When’s the best time for lawn care? Right now

Adding some steps to your fall routine can save you time in the spring. (Dreamstime/TNS)

MINNEAPOLIS -- When it comes to taking care of our lawns, most of us are doing it wrong.

We water too often and too shallowly, rather than less frequently and longer. We cut the grass too short, instead of leaving it a good 4 inches (which benefits pollinators). And we fertilize in spring, when fall is the prime time to set your grass up for the best growth.

Why? Jon Trappe chalks it up to human nature.

"A great lawn begins in the fall," said the turf grass expert with the University of Minnesota Extension, "but people are often tired of taking care of their lawn by fall."

Come spring, after a long winter, we're raring to go. Too many of us double-down, overdo, then wonder why our efforts don't pay off.

Trappe has some welcome advice for us: If we take a few simple steps in autumn, we'll have a healthier, better looking lawn come spring.

Why now?

Without getting really technical (and Trappe can), fall is the best time to fertilize because the grasses we grow tend to be less stressed by heat. They are actively growing in autumn, but they're storing more energy in their roots for winter and the next season.

Another plus to fall fertilization: We tend to have fewer weeds to soak up the feed.

"Fall," Trappe said, "is the best time for the plants we want to grow and the best time to avoid feeding weeds."

How often?

Whether you need to fertilize depends on how you use your lawn.

"If you've got three kids and a golden retriever, you're going to need some fertilizer," Trappe said. "If you're retired empty nesters and walk across the lawn only occasionally, you probably need less fertilizer."

Trappe recommends one or two fall fertilizations, in early to mid-September and early to mid-October (no later than the 15th). That'll eliminate the need to fertilize in spring.

Growing greener

In recent years, grass has gotten a bad rap for being a water hog and a monocultural wasteland that fails to foster bees and other pollinators.

But it does have its benefits: it prevents erosion, helps with flood control, assists in breaking down organic chemicals and can create a cooling effect, as the university's extension site details. And it's hard to play a cutthroat game of croquet in your flower beds.

There are some easy ways to make our grass greener, so to speak.

One is to introduce lower maintenance grasses -- fine fescues -- that are specifically adapted to Minnesota. They need less water, less fertilizer and less mowing.

Most shady lawn seed mixes have fine fescues, but Trappe recommends buying a mix that has fine fescues on the label. Most local garden centers carry low-input mixes. (If you want to geek out on fescues, go to the extension's website.)

Catch a buzz

If you can give up the golf course look, consider moving toward a more pollinator-friendly lawn. Often called bee-friendly, these mixes typically contain creeping thyme (not to be confused with its evil cousin creeping Charlie), yarrow and white clover.

A bee-friendly lawn doesn't look a whole lot different from a traditional lawn, because these tiny flowering plants grow at the same height as grass plants.

Going to seed

Guess what time of year is best to seed your lawn?

Yup, fall.

Early September is good time to add seed to sparse spots or introduce low-impact and bee-friendly mixes. Later is even better.

From late October into November, you can "dormant seed." Before the ground is frozen, mow the grass shorter (to about 2 inches), rake to allow the seed contact with the soil and cast the seed. The sure-to-come snows and freeze-thaw cycle will work the seed into the soil.

And give you one less thing to do in spring.