No one wants to think about winter coming yet, but September is actually the best time to start getting your lawn ready to bounce back in the spring. Hopefully, depending on where you live, you still have time to enjoy the outdoors through a great fall. You can spend some of that good weather raking leaves and getting the plants, trees and bushes ready for wind, cold and snow.
If you already aerated in the spring, you can probably skip that chore, unless you have some heavily-traveled areas that are really packed down. According to experts, aerating most lawns every 3 years could be enough, depending on the soil and the type of grass you have. If your lawn is a cool-season grass, like bluegrass or ryegrass, do it in the early fall. If you live where warm-season grass thrives, aerate in early spring. Do it on a day when the soil is moist but not soggy. Start by going around the outside edge of the lawn. This provides a buffer zone for turning the heavy machine around as you go back and forth over the rest of the lawn.
How Low to Mow?
If you’re like me, you wonder whether longer or shorter is better to help grass survive through the winter. Again, experts will tell you that it depends on the climate and the type of grass you have. A general suggestion is to cut the grass down to 1 to 1½ inches. “If your grass is more than 3 inches tall, take it down incrementally over a few mowings—no more than a third of the grass blade at a time—to avoid stressing the plants.” [Does anyone really measure?] Mow right up until the ground freezes or the grass stops growing, whichever comes first. The final cut should be the minimum height recommended for your variety of grass. Then winterize your lawn mower. Change the oil, drain or top off the gas and add stabilizer. Get your snow blower up and running.
Time to Rake?
Last year in the Salt Lake Valley, snow fell before all of the leaves were off the trees, or before they could all be raked up. If that happened to you, you saw first-hand how large patches of leaf-covered grass emerged from the heavy snow hopelessly flattened and smothered. You may have developed fungus problems, as well. Start raking when the first leaves fall, and do it often to save your lawn from as many leaves as possible being trapped under snow. You can mulch a few leaves at the same time that you mow, or put the bag on the mower if you think the mulch will be too thick. Some people like leaf blowers or even vacuums to get the leaves off the grass. But it can be a lot of fun to get the whole family involved in raking the leaves into big piles and then letting the little kids jump in them. Our town has a park where residents can bring bagged leaves to be recycled, and the bags are free at the fire stations.
Where grass is sparse, fall is a good time to reseed and get some new grass growing. Start by spreading a half-inch layer of aged compost over the area. Be sure your compost is cured: dry, crumbly, and cool to the touch. Otherwise, it could burn your lawn. Fill your spreader with seed, set it to about two-thirds of the bag’s recommendation, to account for overlapping passes. After spreading, mix the seeds into the compost with a leaf rake held tines up. Water lightly—5 minutes at a time, two to three times a day—until the seeds sprout. Then water once a day for 15 to 30 minutes. Mow the lawn again when the existing grass reaches 3 inches.
It may seem counter-intuitive to fertilize when the grass is about to stop growing, but fertilizer with the right mix will help stimulate root growth and ensure the survival of the grass until spring. If you can, get a soil test so that you know exactly the type and amount chemicals in the fertilizer that will be best for your grass and soil. Or there might be a supply place that recommends the right mix for the soil and the season where you live. When fertilizing or seeding, always go over the turf twice, with crisscrossing paths. This eliminates the risk of stripes in your lawn. Fertilizer mixed with weed killer applied in autumn will go straight to the heart of perennial weeds.
What Else to Prune, Pull or Prepare?
Pruning most fruit trees is best in the winter or when they are dormant. Remove dead wood from trees and woody perennials before the snow falls. Some perennials are more complicated. I have raspberry bushes, and only the canes that have borne fruit and those that are dead should be pruned. If you’re unsure about some of your perennials, look them up. If they can wait until fall’s last gasp or until spring, their tops could help them survive a rough winter. Many perennials should be cut back to the ground in the fall. Again, you have to know what your particular plants need. Once temperatures drop below freezing, pull up annuals and toss them in the compost bin.
Bring houseplants inside before it gets too chilly. Put them near a window and don’t over-water. Plant any new plants six weeks before the ground usually freezes. If you’ve planted new trees in the fall, give them a really good watering. Prep younger trees by wrapping or screening them to protect them from the snow and bugs. To prepare shrubs for winter, generously water them when temperatures start dropping (but before it freezes). If your shrub is weak, wrap it in burlap and tie it so the covering stays in place.
To ensure ground cover survives winter well, plant it at a time of year when it will have the most time to get established before bad weather comes. If you’re in a region with cold winters, plant in the early spring. If you’re in a mild area, plant in the fall or winter. Straw, shredded leaves or other loose mulch also prevents ground cover from drying from wind gusts. Some ground cover dies completely back and then reappears in the spring without doing anything.
The yard work you do in the fall can, in large part, determine how much you will have to do in the spring. When winter snows do come, you can rest assured that you’ve done everything you can to ensure that all the growing things around your home will come to life again in the spring.