Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Fall Lawn Maintenance: Dethatching

One of the key elements of successfully maintaining a suburban homestead is learning to think simultaneously about next week and six months into the future. Recently, I wrote about preparing the garden for fall planting, and today I want to begin a discussion about preparing the lawn for next spring. Note that this advice is intended for turf-type lawns, which are the most common in the North Carolina Piedmont, and may not be appropriate for other types.

There are a few essential tasks which must be completed within the next 4-6 weeks if you want to ensure a healthy lawn next year. There's no way around it, if you want lush green in April or May, you will have to put the work in now. This was a particularly bad summer for lawns in the North Carolina Piedmont, with a wet June and a long stretch of very hot, very dry weather in July and August. Even the healthiest, most liberally watered lawns were stressed to the max. If you, like me, tend to take a more natural and sustainable approach to lawn maintenance, you are probably looking at a tangled brownish mat right now. Fear not. Your grass is not actually "dead," it has merely gone dormant. In fact, in my neck of the woods, the recent rain showers and slightly lower daytime highs have greened things up just a bit. If you want to maintain that green momentum right up through next spring, the first thing you need to do is dethatch.

Thatch, the layer of decaying grass clippings and other organic debris that works its way down to soil level is actually a beneficial thing. It helps preserve moisture and prevents weeds from taking root. That's why we use the "mulch" feature on our lawnmowers and don't (always) bag and remove our clippings. At this time of year, however, thatch that is too thick can have a detrimental effect on some of the other critical maintenance activities we need to perform, and we need to remove it to give the grass a chance to "breathe" and to let water and nutrients reach the roots.

There are four ways to dethatch a lawn and the one you choose will most likely depend on your lawn's size. For very small lawns a manual dethatching rake is a possibility. These rakes sell in most hardware stores for $30 to $50. It takes about an hour to thoroughly go over a 300-400 square foot patch with one of these and it is fairly intense labor, so unless you have a postage stamp lawn or are looking for a real workout, a manual rake is probably not the best option. A distant cousin of the manual rake is the dethatching lawnmower blade attachment. I have never used one of these myself, but everyone I have spoken to that has deemed them utterly and completely worthless.

You can also rent or purchase a power dethatcher. These devices look like old-fashioned reel lawnmowers and come in electric and gasoline models. They have adjustable tines which, in theory, rotate just deep enough to lift the thatch without ripping up the grass. For smallish lawns - up to, say, a quarter acre - an electric model, which will run you $150-$200 would probably suffice. A gasoline model will cost roughly twice that to buy or around $50 for a half-day rental. Keep in mind that this is a tool you will use once per year, and that the maintenance involved with the gasoline models probably make them a better rental than a purchase. One thing to be aware of with power dethatchers is that they do NOT collect the thatch. You will need to do that with a leaf rake or with a bagging power mower. Although some models come with a "thatch catcher" bag, the consensus opinion is that they are, at best, only marginally effective.

The third option, for larger lawns, is an implement which attaches to and is pulled behind a riding mower. These look like miniature hay rakes and can be purchased at lawn & garden or farm stores for $100 to $150. If your lawn is larger than a half acre and you already have a riding lawnmower, this is probably your best option.

Finally, of course, you can always pay someone to do this for you. Some yard maintenance companies will include dethatching in a "complete" fall maintenance package, but in most cases you will need to specifically ask for this service. The cost varies according to the size of the lawn, but you are probably looking at $75 to $150 for a typical suburban lawn, including removal.

The dethatching, itself, is a relatively straightforward process akin to mowing, albeit quite a bit more time consuming. As noted earlier, the power dethatcher only loosens the thatch and brings it to the surface. It must be removed by some other means. For a small yard, raking into piles, onto a tarp or into a wheelbarrow will work. Another, less physically demanding, method is going over the lawn with a bagging lawnmower on its tallest setting. A word of warning; dethatching will generate a surprising volume of material and you will want to give some consideration beforehand to how you intend to dispose of it. Thatch makes excellent compost, so if you are already doing home composting, this will give you a huge boost of quality material that has already started to decay. If you are not composting or cannot use all of the material, you might check with a neighbor or a local community garden that composts. They may even come and haul it away for you. As a last resort, you can bag it up and put it out for removal as yard waste.

The dethatching process will likely make your yard look a little "rough." Often the first-time dethatcher will wonder if they have destroyed their lawn. That's to be expected, it's just the first step in the process. Next week, we will discuss core aeration.

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