How to Winterize Your Yard and Gardens in Fall

Woman raking leaves on her front lawn

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If you need some motivation to perform fall lawn and garden care, just think of all the joy your lawn and planting beds provided you during the spring and summer. To ensure you get the same results next growing season, take the time to prepare the grass and planting areas for the cold months ahead. This is the best way to help your landscape get off to a good start once the warm weather returns.

Feeding Your Lawn

Autumn is a critical time for improving the health of your grass for next year. Start by removing broadleaf weeds to minimize competition for available nutrients and water. Next, have a soil test done to check, for example, on the soil pH of your lawn. If the test shows excessive acidity, apply lime immediately, as its effects don't kick in right away. Or, if your soil is too alkaline, apply sulphur. Testing your soil will also tell you whether it is compacted; if so, fall is the time for core aeration to help nutrients reach deep into the root zone. Follow aerating with reseeding, if applicable, and fertilizing.

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

Dealing With Leaves

When it comes to raking leaves, some people choose to use leaf blowers or to collect all the leaves and throw them in the garbage. Here's a better option: Before putting your lawnmower to bed for another winter, fire it up—making sure the grass catcher is attached—and run over the leaves with it. Sort of like "vacuuming" the leaves off your lawn. Save the shredded leaves for your compost pile, which tends to run low on "brown" materials over the winter. Keep the reserved leaves in extra garbage bins or any other dry place, and add them to the pile as needed.

You can also use the shredded leaves for garden mulch. And if you have more leaves than you can use and you must throw some out, shredding them with the lawnmower will make them far more compact so you won't have to use as many garbage bags.

Vegetable Gardens

After harvesting your fruits and flowers, fall garden care should ascend to the top of your agenda. Remove old plant matter from the garden, placing it in your compost bin. Leaving it behind in the garden would invite plant diseases next growing season.

You may choose to rototill your garden soil at this time. While some experts argue that excessive rototilling may do more harm than good, some gardeners rely on small garden tillers to keep down weeds in vegetable gardens. Rototilling in fall may seem premature, but it can make your spring gardening work go much easier.

If you are going to rototill the garden, this is the time to apply lime (if soil tests have indicated that your pH is too low). The effects of liming don't manifest themselves for several months, so liming in the spring is too late for next year's crop.

You'll also need to protect your topsoil from the rigors of winter. You have two options here: You can plant a cover crop for large beds or you can apply a mulch, which is more efficient for smaller beds. Don't forget that you'll have a ready source of mulch in the leaves that you rake up or shred with the lawnmower.

Perennial Beds

Perennial garden beds ideally should be cleaned up and mulched as part of your work in fall gardens. This is also a good time to remove old stalks and leaves. You would have to do this in the spring anyway, so you might as well be a step ahead, and the beds look tidier in the meantime.

However, if you are not able to mulch your perennial beds in the fall, then do not clean away the old stalks and leaves; they will serve as a makeshift mulch, affording some small degree of protection to the roots of your perennials. In other words, the cleaning and the mulching go together: either do both or neither one. But it is best to do both, in order to keep your garden disease-free and well insulated.

Trees and Shrubs

Winterize small deciduous shrubs that have fragile branches with a lean-to or some other sort of structure to keep heavy snows off their limbs. Deciduous shrubs provide no interest in winter anyway, so you are not losing anything visually by covering them. Evergreens, by contrast, are the cornerstone of winter landscaping aesthetics.

To a great degree, winterizing trees and larger shrubs can be achieved simply by watering them properly in fall, since the winter damage that they sustain often stems from their inability to draw water from the frozen earth. "Avoid watering trees in late summer or early autumn, before the leaves fall, so they can 'harden off' for winter," states Sherry Lajeunesse, in a Montana State University Extension article. "Then in late fall, after deciduous trees drop their leaves but before the ground freezes, give both evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs a final deep watering to last them through the winter." The same source also reminds us to "water under the entire canopy area and beyond," to cover the entire root area.