Here’s everything you need to know about lawn care this fall

man pushing a lawn fertilizer spreader

The details make all the difference. For some it’s enough to mow the grass after it gets too high and maybe clip the edges when they creep over the driveway. That’s the bare minimum, and it might keep the HOA off your back, but it’s not great for the grass. Keying in on a few lawn care details will vastly improve your lawn’s health and appearance, and it starts in the fall.

After an intensive growing season, lawn grass is ready for a change. For warm season grasses like bermuda and zoysia, that means preparing for winter dormancy. For cool season lawns like Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and tall fescue, the mild temperatures stimulate new growth. All grasses benefit from a sound fall lawn care program in order to repair summer damage, head into winter healthy, and get a head start on next spring’s wakeup call.

Boost fertility

Whether you have a warm season or cool season lawn, fall is prime time for fertilization. Cool season grasses need a fresh application of nitrogen-rich fertilizer to thicken up the foliage. Warm season grasses benefit from a final feeding two months prior to the first fall frost date. This will boost stores for winter and ensure a faster transition when the weather breaks in spring.

Leave the leaves

An often overlooked part of soil health is the free lawn food that falls from the trees. Fall leaves can boost lawn fertility and add large quantities of beneficial organic matter to the soil if you leave them in place. But don’t let them smother the lawn. Mulch them with your lawnmower. If you normally bag your clippings, remove the grass catcher and simply discharge the chopped leaves back onto the grass. As long as you can see a half-inch of grass blade peeking through the mulched leaves when you’re through, the soil microbes and grass plants will appreciate the extra snack.

lawn sprinkler close up

Adjust irrigation

Don’t let the cool, crisp autumn air fool you. It’s dry out there. If you aren’t getting rain, your lawn is thirsty. As long as it’s warm enough for the grass to grow, it needs about an inch of water per week from rainfall and irrigation combined. Insufficient water leads to slowed growth, but more importantly feeder roots may be damaged. So keep the sprinklers at the ready and add a little water during dry spells.

Rejuvenate cool season grass

Hot summer weather is stressful to cool season grasses. And if they’re damaged, they don’t have the capacity to regrow easily. When the heat subsides, take action. Start by mowing the lawn a notch or two lower than usual, then aerate and overseed a day or two later.

Aerate

Open up the soil structure for root growth and development by aerating in the fall. Wait until a a few days after a soaking rain, or run the sprinklers for an extended period several days in a row. Then work up the lawn surface with a core aerator. Doing so also prepares the soil surface to replace thin or dead patches by overseeding.

Overseed

After aerating the soil, apply grass seed four to six weeks before your first fall frost date. Keep the lawn moist for seed germination by watering lightly every day for the first two weeks. Then adjust back to three or four waterings per week. About a month after overseeding, the new grass seedlings should be well enough established to be mowed for the first time.

man mowing a lawn in autumn

Prevent cool season weeds

Those who don’t plan on overseeding in the fall can apply pre-emergent. This class of herbicide forms a chemical barrier at the soil line, preventing seed germination of cool season annual weeds like Poa annua, chickweed, and henbit. The granules are easy to apply with an ordinary lawn spreader, and are activated by rain or irrigation. However, these products also kill grass seeds and young seedlings, and shouldn’t be applied the same season as overseeding.

Mow until the grass stops growing

Whether your lawn is made up of warm season or cool season grass, it isn’t helpful to let it remain long through winter. Mow it at the normal maintenance height until it stops growing for the season, and only mow when it’s high enough to cut off one-third of the total height. As growth slows through the middle and later parts of autumn, you’ll find that you need to mow less frequently. Doing so will make it more resistant to winter damage and mold problems. Plus, the shorter grass will look better as it emerges next spring.

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