Fall can be a great season in New England. The leaves explode in a sea of reds and yellows, we get pumpkin everything, and what isn’t pumpkin-laced is stuffed full of fresh, orchard-picked apples. All in all, it’s easy to see why some of us love the crisp autumn months of September and October.
Others, however, dread the sight of the first splash of color among the trees – many of them homeowners who know that fall means winter is coming, and with the change in seasons comes a whole bunch of tasks and chores that need to get done. In this post we’ll give you a fall checklist full of tips on how to prep your lawn and outdoor areas for a healthy spring, and help you get the most out of your outside space before winter sets in.
Cleaning up your yard and garden come fall may not be fun, but it’s key to making sure you have a yard you can enjoy the rest of the year. If you do nothing else, here are three things that will both protect your home and make your yard a more inviting place to spend some time for as long as the weather cooperates:
Trim and clear whatever you can!
True, you don’t want to clear cut your entire yard and have to start from scratch come spring. But it’s also true that you’ll have a healthier, heartier yard if you manage your growth.
According to expert gardener Margaret Roach, a good first step is to remove any plants that look unhealthy. If you have a vegetable garden, this is a great time to pull out any plants that failed to fruit. As an added benefit, clearing out some space will give those plants that are doing well more room – and more sun. With any luck, they’ll continue to flourish well into October, leaving you with a bonus harvest of tomatoes or some other delicious veggie.
This is also a perfect time to do a final round of weeding. By first identifying the weeds growing in your yard, you can focus on the ones that pose the biggest long-term threat and use the right approach to manage or eliminate them. One approach that you should avoid unless you have no other options is simply ripping them out at the roots – all that usually does is open up more pockets of disturbed soil in your yard; the perfect place for new weeds to take hold.
(And don’t forget to check the trees.)
We’ve had some rough winters here in New England of late, and this year’s forecast is as cold and snowy as any in recent memory. One thing every homeowner wants to avoid is the danger of falling tree limbs. Fall is the perfect time to inspect the trees and shrubs around your property – especially those close to or overhanging your house. Trim back or remove any broken or unhealthy limbs before they crack under the weight of a New England ice storm.
…But don’t get carried away.
There are a lot of reasons to leave certain plants in place well into the fall, if not year-round.
Two types of plantings that you may want to leave in place are:
Ornamental plants. Especially as you trim back the rest of your yard and garden, having some eye-pleasing ornamental plants scattered across your yard can make for an attractive setting for any Indian summer opportunities you might have before the snow comes.
Wildlife-friendly plants. Turning over certain small sections of your yard to wildlife-friendly plants – even if it just means letting pockets of grass grow long – can be a great boon to natural wildlife in your neighborhood. Even better, it can help you keep the wildlife you’re trying to attract away from your home, and block the wildlife you don’t want – we’re looking at you, mice and insects! – out of your yard entirely.
Relocate your fragile planters.
We tend not to think of something like a terra cotta planter as fragile. But leaving one outside, full of soil and exposed to the elements all winter, is a great way to have to buy a new planter in the spring.
Rather than leaving your planters in place, protect them by moving them into your garden shed. That way they’ll be protected from the worst of the winter weather. If you don’t have space in the shed or garage, you can empty the pots out and turn them upside down so they don’t fill up with snow and ice that can destroy the pot as it freezes and thaws.
The discarded plants can be thrown in with your leaves as mulch for the rest of your lawn, and the soil can be mixed in to any vegetable beds or other areas where you might be turning the soil ahead of next spring.
Get a healthy lawn next spring, now.
After you’ve seen to your current growth and removed what isn’t thriving, your next step is to work to ensure you have a healthy lawn to enjoy come spring.
Prepare your yard for winter
Stop fertilizing your lawn.
If you do enough Googling on this, you’ll quickly find plenty of conflicting advice. We think the best advice comes from A Way to Garden – you should stop spreading fertilizer on your lawn by September. In effect, all you’d be doing at this point is giving yourself more mowing to do before winter hits. Below, we’ll discuss some alternatives to fertilizing that will help you fill in and revive any bald or matted patches you might have after a summer of enjoying your yard.
