Todd LaytAutumn lawn care for year-round results

Contrary to popular opinion, late autumn and winter are important times for lawn maintenance. Did you know in warmer climates like Australia, the cooler months are the most important time to fertilise? And if you need to install a lawn over the next few months, do you know which turf types will work best if laid in winter and what techniques you can use to help your lawn establish? There’s also a new, safer lawn grub control product that’s best applied in late winter.

Spreading slow -release fertiliser in autumn

Spreading slow -release fertiliser in autumn

Research at Richmond NSW recently demonstrated that autumn and winter are the most important times to fertilise. This research, conducted by Ozbreed, has shown that it is possible to keep Buffalo, Kikuyu and Zoysia turf green all year round when following optimum fertiliser applications and certain mowing practices, even in frost prone areas. This research has designed recipes to keep these turf types green all year round in many parts of Australia, using specialised fertiliser formulations.

In brief, the research involved fertilising replicated plots of numerous turf types with many different timing combinations, using a specialised autumn and winter blend of slow and quick release fertiliser and iron. Earlier research highlighted that a product called 2 Spec Elevate from Globe, provided the best performance for winter colour compared to other fertilisers tested. Slow release types were best.

The outcomes were unanticipated. Common practice is to not fertilise in winter, as it is seen as a waste of time, or is often considered to hurt a lawn. This research, for regions that do not usually get colder than minus 3º Celsius, clearly shows that winter fertiliser greatly improves the green colour of many turf types. Over 30 frosts were recorded with a lowest temperature of around minus 3ºC.

Turf plots under a winter frost

Turf plots under a winter frost

In general Kikuyu, most Buffalo types, and Zoysia types benefited from autumn and winter fertilising. Couch however showed no real benefit from winter fertilising in this trial. As couch is probably the most researched sports turf, it is little wonder that conventional research and practice say to not fertilise lawns in winter. If well-fertilised in winter with slow release, the lawns needed no fertiliser in spring to quickly green. Those that did not have winter fertiliser and no spring fertiliser struggled to green up. So in warm temperate through to subtropical climates, fertilise you lawn in late autumn and winter for a green lawn all year. In very cold regions like Canberra, winter fertilising can harm your warm season lawn.

The bottom part of this Palmetto Buffalo lawn was fertilised in autumn and winter, showing a clear difference to the non-fertilised top area

Photographed in late winter/early spring – the bottom part of this Palmetto Buffalo lawn was fertilised in autumn and winter, showing an early spring green-up advantage over the non-fertilised top area

Recipe for fertilising lawns (based on this research)
Fertilise at the beginning of April and again in mid-June with slow release fertiliser applications at a heavy rate, or better still use a blend of quick and slow release as per the ‘Autumn Winter Blend’ as used in the trials. Fertilise again in mid to late October or early November with a moderate rate of slow release fertiliser, or a heavy rate of organic type fertiliser. Fertilise in January, February or March if the lawn is having problems such as lawn grub or disease, has brown patches, or is looking a little tired, with a moderate application of slow release fertiliser. However it may be worth considering further optional applications, if your lawn receives very heavy wear from dogs or kids, or you want a dark green lawn all year.

THE MOST IMPORTANT FERTILISER TIME IS AUTUMN AND WINTER.

Mowing practice can also help keep lawns greener in winter. Leave your lawn at a moderate length for most of the year. If after all the recommended fertilising the lawn browns off in winter, lightly mow it. Under even many moderate frosts, only the tips of leaf burns. A light mow removes most of the burn, making the lawn instantly greener. In spring every year for thatchy Buffalo types, and every 2 to 3 years for Palmetto, Sapphire and Sir Walter, de-thatch with a specialised machine, or simply remove the thatch by mowing very short (scalping) and collecting the clippings, or alternatively top dress with and organic mix. This will greatly improve its next year’s winter colour.

It's easier to kill Kikuyu in a Buffalo lawn during winter

It’s easier to see and kill off Kikuyu in a Buffalo lawn during winter

The cooler months, particularly May are a great time to take Kikuyu out of other lawns. It will grow more quickly than the others in the cold. It is easy to see, and easy to paint glyphosate on the Kikuyu, without harming the desired lawn. Do a follow up application two weeks later. Late winter is the time to watch for bindii. If you see them, spray them with an appropriate bindii killer.

Watch out for bindii for treatment during winter

Watch out for bindii and use a selective herbicide during winter

If you need to install a lawn in winter, it can be done. In Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, Kikuyu and Buffalo are the best choices for winter installation. If you live in cooler parts like Melbourne, Kikuyu is best for winter installation. However you can still lay Buffalo turf in Melbourne and Adelaide if you lightly top dress the lawn with an organic mix after installation. This will also help in the colder parts of Western Sydney.

Nara native turf after many frosts in winter

Nara native turf after many frosts in winter

Another technique is to use grow-cloth (garden fabric) or shade cloth over the top for the first 3 to 6 weeks after installation. Zoysia is the rising star of lawns, being so tough, yet requiring much less maintenance. However, unless you live near the coast in NSW, or in Queensland, laying Zoysia in winter is best avoided, unless in climates like western Sydney you lightly top dress with an organic mix or use a grow cloth. In the warmer months Zoysia strikes really quickly, and it is such a great turf, it is probably worth waiting for. Nara native turf has the best winter colour of all Zoysia types, and is a good choice for those who want low maintenance, a tough beautiful lawn, and a green lawn in winter. Tall fescue will strike really well in winter but, come summer, unless you water it almost daily, you will lose it in most Australian climate zones. So unless you live in Tasmania, or alpine regions, it is not a good choice.

