canada lawn care

Winter Lawn Care Guide for Canadians

In Lawn & Garden, Winter by Jamie

A Canadian winter is a long winter, for both you and your lawn. While you’re anxiously waiting for warmer, sunny days, your lawn is sleeping under the snowbanks. Come spring, lawns can be a little… ragged. Giving your lawn a bit of TLC in the fall will pay off come spring.

How to Prepare Your Lawn for a Canadian Winter

The first step to caring for your lawn is to prepare it for the long winter months ahead.

Early autumn care

This article focuses on how to prep your lawn to survive a cold Canadian winter, but there are a few tasks you can undertake in late summer or early autumn, depending on your particular Canadian climate.

In places like the prairies where fall is short, these tasks are best done in August. In places like southern Ontario where fall stretches into November, start before or during Labour Day weekend.

These tasks include:

  • Applying compost teas or fertilizing to help grass grow deeper roots and store energy for the long winter. (If you’re using compost, you can apply it closer to winter.)
  • Aerating the soil (if soil is compacted or you’re overseeding).
  • Overseeding with an appropriate grass seed to fix up bare spots.

Turn fallen leaves into free compost

Leaves are a fantastic and FREE source of organic matter. Lawns do best when their soil comprises 3% organic matter. Organic matter has a ton of benefits for your lawn: it aerates the soil and prevents compaction, it absorbs water to keep your lawn watered longer, improves drainage, supports healthy microbiology living in your soil that in turn supports your grass from fungi and disease, and feeds your grass.

Unfortunately, you can’t just leave them all over your grass as a thick layer of leaves can deprive grass of oxygen and sun in the springtime.

To make the most of fallen leaves, you can either:

  • Take a lawn mower over the fallen leaves several times until they’re in small enough pieces to fall between the grass blades. (But only to a layer of a ¼-inch. Any deeper and it can smother the grass, so if you get a ton of leaves falling in your yard, you’ll have to rake up some of them.)
  • Rake up leaves and put them in your compost bin. (If you don’t have a compost bin, now’s a great time to start one! Or you can pile them up in a corner of your yard to turn into leafmould.)

Hand pull weeds

After a long summer of weeding, it’s tempting to give up in the fall. But hang in there! Hand weeding now will save you time next spring as perennial weeds store up energy to come back in full force next spring and annuals go to seed so their children will pop up next summer.

If you have a lot of weeds going to seed (and who hasn’t been there?), mow over the weeds using a bagger attachment.

Alternatively, you can allow harmless weeds like dandelions and clover to live. It’d actually be better for pollinators since these weeds flower and provide a food source while grass does not, and some weeds improve your lawn’s soil. So long as you don’t use herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers, you can harvest these weeds for zesty additions to your salads. After all, what is a weed but a plant we don’t know how to use yet?

Cut your lawn to 2-inches

The ideal grass height for winter is two inches, which is not too short and not too tall. Grass needs enough of the leaf left in the early spring to take in sunlight and photosynthesize, but too long can mat up to suffocate lawns and provide a refuge for pests like mice (who will mow for you in a terrible, patchy job). As the days become cooler and the nights longer, grass will slow its growth so you shouldn’t need to mow as much.

Apply ¼-inch compost

If you haven’t mulched fallen leaves, this is a great time to add a ¼-inch layer of compost over your lawn. The beneficial microbes in the soil will continue to break down the compost into usable nutrients until the soil freezes solid. Then when the ground thaws, your lawn is already fertilized!

Do not use synthetic fertilizers this late in the fall. They give a high-octane boost in a short time, causing your grass to grow when it should be heading into dormancy. Compost is a slow-release fertilizer and lasts far longer than any synthetic slow-release granules. One application will last a year. And unlike synthetic fertilizers, compost won’t break dormancy.

Clean and maintain your lawnmower

Hopefully, you’ve cleaned off old dirt, debris, and old grass clippings from your lawn mower throughout the year, but it’s a good idea to clean off your lawnmower and provide proper maintenance before you store it away for the winter.

Maintenance includes:

  • Sharpening the blades
  • For gas mowers, adding stabilizer if there’s still gas in a mower tank and running it for a few minutes so the gas will be ready come spring.
  • For cordless electric mowers, removing the battery and fully charging it.
  • Replace air filters.
  • Replace damaged or worn parts.
  • Lubricate parts (according to your owner’s manual).
  • Touch up rusted or chipped paint surfaces.
  • Replacing anything that requires replacing
  • Caring for the pistons.
  • Cleaning the blades and undercarriage.
  • Storing in a dry, clean location, and covering the mower. (Make sure it’s a place that children can’t get into!)

If you have a push mower, maintenance will be easy! Intrigued? We cover this and the other pros and cons to using reel vs rotary mowers.

Stake out your lawn

Once everything is blanketed in a foot of snow, it’s difficult to tell where the pavement ends and the grass begins. This is especially true if you have a long driveway that needs plowing! Do yourself a favour and put in stakes to mark out where the lawn is.

