Question: I have always heard never to feed plants in the fall as they get ready for winter, but my neighbor keeps pushing me to “put down” some fertilizer.
Should I do an autumn lawn feed, along with fertilizing the bulb beds and other plants in the landscape? Won’t it create to much soft growth only to be killed by winter cold? Nathan, Charlottesville, Virginia
Answer: Nathan, feed plants in fall? Yes, indeed.
Early autumn is the time to fertilize new and old lawns, cover crops, and perennial and bulb plantings. The compost heap, too, you’ll find will be grateful for a “handout” now, while fall garden residue is swelling its proportions.
In fact, every really self-respecting soil management program will take advantage of fall feeding wherever and whenever this practice is applicable.
In the North, vigorous autumn growth of bluegrass, bent, creeping red fescue and other permanent lawn grasses is essential to minimize winter damage and to give lawns a running start next spring.
During fall, grasses store up reserves of carbohydrates in their roots, and this food is converted into the first shoots and leaves which the grass puts out in early spring. Once the grass is actively growing, the new foliage takes over the manufacture of sugars and starches, which are in turn converted into more growth.
Feeding the lawn in autumn, then, will keep it growing. The grass will store greater supplies of root reserves than if it were to go into this period dependent upon whatever plant food remains from last spring.
In southern states, September is a little too early for feeding Bermuda grass which is to be overseeded with ryegrass for a winter lawn, but keep it in mind for next month.
North or south, a satisfactory fall lawn fertilizer rate of application of a good complete plant food is 2 to 3 pounds per 100 square feet of lawn. Water it in thoroughly.
After feeding the lawn. rake and reseed large bare spots left by crabgrass, but rely on the established sod to fill in small spots.
Late summer is, of course, the very best time to seed a new lawn in the North, since cool temperatures and more even moisture distribution favor germination and growth of the young grass.
Providing a ready supply of plant nutrients will insure good initial growth, and by spring the new lawn will be truly established and will require no tedious reseeding.
The simplest way to maintain good soil structure in the vegetable garden is to sow a cover crop – rye or annual ryegrass – between the vegetable rows this month. Spaded under next spring, the cover crop serves the same purpose as crop rotation in any garden which is otherwise clean-cultivated every year.
Plant food applied to the cover crop not only stimulates abundant growth, but when the crop is plowed under, the extra plant food is released down deep where it is most needed by the growing vegetables.
So you actually get double duty from one plant food application. Then, too, the soil bacteria will appreciate it, for they won’t have to rob the garden soil of nutrients when they go about decomposing the green material.
Perennials & Bulbs
Borders and beds being prepared for fall planting should be enriched with 2 pounds of plant food per 100 square feet for silt and clay soils, 3 pounds for sandy soils. The plant food will give the perennials a good start before winter. Established perennials, too, will appreciate a fall feeding.
New and old bulb plantings may be fed now or next spring. Although feeding will have no effect on next spring’s blooms, it is essential for subsequent vegetative growth. which is so necessary for bulb survival and reproduction.
Garden residues and leaves will soon require disposal, so why not convert these waste products into homemade soil conditioner? Only one step in making compost will be described here, but this one is the secret to quick composting.
Sprinkle some plant food on each layer of residue as it’s added to the pile, and soak the fertilizer in thoroughly.
The bacteria which help to break down the raw, fibrous residues are plants too, and though microscopic, the billions of them require appreciable quantities of plant food.
If they are semi-starved. as is probable when they work on coarse, fibrous stalks and leaves, they slow down their activities and the composting process is delayed. If you incorporate some good garden soil in each layer, the plant food is all the activator you need.
Many of us use a bagged potting soil, but for those of you who want to make your own mix… before forward acting this year and lay away a supply of potting and seed-flat soil now while the ingredients are dry and unfrozen.
To each bushel of the usual mixture of sand, soil and organic matter, add one 3-inch potful of plant food.
Spring Feed in Fall
Soil scientists find that with medium to heavy soils there is little or no winter loss of plant food by leaching as long as the fertilizer is applied when the soil temperature is below 50°.
Here’s an opportunity, then, for northern gardeners to reduce their heavy spring work load by applying their spring fertilizer for lawns, shrubs, borders and vegetable gardens in November or early December – call it “winter Fertilizer”, the plant food simply being winter-stored in the soil. I’ve had excellent results from feeding my lawn at this season.
The potentials for fall feeding very nearly approach those of spring in importance, if not in actual quantity of plant food used. So take advantage of fall feeding whenever you can and enjoy its benefits.