Tips to prepare your yard in the fall for next year
If you want a healthy yard in the summer, spring isn’t where things begin; it’s the fall.
Early fall is prime time to prep your yard for the next growing season because cooling temperatures slow aboveground growth, and moister soil encourages strong root development. There is plenty that you can do, such as removing spent stems, dead branches and heavy leaf cover, to make sure that, when spring comes, your yard is ready to grow.
The first thing that you want to do is aerate your lawn. If rainfall pools on the grass, it’s time to aerate compressed soil so water and nutrients can reach the roots. A garden fork can do the job on a small yard, but, for larger lawns, you will want to consider using a walk-behind aerator that pulls out approximately 3-inch-deep soil plugs, which will break down naturally by spring.
And, while you’re focusing on your lawn, you should think about feeding your grass too. Cutting back on fertilizer in the late summer prevents perennials from wasting energy on leaf production. But, grass roots keep growing until the ground gets down to around 40 degrees, so you will still want to continue feeding your lawn. Applying a high-phosphorus (12-25-12) mix to lawns in the fall will encourage root growth and allow turf to green earlier in the spring.
The last step to ensuring a healthy lawn in the spring is mowing a final time. It might seem basic, but it’s essential. Disease has a harder time with shorter grass, and fallen leaves blow across the lawn because they have nothing to latch on to. Don’t go too low though because grass makes most of its food in the upper blade. Trimming down to 1¼ inches for the last cut of the season is an ideal length.
Collecting leaves is also a tradition when fall comes. To make fallen leaves easier to transport, rake them onto a plastic tarp. You might want to also consider constructing a compost bin to put them in. Flipping the leaf pile every week with a garden fork to aerate will produce the “black gold” that can nourish lawns, flower beds and shrub borders next year.
Planting new shrubs isn’t the first thing to come to mind in the fall, but, in many parts of the country, planting shrubs in early fall gives the plants a head start at establishing roots in the season’s cool, moist soil. You will want to dig a hole that is twice the diameter and to a depth of 2 inches less than the full height of the root ball, position the shrub in the hole while making sure the top of the root ball remains at, not below, ground level, fill in with soil, water to settle soil, add more soil to top of root ball without packing soil down with foot and mulch.
Another thing to check off your list for the fall is to trim dead limbs. Lifeless branches can succumb to winter snow and winds, endangering you and your home. For large jobs, calling a professional is the best options. But, you can protect small ornamental trees from further damage by cutting cracked, loose and diseased limbs close to, but not flush with, the trunk, leaving the wounds exposed to heal.
In addition to limbs, you will want to cut back perennials–a little work now results in healthier spring beds. You want to evict tired annuals, as well as the snails and slugs, which breed in fall, that feed on them. Trim spent perennial foliage down to the ground to that energy is sent to the roots for next season. Every three years, divide crowded tuberous plants, like irises and daylilies, because more space means more flowers.
In addition to cutting back perennials, you will also want to mulch young plants. Although mulch is mostly looked at as something to make your yard and beds look nice, giving new beds a layer of mulch—chopped leaves, weed-free straw or wood chips—after a light frost but before the ground freezes will help protect them during the winter. Till decomposed layers of organic mulch into the soil, then apply a fresh 2- to 4-inch layer to keep new plantings warm and to control water runoff and soil erosion.
The last thing you will want to do before winter is to dry out drip systems. Standing water can freeze and crack drip-irrigation tubing. For simple systems, shut off the water, unscrew the tap-joint adapter, and, using a high-volume, low-pressure setting on a compressor, insert an air hose where the system normally attaches to the tap. By blowing out the water out, you avoid having to uproot the entire system.