Here’s a fall lawn care checklist
This story was originally published in September 2020.
Giving your lawn a little love and care before winter in Maine is essential to making sure it looks healthy and vibrant come spring. With the seasons changing so quickly, it can be difficult to know where to start.
Get your rake and lawn mower ready: Here are the steps you need to take to keep your land looking fresh and ready for cold weather.
Colorful fall leaves covering your garden are a hallmark of fall, but they can also cause aesthetic problems for your garden. Removing foliage in the fall when it is dry is much easier than doing so in the spring when it is wet and tangled.
“Leaves that fall from your lawn in the fall create dead spots on your lawn in the spring,” said Chaz Longmuir, owner of Maine Lawn Pros in Brewer.
However, there is an argument against completely removing fallen leaves because leaf litter provides wildlife habitat as well as benefits to your garden such as fertilization and weed suppression. Leaving a thin layer behind, or mulching the leaves with a lawnmower to prevent thatch, will maintain the ecosystem benefits while preventing potential dead spots from appearing after the snow melts.
“Why spend money on mulch and fertilizer when you can make your own?” said Sarah Kern, community engagement specialist at the Wildlife Center. “Leaves are full of trace minerals that trees pick up from the soil. Many people start small with one section of that lawn they leave, or if you want that front yard to stay pristine, maybe you can try your own backyard with leaves left behind.
Of course, leaving fallen leaves behind isn’t an option for all homeowners, especially those who must follow homeowners association guidelines. Find what works best for your garden and land.
At the very least, avoid packing your papers and throwing them unused into a landfill. Autumn leaves are an excellent mulch for raised beds as they prepare for winter. Some municipal recycling centers may accept leaf litter for composting, or local farmers may be interested in using leaf litter on their farm plots.
Weed your gardens
The cold will kill the weeds, right? not exactly. Some grasses that become dormant during cold weather will build more resilient subsurface systems during that period. In fact, fall is the best time to deal with some of the trickier weeds like dandelions and white clover to prevent them from wreaking havoc in the spring.
Keeping your garden weed-free goes beyond your actual garden, too.
“Make sure the beds around the house or landscape plants are free of weeds,” said Matthew Wallhead, assistant professor and ornamental horticulturist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Mow (but not too much)
A properly mowed lawn will stay healthier through the winter – but if it’s cut too short, your grass may not be able to get the nutrients it needs in the colder months.
Ben Goodall, founder and president of Goodall Landscaping, said one of the most consistent problems he sees is homeowners feeling they need to cut their lawn too short.
“This promotes a host of issues with shallow root growth, less dense turf and turf that is more susceptible to disease,” he said. “We usually encourage people to cut between 3 and 4 inches.”
However, the task is not individual. The mowing frequency depends on the season, but in the fall, Goodall said you should mow about once a week during the fall to maintain the length of the cutting before the snow settles.
Aeration and fertilization
Aeration is the process of perforating the soil with small holes to allow air, water and nutrients to penetrate the grass roots more easily. This helps the roots grow deeper and produce stronger, more vigorous grass while relieving soil compaction.
A homeowner can perform ventilation if he has the proper equipment. A homeowner can rent an aerator from a hardware store or buy one, although Longmuir said the latter doesn’t make much financial sense in the long term.
“It’s kind of expensive,” Longmuir said. “For that price, they could probably aerate their lawn (professionally) 50 times.”
This is “a very large effort” that most homeowners hire professionals to do, Goodall said.
“Providers are certainly doing a lot of that as well,” Goodall said. “We purchase our products in bulk and are so efficient at it that we can provide the service that a homeowner can purchase materials for. There is good value in having a service provider.
Once your lawn is aerated, you may also need to add fertilizer to feed the grass throughout the winter (especially if you remove leaves that may act as a natural fertilizer). Make sure you don’t over-fertilize your garden, and choose products that are healthy for the ecosystem in and around your property.
“You have a ton of organic fertilizer available,” Kern said. “What I love most is the coast of Maine.”
Repair bit thinning
Fall is the best time to do any maintenance your garden requires, especially in the Northeast.
“If you’re doing lawn renovations, fall is the best time to do it,” Longmuir said. “If you’re going to plant a lawn or do some lawn repairs, it’s always better to do it in the fall because the ground temperature is warmer than in the summer but you still get cool nights and warm days.”
Treat patchy spots in your garden by adding more seeds. Try to choose grasses that are native to the area or adapted to it so that they can more difficultly survive extreme weather conditions for years to come. A lawn with a mixture of seeds rather than a monoculture will also be more resilient, as well as a more hospitable place for all different types of wildlife.
“Seeding beginning in late August through approximately October 15 is a very important way to help have a healthier, more attractive lawn,” Longmuir said. “Our best lawns do this every fall.”
Consider rewilding, and plan ahead
If you’re concerned about your garden’s impact on the environment, take this time to plan to restore your garden to nature. Naturalizing your garden by skipping pesticides and herbicides and instead leaving plants like clovers, dandelions and groundflowers all season long will create opportunities for pollinators all season long. Over time, these lawns also require less maintenance and fewer resource inputs such as fertilizer.
Preparing garden equipment for winter
Once you’ve finished tending to your lawn, it’s time to put the equipment away. If you care about the longevity of your tools, storing lawn equipment for the winter involves more than just throwing it in the shed.
Whether you’ve recently purchased a lawn mower or you’ve been using the same equipment for years, making sure your equipment is winter-ready will prevent costs the following season. Aside from the issues of regular cleaning and spot treatment, Mainers must add fuel additives to prevent clogging of any gas-powered equipment. For electrical equipment, remove the batteries or connect them to a relay charger.
“Batteries stored in cold places and not operated regularly tend to deplete themselves,” Woolhead said. “Save yourself $50 by bringing it home.”