The summer is over. You’re probably anticipating a break from the never-ending mowing and watering of your lawn. The autumn leaves have mostly fallen, been mulched, or blown, and you’re about to lock up your gardening shed. Not so fast! You’re forgetting about preparing your lawn for winter weather. To flourish properly in the spring, your lawn needs attention now.
Winterizing your lawn can be accomplished with just a few tasks. A little effort today will pay off in the spring, providing the foundation for next year’s beautiful, green, and healthy yard.
1. Lawn is Overgrown or Too Short
You may be wondering if mowing is necessary this late in the year. After all, with freezing temperatures right around the corner, does it even matter? It does.
Having your lawn at the optimum height going into winter is crucial to the overall health of your grass during the harsh winter months. You should aim for a lawn height of 2-3” going into the winter, depending on the variety.
- Grass that is too long can be susceptible to problems such as fungal disease and mold, as blades mat down and prevent oxygen flow. It can also provide a haven for pests.
- Grass that is too short has limited protection from deep freezes, leaving the root system vulnerable to damage.
Quick Fix: If your grass is near 3” tall in the fall, give it another pass with the lawn mower. If it’s late fall and your grass is below 2”, let it grow or consider adding a layer of mulch to protect it from deep freezes.
2. Presence of Weeds
Fall is the best time to target weeds. Fall-germinating weeds (annuals) are just now sprouting and will continue to grow during spells of warm weather throughout the winter. By the time spring gets here, they will be well-established. Perennial weeds are shifting focus from top growth to root growth. Now is the time to combat them, also, at the root level.
An abundance of weeds provides a harbor for pests throughout the winter, leading to more woes come spring.
Quick Fix: Your best bet is a two-step punch.
- Target weeds now with a pre-emergent herbicide. Be aware that herbicides work best when the air temperature is at least 50°F, so make haste.
- Add a thin layer of mulch to starve weed seedlings of sunlight.
3. Compacted Soil
Over the summer, our lawns often take a beating with foot traffic and heavy machinery compacting the soil. This contributes to the development of “thatch” (see next section).
If compacted soil is left untreated, the roots of grass may be unable to penetrate the soil deeply enough for adequate protection from deep freezes. This can cause sections of lawn to weaken and die off, manifesting as bare patches in the spring.
Quick Fix: The fall is the best time to aerate your lawn. Aerating punches holes through the turf, allowing better oxygen flow and creating a path for water and fertilizer to nourish the root system. When aerating, choose a day when the soil has been softened by a recent rain. Avoid using an aerator on wet soil. Make at least two passes, going crosswise the second pass to ensure complete coverage.
4. Thatch Build-Up
Thatch is a spongy layer of organic material that sits between the green grass vegetation and the soil surface. It consists of both living and dead elements, including grass and weed stems, roots, leaves, and debris, all matted together.
While a thin layer of thatch can protect a lawn from heavy foot traffic and other stressors, a thick layer of thatch (more than ½”) can be devastating to a healthy lawn.
It can prevent oxygen, nutrients, and moisture from reaching grass roots, as well as opening the door to fungal problems, and harboring pests.
It’s best to treat heavy thatch in the fall. Spring treatment of thatch may lead to more weed seeds being brought to the surface.
Quick Fix: Dethatching can be done by hand with a specialized rake, for small areas. As it requires a lot of effort, for a large area it’s best to rent an electric dethatcher from a home improvement store. You’ll have a choice of a motorized dethatcher, similar in appearance to a lawn mower, or a tow-behind (requiring a riding lawnmower). Prices can range from $15 – $75 per day.
5. Poor Fertilization and Soil Nutrient Balance
Testing your soil and applying a round of fertilizer are two steps you should never skip in the fall.
Autumn rain tends to acidify soil, and you may need to rectify that before going into winter. Most turf grass does best at a pH range of 6-7. Either extreme, whether alkalinity or acidity, can have a negative effect on your lawn’s ability to withstand the winter season’s stressors.
Equally important, your lawn may have been depleted of nutrients over the summer. A poorly nourished lawn may be further weakened by the drying effect of winter winds. The dampness of early spring on already struggling turf could lead to issues such as snow mold. Giving your lawn a bump of nutrients in the fall is your best move to prepare your lawn for winter.
Quick Fix: Test your pH levels and soil nutrient balance to see exactly what’s happening beneath your lawn. Apply a round of the appropriate fertilizer to strengthen the root system of your grass.
By identifying these issues now and applying these quick fixes, you’ll ensure your lawn is protected during the winter season. You’ll reap the benefits of your efforts when springtime arrives, and healthy new grass begins to emerge.
Michelle Weaver is a former pastry chef of thirty years who reinvented herself during the pandemic, now happily earning a living through freelance writing and selling her art. She and her significant other live in an 1895 farmhouse in North Carolina, where they have several acres, allowing her to garden to her heart’s content. When she’s not playing in the dirt, she enjoys hiking in the nearby mountains, creating new vegetarian recipes, and photographing the wildlife that comes to visit.