How to Winterize Your Lawn and Garden in Fall

Woman raking leaves on her front lawn

Zave Smith Photography / Getty Images

If you need motivation to perform fall lawn and garden care tasks, think of all the pleasures you enjoyed from your gardens and landscape during the spring and summer. To ensure you get the same results next growing season, take time in the fall to prepare your lawn and landscaped areas for the cold months ahead. Taking care of a few simple garden tasks in the fall is the best way to ensure a good start once the warm weather returns.

Lawn Care

Autumn is a critical time to improve the health of your lawn. You can start by using organic methods to remove lawn weeds to minimize competition for available nutrients and water.

Before applying fertilizer or other nutrients to your lawn, contact your local county extension office to perform a soil test to verify pH levels. To apply the right amount of nutrients or lime to your lawn, you must know the existing pH level and the availability of other essential soil nutrients. Having too much or too little of these nutrients or limestone can be harmful.

If test results show excessive soil acidity, apply lime according to levels recommended by the soil test results. Do so immediately because its effects take time to produce results. Or if your soil is too alkaline, you might need to apply sulphur.

Fall is also the best time to dethatch and core aerate your lawn to help nutrients reach deep into the root zone and avoid soil compaction. After dethatching or aerating your lawn, reseed to rejuvenate the entire lawn or fill in bare spots.

If you live in a colder climate with cool-season grasses, the best time to fertilize is in late summer to early fall. This is sometimes called "bridge feeding." Because these grasses are most active during periods of moderate weather—not too hot and not too cold—it is precisely at this time that they can best use the nutrients from fertilizer. Fertilization promotes root growth and helps the lawn recover from the summer heat while preparing it for the next growing season.

Leaf Cleanup

When it comes to cleaning up leaf litter in the fall, environmentally-aware gardeners are tolerating a bit of winter untidiness for the sake of wildlife and are waiting until spring to clean up fallen leaves.

Removing fallen leaves in fall can destroy overwintering insects and removes insulation for insects burrowed in the ground. Many ground-nesting bee species rely on leaf litter to survive harsh winter temperatures. Leaf litter is used as a pupation site for moths and caterpillars that birds rely on to feed their young in spring. Millipedes and spiders use leaf litter for shelter. So, before cleaning up every fallen leaf in the fall, consider the needs of wildlife and decide on how much winter untidiness you can tolerate in your landscape.

If you decide to clean up fallen leaves in the fall, many home owners use a leaf blower or rake to collect their leaves and stuff them into lawn waste bags. Here's another option: before putting your lawnmower to bed for the winter, fire it up with the grass catcher attached and run over the leaves to vacuum them up.

Save any leaves you accumulate in a spare trash can or any other dry place and gradually add them to your compost pile. You can also use shredded leaves for garden mulch. If you have more leaves than you can use and you want to dispose of them, shredding them with the lawnmower will make them more compact for your lawn waste bags.

If you own a mulching lawn mower, run over the leaves to shred them and return the organic matter back into the lawn.

Vegetable Gardens

After harvesting your final crop of fruits and vegetables for the season, remove all vegetable plant matter from the garden. Leaving it behind could overwinter plant diseases and pests for the next growing season.

You can rototill your garden soil after removing all plant matter in the fall. While some experts argue that excessive rototilling might do more harm than good, some gardeners rely on small garden tillers to keep down weeds in vegetable gardens. If you rototill the soil in your garden beds, this is the time to apply lime if soil tests have indicated that soil pH is too low. The effects of lime take several months to manifest, so applying lime in the spring is too late for crops to benefit.

You'll also need to protect garden soil from the rigors of winter. You can plant a cover crop for large beds, or you can apply mulch, which is more efficient for smaller beds.

Perennial Beds

Perennial plants (plants that come back year after year) must be cut back, spent foliage removed, and garden beds mulched as part of end-of-year garden cleanup tasks. Traditionally, those tasks were performed in the fall when the plants had died back and foliage had browned.

However, the latest environmental trend is to wait until spring before cutting down and cleaning up spent perennials plants for the benefit of wildlife.

To provide food and shelter for wildlife during the harsh winter months, consider leaving seed heads of perennial plants as food for the birds, keeping hollow stalks intact for the benefit of overwintering beneficial insects and solitary bees, and leaving spent perennial foliage for ground dwelling wildlife.. 

If you cannot tolerate messy perennial beds through winter, cutting back and cleaning up foliage in the fall does not provide any winter protection for your plants and wildlife, However, it means that your beds will look tidier over winter and be ready for new growth come spring.

Cleaning up and mulching go together. It's best to do both to keep your garden disease-free and well insulated.

If you don't mulch your perennial beds in the fall, don't clean up spent stalks and leaves. They will serve as a makeshift mulch affording some degree of winter weather protection to perennial root systems.

Trees and Shrubs

To winterize and protect small deciduous shrubs with fragile branches, use a lean-to or some other type of structure to keep heavy snows off their limbs. Deciduous shrubs don't provide much interest in winter, because they drop their leaves, so you aren't losing very much visual interest by covering them.

Evergreen shrubs, by contrast, are the cornerstone of winter landscaping aesthetics so you want them to be visible front and center in your landscape. So that they don't require winter protection, always choose evergreen shrubs that are cold hardy to at least one USDA zone colder than your zone.

To a great degree, winterizing trees and large shrubs can be achieved simply by watering them properly in the fall. Stop watering in early fall, which triggers trees and shrubs to prepare for winter and prevents new growth that won't be hardy to winter weather. Then, after the trees have dropped their leaves and prior to the ground freezing, deeply water the trees and shrubs to give them one last good soak before the cold arrives.