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Prepare landscape for winter weather
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi summers often seem endless, but now is the time to prepare home lawns and plants for the inevitable winter months.
Wayne Wells, turfgrass specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, offered the following suggestions to ensure lawns survive the winter months and thrive in the spring.
"Even though we're still in the dog days of summer, it won't be long before we start feeling that crispness in the morning when we get up, and fall will be here," Wells said.
The first tip Wells offered homeowners is to scout for late summer and early fall insect pests. It is important to find pests now because it will be difficult for grasses to recover from damage once temperatures cool.
"Be observant. Birds can tell you a lot of times if you have fall army worms in your lawn -- if you see birds feasting in your lawn, you need to get down and separate the grass to see if you see any worms," Wells said. "Also look for chinch bugs, which are a big problem in St. Augustine lawns."
White grubs or billbug larvae often feed just below the soil surface, so Wells advised using a shovel to peel back the turf an inch or so. Three to five grubs per square foot signal a problem, and should be treated by watering in a contact insecticide.
Wells said early September is the time for two other important steps in preparing lawns for the winter months: controlling winter annual weeds and managing fertility and water. Pre-emergence herbicides will help prevent weeds before they have a chance to develop.
Fall fertilization can be beneficial, but don't overdo it.
"Throwing out a lot of nitrogen fertilizer on lawns late in the year can encourage diseases like brown patch," Wells said. "We do want to be sure we get potassium out there to help with stress. It doesn't hurt to have a little nitrogen with the potassium, but don't go overboard with ammonia sulfate or ammonia nitrate, which will push foliar growth without root development."
The fall months are typically dry, so take steps to avoid drought stress in the lawn. Wells said infrequent but thorough watering once or twice per week is much better than a shallow daily watering. Water early enough in the day to allow the foliage to dry before nightfall.
The final step in preparing home lawns for winter weather is removing leaf litter. Wells said leaves capture moisture between themselves and the turf that may create insect and disease problems.
Some homeowners believe they are helping protect turf from cold weather by allowing leaves to remain on the lawn. A better method is to begin raising the lawn cutting height.
"Let the turf itself come up a little bit higher. That's where you get that insulation, rather than from the leaves," Wells said.
Plants and flowers in the landscape also require preparation for the winter months. Patricia Knight, an associate research professor at the South Mississippi Branch Experiment Station in Poplarville, offered her top three tips.
"The first thing you want to do is cut back on fertilization because fertilizing too late in the fall causes active growth going into the winter, and cold weather will kill new growth," Knight said. "In some years, fertilizing at this point would be fine, but we've already had a few cool fronts and many people are expecting an early fall, so I would not fertilize now."
Knight emphasized it is important for plants to have proper nutrition before cooler weather arrives. If fertilizer is needed, she advised using one with a high middle number -- the number that represents phosphorus -- and a low nitrogen content. This will give the nutrients plants need without promoting excessive growth.
Tips for pruning are similar to those for fertilizing: avoid waiting too late into the fall. Pruning also stimulates new growth that likely will be damaged by cold weather.
Knight's third tip for preparing plant life for cold weather is to begin decreasing irrigation.
"It's a good idea to start backing off of the water because this helps plants acclimate and build up cold tolerance," she said.
For more information on protecting home lawns, check the following Extension publications: "Establish and Manage Your Home Lawn," and "Control of Insect Pests In and Around the Home." These publications are available at the local Extension office.