Think of the fall season as the time to prepare your lawn and garden for the spring. You don't want your lawn and garden that you worked so hard on to be ravaged by the cold weather. The ideal period for fall planting is roughly six weeks before the first frost. For most of us this means September to mid-October.
In the fall, plants begin to go into dormancy, as the soil remains warmer than air, encouraging the roots to stick firmly and settle. The fall season is also the time where there are fewer pests and disease problems, making it easier for your new plants and seeds to develop without interruptions.
Step 1 - Make a Plan
The first thing you want to do is take a walk around your garden and take note of what plants, flowers, shrubs, and trees were successful during the spring and summer season. Remove the ones that did not grow and clean the area for new bulbs. Note which plants were infected with diseases and where the weeds grew most. Theses are the areas you want to concentrate on. Take a look at your lawn and note the patchy areas of crabgrass and bald spots. Your goal here is to make sure your lawn will grow healthy in the spring.
Step 2 - Weed, Prune and Rake
It's time to clean your lawn up by pulling, digging, and forking out weeds and looking out for cool-weather weeds. A weed left to produce seeds in the fall will return a hundred-fold next spring. You can try weed control products but read the directions carefully; you do not want to destroy any nearby plants. You also want to remove any debris under shrubs, roses, and trees. By removing debris, you prevent pests from hiding out as well as lessen the risk for diseases. As leaves start to fall, start to rake. Allowing the leaves to settle on your lawn block air from getting into the ground. When the snow falls, the leaves will cause your grass to dry up and become prone to snow mold disease. Consider shredding the leaves and using it as winter mulch.
Besides raking leaves up, you want to rake deep into the soil to remove thatch.
TIP: Our expert gardening advisor Karen Thurber adds, "Thatch can become a problem when it is more than 1 inch thick. It will restrict air movement around the grass, interfere with water and nutrient adsorption and provide a place for insects and diseases to live."
Step 3 - Mow the Lawn
It is a good idea to keep mowing your lawn until that first frost comes. If the grass is left too long, it will lay over on to itself from the pressure of the snow cover. Air circulation around the plant is reduced, and snow mold can become a problem. Do not cut your lawn shorter than 2 to 2½ inches.
Step 4 - Fertilize and Re-Seed
Fertilize and reseed your lawn twice before the winter. The first feeding should be in early fall to prepare the lawn for the winter. The second feeding should take place in late October to keep the grass strong throughout the winter. Nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium go straight to the roots and convert into food reserves for a quick start in the spring.
TIP: Karen suggests, "Look for a winterizing fertilizer that has a slow release form of nitrogen. Nitrogen is used for leaf growth and a slow release form will ensure it will be there when the plant starts to grow in the spring."
Winter fertilizers will provide more phosphorus to give stronger roots. A lawn low in phosphorus will have an unusual greenish tint that might even be on the purple side. When enough phosphorus is applied to the grass, it will fight diseases much better and become more tolerant to heat, cold, and drought. A higher percentage of potassium is also applied to protect the lawn from the severe cold.
TIP: Karen adds, "Phosphorus and potassium, the second and third number listed in the fertilizer analysis, are known to promote root growth and increase the resiliency of your lawn. Most winterizer fertilizers have a slightly higher percentage of phosphorus and potassium and a slightly lower percentage of nitrogen than regular lawn fertilizers."
Step 5 - Plant New Bulbs
Autumn is also the best time to start planting new bulbs for the spring. The plant root systems have several months to grow and become strong before the soil cools. Common bulbs planted in the fall for the spring are tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, muscari, crocuses, and perennials such as peonies, daylilies, hostas, and coral-bells.
Bulbs should be planted at a depth three times their size—for example, if you have a bulb 2 inches in diameter, it should be planted at least 6 inches deep. If you are unsure what to plant, go to your local garden store and ask them what is good to plant in your area.
Step 6 - Apply Mulch
You should mulch around your bulbs, roses, and perennials. Simply pile high on top of your plants, but a depth of 6 to 8 inches or more is ideal. The idea of mulching is to add a layer of insulation on top of the soil, preventing sudden changes in soil temperature from freezing or thawing, changes that can destroy the root systems of tender plants. Mulching materials should be organic matter that remains loose and will not pack down to suffocate your plants. Good choices are dried leaves, clean straw, chopped dead tops from other perennials, or evergreen boughs from pruning. This mulch will be removed in the spring.
TIP: Karen cautions, "If you mulch around trees and shrubs be sure not to pile it high around the trunk or stems of the plants. This will make your plants more susceptible to disease."
Step 7 - Maintain Your Tools
Besides preparing your garden to sleep for the winter, it is a good idea to care for your gardening tools before laying them aside. Once the mowing season is over, change the oil in mowers, edger, and trimmers. Drain the gas tank or add a few drops of a stabilizing agent to the tank to keep the gas from getting old. It is also a good time to clean the underside of the deck and remove grass clippings and leaves. Clean your garden tools and apply a light coat of oil to prevent rust. Drain the hose, coil it up and put it away where it will not freeze and crack, just in case some water remains. Shut off the water to prevent pipes from freezing and if you have sprinklers drain them out.
It may be a lot of work, but remember, having a beautiful garden and lawn that will last from spring to late fall will be worth it.