Beetle larvae

Beetle larvae

A new safer lawn grub control is best applied in warmer areas in late winter, around August. In cooler areas in mid-September. ACELEPRYN will provide up to 6 months protection at the higher application rate and is a non-scheduled treatment with high turf safety and no re-entry periods and has an extremely low environmental impact. ACELEPRYN controls a wide range of turf pests such as African Black Beetle, Argentine Stem Weevil, Argentinian Scarab, Billbugs, Cutworm, Armyworm and Webworm with a single application. Presently it is mainly available in bulk for lawn professionals, but for those on acreage it is worth looking at. There are plans to make it available soon in smaller packs for the general public. This is a real breakthrough for lawn grub control.

So while mowing your lawn is greatly reduced in late autumn and winter, there are tasks that greatly improve its quality. So try fertilising your lawn as soon as possible and see how much greener it is this winter. Winter fertilising will also greatly improve its spring green up.

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Todd Layt

About Todd Layt

Todd was the author of Drought Tolerant Gardening Guide, 2009, ISBN; 978-0-646-50860-3. He has written for the Landscape Contractor and the Landscape Manager magazines for 10 years. For many years he ran turf farms and a large production nursery. Now he is director and owner of Ozbreed Pty Ltd, breeding many native and exotic plants, as well as turf varieties including Sapphire Buffalo, and Nara Native turf.  

11 thoughts on “Autumn lawn care for year-round results

  1. helen mckerral on said:

    Interesting, Todd. Would you class Adelaide as warm temperate then? Second, the Adelaide Hills in my region – Stirling/Mt Lofty – is about 5 C cooler than the Adelaide Plains in summer, more than that in winter – camellias, azaleas and other cool climate plants thrive here (we occasionally get the lightest sprinkling of snow and we are far enough from the coast for frost to be common). But microclimate varies enormously: some valleys are frosty, steep areas may be frost-free. What is your advice regarding fertilising lawns and grasses in this region?

  2. Todd Layt on said:

    Helen,
    I think you will get some benefit in that region, especially on Kikuyu and Palmetto. You are not cold enough to get winter kill like Canberra, so give it a try, and let me know if it helps.

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Thank you, Todd: good to know. I’ll chuck some extra on my fescue this weekend! Microclimate makes a huge difference up here: in some gardens, it IS too cold for some of the running grasses – they die off so much that by the time spring comes the lawn is full of weeds that have colonised the bare ground!

  3. Peter on said:

    Hi there
    For maltilda buffalo would you recommend an application of say Scott’s plus blood bone and maybe sea mungus in autumn/winter?

    • Todd Layt on said:

      I think the Slow release from Scotts will be enough, but adding the extra will not hurt. With Matilda the main thing is to scalp it or top dress it yearly in Spring if possible, as it thatches more than most other Buffalo types, and that leads to many issues.

  4. Barb James on said:

    Where is a reliable link to find out what grass is in one’s lawn. I now live on the plains in central west NSW and know my lawn is not couch nor kikuyu and looks like what I’ve known to be buffalo. But anything more specific I have no idea. I have one major problem and its like a receding hairline. I’ve lost about 20-30 square metres since January when I moved in. Some other patchy areas too but different symptoms. We had a very hot summer and early autumn with no rain at all. Also lost random branches on many shrubs with the rest seeming healthy like the lawn. I’ve never had a buffalo lawn. And never had a lawn that didn’t just smile and grow when watered. There’s no garden places in town. I’d appreciate being guided in a reliable and simple to understand resource.

    • Hi Barb,
      Distinguishing between different types of buffalo lawn grass is very difficult from photos as everything online shows a super healthy, lush, green sward, often with the photo colour enhanced as well.
      I think your best bet would be to pay for a horticulturist or lawn maintenance person to come out and have a look, including diagnosing your lawn and garden problems. You could also find out who sells turf in the district so you know what varieties are commonly used. Or is there a local garden club? Those who lived and gardened in the area for a while will have a wealth of local knowledge.
      Branch dieback in shrubs can have a number of causes, such as physical damage to stems from animals chewing at the bark, or stem borers (beetle and moth larvae). Other causes can be fungal or bacterial.

  5. Aleks on said:

    Hi, I was wondering if palmetto would survive cold European winters? If not what would you recommend? Cold -20 deg Celsius

    • Todd Layt on said:

      It is too cold in the UK for Palmetto. Some years it may work, then a cold snap and gone. I know it has worked down to minus 12 or less in the USA, but the UK is too cold and drought is not such an issue so Fescue or Rye grass works there.

  6. John on said:

    Great read….I have Sapphire Buffalo 1yr old and live in the Sydney area. I’ve been using Nitrophoska Special (N: 12.0% P: 5.2% K: 14.1% S: 8.0% Mg: 1.2% Boron: 0.02% Zinc: 0.01%) for autum/winterising the lawn. Its not big on Nitrogen or iron so colour isnt deep green. It was to stabilise the roots and deep growth. The lawn has gone slightly patchy. Gold with dark green patches…..
    Should i use a strong iron and nitrogen fertiliser coming into spring? (Any reccomendations?)Does sapphire need to be scalped like matilda? It doesn’t feel thatchy!?! Mowed with a barrel mower.
    Thanks
    John

    • Todd Layt on said:

      John, The dark green patches and gold patches could be the effects of frost if you are in a frost area. Up the Nitrogen a little in spring, it gets the green up happening quickly. Don’t go overboard though. Slow release fertiliser is the best.As for scalping, Sapphire needs doing every 3 to 5 years to keep it looking at its best. If you had Matilda you would need to do it every year, or at least every two years. So lucky you got a low thatch type.

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