If you plow or hire a plow for your driveway, mark out a spot that’s not your lawn for the plow to leave the excess snow. An enormous pile of snow will take longer to thaw in the spring, and the delay can end up killing the grass underneath.

24-48 hours before the first freeze, deeply water your lawn (if it’s been dry)

Your lawn might spend the next four months dormant under a foot of snow, but it still needs some water to survive until spring. Thoroughly soaked soil will also protect grass roots from freezing temperatures. But ice forming on the grass blades and around the grass crowns can damage your lawn, so it’s best to give the water at least 24 hours to soak into the ground before the first freeze of the year arrives.

If fall’s been wet, and the soil is already well-watered, you can skip this step. Again, we want to avoid puddles forming and freezing on top of the grass.winter grass canada

Lawn Care Tips During the Winter Months

Your lawn might be under a foot of snow, but there are still a few things to do to protect your lawn.

Avoid walking, parking vehicles, or leaving heavy equipment on the lawn

Frozen grass is resilient, but heavy traffic will take its toll. Avoid leaving anything heavy on the lawn during the winter as you can guarantee a dead spot if you do. Also, try to reroute foot traffic around your lawn as much as possible, although there’s some that you can’t do anything about (like mail carriers traipsing over your lawn to get to the next house) and there’s some that you’ll want to allow anyway (your kids having fun playing in the snow). In the latter case, overseeding or switching to a hardy, durable grass variety will help.

Avoid sodium-based ice melts like rock salt.

Sodium-based ice melts like rock salt may be the most prevalent ice melt, but it’s terrible for lawns, other plants, and pets. Sand is a great alternative, which doesn’t melt the ice but provides traction without hurting your lawn (it also works way better than ice melts when temperatures stay below -10C). Calcium chloride is another ice melt choice that’s more environmentally friendly.

Plan next year’s lawn.

Next year’s yard starts now. Take some time to note:

  • what went well with your lawn,
  • what troubles you had (pests, weeds, dry weather, etc),
  • what changes you’d like to make to your yard next year, if any (a new patio, a wildlife pollinator garden], going organic/natural, etc), and
  • what you’re going to stop doing.

Look up ways you can solve those problems (preferably without chemicals, as they often create new problems). Make a plan to implement these changes.

Rest.

Maintaining a lawn and garden during the growing season is a lot of work! It’s time to take a break from yard work and just enjoy yourself (as much as you can with all the snow shoveling…), so that when the snowdrops and crocuses emerge in the early spring, you’re ready and raring to go.

Lawn Care After Winter in Canada

After prepping your lawn in the fall and avoiding damage during the winter, your lawn should be in pretty good shape. A little work now to refresh your lawn will top the sundae with a cherry.

Spread out snow piles as the snow thaws

In most cases, snow will thaw pretty evenly over lawns (although spots in the sun will thaw faster than those in the shade). But if there are piles of snow on your lawn, take a shovel or a rake and spread out the snow so it can melt faster without damaging your lawn.

Hold off on heavy foot traffic in the first few weeks of spring

The snow might have melted, but your lawn will still be dormant or only just emerging from dormancy. Your lawn is pretty fragile now, especially if the ground is soggy from snowmelt. If you can, keep people off the lawn for a few weeks until it bounces back.

Complete any tasks that you didn’t get to in the fall

Even with the best intentions, sometimes tasks just don’t get done. If you didn’t have time to tune up your mower or clean up all the leaves, now’s the time.

Pick up any debris

Once the ground is dry enough, pick up any fallen branches, remaining piles of leaves, or other debris that might have fallen on your lawn.

Weed

Weeds can start popping up as soon as the snow melts. The more weeds you can hand pull early on, the better off you’ll be later in the growing season when you’re busy with other yard work.

If you’re not aerating or overseeding, you may want to apply corn gluten to keep crabgrass and other annual weeds from germinating.

Mow grass to 3-inches

The ideal grass length in spring is 3-inches, as this gives the grass enough leaf to photosynthesise and come back vigorously while shading the soil to keep the soil moist and keep weed seeds from germinating. (Summer cuts are even longer, ranging from 3 to 3.5 inches up to 4 inches for fescues.) Ease your lawn into mowing with short cuts. Remember, it just survived winter. It needs a little time to bounce back.

Core aerate to treat compaction or prepare for overseeding(once grass is growing vigorously again)

If the soil has been compacted from the snow, wait until your grass grows vigorously again, and use a core aerator to open up the soil. Core aeration stresses out your lawn, so only do it when the soil has been heavily compacted or you’re overseeding and only once a year.

Core aeration is more effective than spike aeration, as the core aeration process actually cuts out plugs to open up space for roots to grow. Spike aeration adds holes by compacting the soil around the hole.

Overseed any bare spots (once the threat of frost has passed)

Snow compaction and sodium-based ice melts can do a number on your yard. If you notice any bare spots, or you missed the window for overseeding in the winter, overseed once the threat of frost has passed.

Final Thoughts

Canadian winters are cold and harsh, but with a little preparation and care, your lawn will make it through in glorious shape.