Fall Prep Work Makes for a Green Spring

A vibrant garden.

Although it's tough to admit, summer is drawing to a close and backyard activities will soon be slowing down. That doesn't mean you shouldn't take care of your lawn just as you would if spring were right around the corner. As a matter of fact, there are several things you can do now to get your lawn ready for winter and, ultimately, the following spring.

Watch Out for Falling Leaves

With the advent of autumn, it's inevitable that leaves will change color and fall to the ground. Once your trees lose their leaves, it's important to mulch them or pick them up. Flat leaves, such as those of the maple tree, will lie on your lawn and smother the grass. If you rake your lawn, don't let the piles sit too long. Piles of leaves can prevent air and light from reaching the grass, thereby suffocating it.

An easy way to dispose of leaves is to use your lawnmower to mulch them into the grass. This process can add valuable nutrients to your lawn. If there is simply way too much leaf litter, pick up the leaves and add them to your mulch pile or garden. Decomposing leaves are great for loosening clay soils. They add moisture and nutrient-holding capacity to sandy soils.

The Final Cut

Don't put that mower away just yet. When your grass quits growing and the last fallen leaves need mulching, it's time to give your lawn one last cut. Set your mower blades so they cut the lawn relatively high. At this point in the year, grass takes in nutrients to store in its roots for a healthy start in the spring. If you cut your grass too low, it greatly slows down this process. If you cut the grass too short and cold weather comes early, your lawn may not be able to store enough energy for spring. The result is called winterkill.

"The Lawn Institute recommends that northern and southern grasses be cut between 1 1/2 and 2 inches long," says Mike Archer, master gardener and market development and research coordinator for Milorganite. "Do not remove more than one-third of the leaf at one mowing. You should always mow when the grass is dry to prevent promoting and spreading lawn diseases; and keep your blade sharp for a nice, clean cut."

Fertilization Is Important

Research at the University of Wisconsin shows that adding a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer to your lawn in the fall speeds greening up to two weeks earlier in the spring. "Even in northern climates, lawns are quick to demand nutrients for early spring greening and growth," says Archer. "Fertilizing will also help repair any winter damage more quickly."

Fertilizer should be applied twice in the fall. The first application should be made two months before your lawn goes dormant for the winter to help your lawn store energy. A lawn is considered dormant when it is no longer growing. This will vary by year and where you live. The second application should occur just before your lawn goes dormant. Use a slow release fertilizer at this time. A slow-release-fertilizer will not leach into groundwater during the winter months. As a result, the lawn will utilize more nutrients instead of letting them go to waste.

"The only time you should not perform a late fertilizer application is if you have a St. Augustine grass lawn or a southern turf type," says Archer. "Such an application will prevent the lawn from going dormant as it should, resulting in winterkill."


For those of you with northern turf types, fall is a great time to aerate. Aeration improves water penetration into the ground. It also allows fall fertilizer to penetrate into the soil, near the grass roots. Aeration speeds up the process of getting lawns ready for winter's harsh weather.

Aerating your lawn involves using a machine to poke small holes in the top 2 to 3 inches of soil. There are many lawn care companies that provide this service, or if you're the do-it-yourself type, you can rent an aerator at many rental agencies.

According to Archer, if a lawn is more than 10 years old, following aeration is a good time to overseed with newer varieties of grass. These varieties tend to be darker in color, have increased disease resistance, and respond better to fertilizing. When seeding, the holes should fill to about three-quarters of an inch.

"By letting the holes partially fill, you prevent grass seed from being planted too deep," says Archer. "Lawn seed only needs to be planted 1/16 to 1/8 inch deep."

Until Next Spring

By following these simple tips, you can rest easy during the cold winter months, knowing that your lawn is well cared for. And you can dream of those summertime activities that are just around the corner. Not to mention, you'll be enjoying your lush, green lawn earlier in the spring, while your neighbors are scratching their heads trying to figure out your secret for a healthy lawn.