begin with, it’s more likely to stay that way throughout the growing season.”

A formula for success

Choosing the right fertilizer is integral to a successful fall fertilizer application. That said, you shouldn’t necessarily apply the same fertilizer formulation in the fall as you did in the spring. In the spring, you’re trying to grow more grass shoots; in the fall, you’re seeking better root establishment.

“That means you should be shifting to a fertilizer blend with more potassium,” Derrick says. “However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply any nitrogen in the fall. Consistent feeding is key, regardless of season – except for dormancy. Slow- and controlled-release fertilizers provide nutrients gradually, making them an ideal choice, especially in the fall.”

According to Derrick, Koch Turf & Ornamental’s Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizers, or EEFs, can provide proper fertility slowly over an extended period of time to assist with the root development process. He explains that EFFs extend the longevity of nutrient delivery, giving turfgrass roots more opportunity to absorb them as needed. So long, in fact, that some lawn care managers have been able to reduce or even eliminate early spring or “break dormancy” fertilizer applications.

“Specifically, in cool-season turfgrass regions, EEFs can often sufficiently feed the plant up until its time of summer stress,” Derrick says. “However, weather plays a major role in turfgrass management, so you should always be aware of the potential need for supplemental feeding.”

Central Services Co. has used Koch’s UFLEXX® stabilized nitrogen fertilizer for more than 16 years. The company wasn’t happy with the product it was using previously, and Mack’s supplier suggested trying UFLEXX fertilizer.

“The first year we used it, we had great results,” Mack says. “Customers were happy, and the results showed for themselves. In the spring, their grass was thicker, greener and healthier, which also helped with weed control. Over the long run, the cost of an enhanced efficiency fertilizer is very reasonable compared to some of the other fertilizers we could use. And, the product goes a long way, both in liquid and granular formulations. If it’s applied as a granule, it dissolves appropriately so the roots can take it up rather than the fertilizer getting washed away.”

Mack says the formulation Central Services Co. uses on its customers’ lawns depends on the year and the lawns themselves. If the lawn is struggling after the hot summer months, they choose to put UFLEXX fertilizer down in its granular formulation.

“Granular fertilizers do assist in root growth,” she explains. “The nutrients get through the entire plant so it’s able to exhibit stronger growth and fill in any thin areas of the lawn where it wasn’t previously thriving. In the spring, once the grass is doing better, we can apply a liquid fertilizer that’s quickly absorbed by the grass blades for additional green-up.”

At your service

While everyone agrees that applying fertilizer in the fall is a good idea, there are complementary services and practices that can also happen at the same time, helping improve revenue and results. For example, core aerating a lawn before applying fertilizer in the fall provides more air to the turf’s roots so that they can properly exchange the necessary gasses to function.

“Because of its added benefits, aeration can assist the roots during their stage of increased growth and carbohydrate storage,” Derrick says. “That said, aeration should not happen too late in the fall, so that the holes created have time to close before the lawn’s winter dormancy. I’d recommend aerating earlier, during the transition from summer to fall for that reason.”

Applying a weed control product in the fall can also reap many benefits. However, as with fertilizer, timing is critical.

“If you want to control weeds, the herbicide’s recommended application timing should dictate when to apply both it and the fertilizer,” Derrick says. “It’s common for fall pre-emergent herbicides to accompany a fertilizer application, simply because it’s more efficient to do both during the same visit to save time and labor.”

There’s another reason to combine a pre-emergent application with a fall fertilizer application. While weeds tend to thrive during the warm summer months, fall’s cooler temperatures weaken them, making them more susceptible to herbicides.

“One example of a weed that’s easier to control in the fall is Creeping Charlie,” Mack says. “We try to control that after the first frost of the year. That weed has a waxy leaf surface, and that makes it harder for the herbicide to break through. A frost makes those leaves weaker, and the herbicide is better able to fully penetrate the weed.”

Better turf, happier customers

The most significant benefit of a well-timed, quality fertilizer application? Happy customers whose lawns inspire envy throughout the neighborhood.

“Fall fertilizer applications encourage healthier turf that’s easier to maintain and enjoy,” Derrick says. “And lawn care companies that take the time to carefully choose the right fertilizer and apply it at the best possible time will have more satisfied customers. In this business, success can be traced back to positive word of mouth, so those satisfied customers will tell others, who then have a good likelihood of becoming customers themselves.”

Mack wholeheartedly agrees.

“It’s easy for someone in the lawn care business to think he or she knows everything there is to know about fertilizer, but even after working in this industry for 24 years, I’m still learning,” she laughs. “But one thing is for sure. Our customers love the look of dark green Kentucky bluegrass, and that’s something that Koch EEFs really help us with.”

“Using the right product and sticking with it makes a tremendous difference in lawn quality and appearance. We often get calls from our customers’ neighbors. They say, ‘I’m not happy with my current lawn care company, but my neighbor says you maintain their lawn and it looks great! What can you do for me?’ That makes all the pre-planning and scheduling worth it.”