Let your trees harden off.
When you stop fertilizing your lawn, you’ll also be helping out any trees on your property. By early in the fall season, trees should naturally be entering into their hardening-off phase, where they turn the soft growth of the summer into hard and hearty limbs that can survive the many New England winters to come.
The final mow.
Dramatic, we know. But only because it’s so important to get it right! Leaving your lawn too long heading into winter can cause big problems – mold, rot, and all sorts of other stuff you’d rather avoid. Although some sites advocate leaving your lawn as tall as 3”, we agree with the experts over at This Old House, and think setting your mower to as low as 1.5” offers the best protection against rot without endangering the grass by cutting it too short.
Prepare your yard for next year
Overseed and topdress your lawn.
Instead of spreading more fertilizer over your lawn ahead of winter, try this approach to fill in thin or matted areas of your lawn. First, spread healthy amounts of seed of a hearty type of grass over any bald patches. Better Homes and Gardens recommends ryegrass. After keeping the area well-watered while the seeds sprout, the next step is to topdress the entire lawn. Topdressing is when you spread a layer of compost, about 0.5” to 0.75” thick, across your entire lawn. Doing so will protect your lawn from mold and rot, and from the worst of the late fall and early winter frosts.
Leaf shredding and mulching.
If you don’t have a big pile of compost just sitting around to use for topdressing, don’t worry! Nature is nice enough to provide you with all the raw materials you might need. This year, instead of raking up all those leaves, bagging them, and leaving them out with the trash, put them to use. There are plenty of specialty tools and attachments you can track down to do the job, but in reality all you need is a rake and your lawn mower. Once you’ve gathered up the leaves, run over the pile a couple of times with the lawn mower to shred them; don’t forget to throw in any dead plants you might’ve pulled out of your terra cotta planters when you moved them into your shed. From there, you have two options:
1. Spread them. You can spread them across your yard, and especially in any vegetable beds or around the trunks of trees – particularly any newly transplanted ones – where they’ll return a wealth of nutrients to the soil.
2. Save them. You can rake the shredded leaves up and either set them in an out-of-the-way corner of your yard, or put them in an easy-to-find or build leaf-mold cage made out of stakes and chicken wire. From there, you can let them compost for as long as two years, turning the pile occasionally to ensure even decomposition, and using them as needed throughout the year – for instance by mixing some in when you turn any areas of soil ahead of new plantings in the spring, or spreading them across vegetable beds in the summer to provide additional moisture retention for the soil.
Check for thatching.
Thatching is what occurs when you have poorly drained areas of soil that allow the formation of layers that include a mixture of dead organic matter and living plant root systems. These layers are ideal breeding grounds for all sorts of lawn-destroying insects and bacteria. Since you’re already doing a bunch of related stuff, now’s the perfect time to check your lawn for thatching. Use a gardening trowel to cut out a small, square section – it doesn’t have to be any bigger than a few inches on any side. The pictures below, from the popular lawn care forum Around the Yard, show what an unhealthy (left) and healthy (right) soil profile should look like.
Aerate your lawn.
If you find that your yard has extensive thatching, or if you’ve noticed a lot of water pooling up in certain areas after even light rain, then you might need to aerate your lawn. Fall is a good time to do so, as aerating and reseeding are most effective when done together.
Make sure you pull any mulch, trimmings, or leaves away from your shed or gazebo.
If you have an outdoor structure like one of the sheds in Massachusetts, gazebos in Connecticut, or pergolas in New Hampshire that New England Outdoor specializes in, this is the perfect time to make sure you pull any plant materials away from the wood structure. A few minutes of maintenance will give you years more enjoyment of your shed, gazebo, or pergola.
Fall cleanup made easy.
It’s tempting to put these sorts of things off until tomorrow (or the next day). But taking the time to run through some of these items now will save you money, leave you with a greener, healthier lawn, and let you enjoy your yard as winter sets in.