Fall is like a second spring in Western Washington. So just like in March or April, this is a good month to fertilize and reseed the lawn, divide and multiply perennials, add new trees and shrubs, and fill container gardens with fresh color.
The big advantage of doing these chores in the fall rather than spring is that the soil is already warm and ready to encourage new root growth. And after such a dry summer the slug and snail population should be less damaging to tender young transplants. Dirt cheap gardeners will appreciate all the clearance and end of season sales at garden centers and nurseries, and outdoor work is usually more pleasant in the fall with a nip rather than a shower in the air.
This fall, local gardeners are asking questions about how to handle their landscapes after the summer drought:
Q. Like everyone else in my neighborhood I let my lawn “go golden” or brown this summer. I know the winter rains will green it up, but when should I fertilize? R.T., Tacoma
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A. Your lawn will let you know when it is ready for a meal by going from golden to green as it awakens from the summer slumber. Do not fertilize if the grass is still brown or golden. Once you see signs of green use a fall and winter lawn food with slow-release nitrogen, not fast-acting nitrogen. (The label on the fertilizer bag will tell you if the nitrogen is slow-release.) In Western Washington if you fertilize only once a year, the fall feeding is the most important. This is because a slow release lawn food holds nitrogen in the root zone all winter, where it will be available in the spring to jumpstart new growth. Grasses will crowd out spring weeds if fed in the fall with slow release fertilizer.
Q. I heard you talk about lawn renovation, and now I want to try the tips you mentioned because my neighbor has a lawn that stayed much greener than everyone else on the block after adding soil and reseeding. What are the steps to having a more drought-resistant lawn?
A. It is a simple grass-roots movement if you want a greener lawn and less watering. First mow low and aerate your soil. Next, spread one to two inches of compost on top of the lawn and rake evenly across the lawn surface, filling in the low spots. (Tip: You can order compost to be delivered that has been professionally made and is free of most weed seeds.)
Next, reseed using one of the new drought resistant lawn seed mixes now on the market. You will pay more for these superior grass seeds, but they really do stay green longer during droughts. Follow the planting instructions on the seed bag. That means you will need to keep the new seed moist if it does not rain. Next summer your new lawn will stay green with less water thanks to the water-holding ability of the compost and the deep reaching roots of the drought resistant grass seed.
Q. I have a complaint and was offended in a previous column when you called the perennial “Lady’s Mantle” a tramp because she often hops into other beds. Would you talk that way about a man? B.G., email
A. My apologies to any offended ladies and gentlemen. I was thinking of the Disney movie “Lady and the Tramp” when I described Lady’s Mantle, and of course Walt would never disrespect tramps or ladies. He gave the “tramp” star billing. Lady’s Mantle could very well be a male not a female as we all accept transgender plants in the very accepting world of horticulture. (Just like the Olympics, horticulturists also give out gold medals for superior plant performance.) I am also sure that Mother Nature has a wonderful sense of humor — why else would we have such funny looking animals such as camels and hippos and silly looking plants like contorted filberts and curly willow?
Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her at binettigarden.com.