There's more to maintaining a beautiful yard during autumn than simply raking up dead leaves, and these steps will ensure your yard not only survives but thrives during the colder months ahead.
CREDIT: SCHULZIE / GETTY IMAGES
By Emily Goldman
Fall denotes beautiful rich-hued foliage and crisp, cool temperatures, but with this change in weather comes a change in your yard's needs. "After a long summer of pets, kids, and searing heat, your lawn can be left looking battered and worn, which is why the fall is the perfect time to repair it," says Brian Parker, senior live goods merchant at Home Depot. "The maintenance that you perform in the fall can help sustain your lawn's ongoing health throughout the year." But when is the time to start preparing your yard for cooler temperatures?
According to Steven Schwager, landscaping manager at Cornerstone Sonoma, it's best to start adjusting your lawn care for fall once the heat of summer is over. "The more time you have to prepare the lawn for winter dormancy, the better the lawn will look in the spring. The objective is to create strong and healthy roots," he says. But there's more to getting your yard ready for fall than simply raking up your leaves—you must also mow, aerate, fertilize, and water it.
Aerate Your Lawn
Let your lawn breathe. According to Parker, your soil may be compressed from rainfall during the previous seasons, which is why it's important to aerate it. If you don't own an aerator, he recommends renting one. "Holes formed from aerating will provide room for water, air, and fertilizer to travel deeper into the soil. This important step will help your lawn look lush and healthy by spring," Parker says.
We suggest using a power aerator or star-wheeled cultivator to till the target area to a depth of about 1/4-inch. Then, lightly coat the area with fresh soil, and sprinkle grass seeds to match the surrounding grass. Sow about 15 seeds per square inch (check the seed-box label for application rate). Till once again and tamp lightly with your foot to get good seed-to-soil contact. Use bamboo stakes or bent twigs to mark newly seeded areas, and water well.
Rake Your Leaves
While it may be tempting to let leaves accumulate on your yard, actively raking them is an important step to mark off your fall lawn care checklist. "I know that raking up the leaves isn't the most glamorous task, but it really is important so that your lawn can continue the photosynthesis process of absorbing the sun's rays to keep healthy and green." says Ryan McEnany, public relations and communications specialist for Bailey Nursery. "Just like the plants in your garden, the grass needs to continue seeing that sun to be healthy in fall and again next spring." Raking leaves also exposes your grass to the air, Schwager notes, which helps it prevent diseases like mold and fungal infections.
Mow Your Grass
During summer it seems like you can't go more than a few days without needing to mow your grass, but as temperatures drop, growth slows. However, this doesn't mean mowing should cease. "Your lawn needs to be mown as long as it's actively growing," Schwager says. "Depending on the weather, that may extend well into fall." Trimming your grass also helps protect it from diseases as it allows more air to reach the soil. "Shorter lawns also typically use less water and encourage better root development," Schwager says.
Trim Your Trees
Cutting back small amounts of your shade and ornamental flowering trees will be important, too. "Trim shade and ornamental flowering trees to prevent branches from falling on your lawn or garden due to wind or heavy snow," Parker says. "By pruning dead limbs you're preventing the hazards a fallen branch may bring to the home." He recommends cutting close to the trunk, but not flush with it, so as not to cause even more damage in the future.
Lay Down Mulch
Protect your trees from the harsh conditions that winter brings by starting prep during the fall. "Adding mulch around the base of trees and plants can help prevent them from freezing once winter comes," says Parker. Looking ahead to next spring, fall is a good time to add mulch to any garden beds you might want to expand in the new year. "Planning ahead will guarantee that the soil is free of unwanted growth once the ground is warmer and ready for planting," he explains.
Be Sure to Fertilize
Help your grass build up strong and healthy roots by fertilizing it as part of your fall lawn care. "Use a slow-release fertilizer that has a high concentration of nitrogen; it's the first number on the N-P-K ratio listed on each bag," says McEnany. "Nitrogen is the element that encourages green growth, so it's key for turf development."
When to Fertilize
He recommends giving one application of fertilizer in early autumn— which helps plants reestablish their root systems that may have suffered during summer— and another application a couple of months later. Fertilizing twice will help your grass store energy for next spring and break down any mulched leaves from the fall months.
Hand Fertilize Near Plants
McEnany cautions against fertilizing a lawn right next to a garden bed of blooming shrubs. "High-nitrogen fertilizer is intended to promote green growth, so it can slow flower development," he says. "In this instance, hand-fertilize as you near the flower bed versus a broadcast application, and then give your flowers a bloom-boosting fertilizer that's higher in phosphorus to push out those flowers."
Watering Is Still Important
Your plants still need water, so don't forget to give them a drink just because it's cooler out. "Also, like your garden, continue watering the lawn until frost," says McEnany. "It will not need as much water as you give it in the summer, but it's important to keep the soil evenly moist until frost hits and the lawn goes dormant." Schwager says you'll know your yard is ready for watering when you poke your finger a couple of inches down into the soil and don't feel moisture. "Most lawns will look a little drab when they're thirsty, but some people have trouble noticing this change in color," he says.
Fill in Dead Patches
Fall is a good time to care for thinning and dead patches of lawn that may have occurred until the hot sun during summer. "The soil is still warm enough that the seed will germinate quickly, and the new grass plants will appreciate the cooler temperatures and higher levels of moisture usually associated with fall weather," Schwager says. "Your lawn will have a jump-start next spring with the new grass already somewhat established."
Store Items Like Lawn Furniture
Preparing your lawn for the upcoming winter is pivotal in ensuring the safety of you and your plants. Winter storms can be brutal, so returning tools and lawn furniture inside or to a shed can save you time and money in the long run. "Clean, repair, and put away any lawn furniture," says Parker. "Close down and drain fountains, and water features before freezing temperatures arrive." It's also important to drain and store hoses and sprinklers in the fall, too. Clean and put away garden tools and prepare mowers and other lawn care equipment for the winter. Also, don't forget about your warm-weather plants. "Store or cover pots and planters that might crack in freezing rain or ice," he says.
She joined the Martha Stewart Living team in 2020 as a digital editor for MarthaStewart.com, with a focus on SEO, touching on all verticals across the website.