Skip to main content

Make sure your lawn survives the winter with this guide

street view of a gray house with manicured landscape

Anyone who appreciates great-looking lawns knows that they don’t happen by themselves. They need plenty of sunshine, the right soil conditions, good fertility, adequate moisture, and proper mowing to stay vigorous and healthy. Caring for the lawn is a year-round job, but it’s not always hard work. Winter lawn care is much less demanding than other times of the year, especially if you’ve prepared well in advance. After all, mowing, edging, and blowing are finished until spring and pests are mostly dormant.

While there are several important winter lawn care tasks, much of what it takes for grass to green up quickly in spring happens the year before. If you put a healthy lawn to bed in the fall, for the most part it will wake up healthy in spring. Let’s take a look at the final fall tasks and the winter lawn treatments that make all the difference.

close up of a fallen leaf on frosty grass

Prepare for winter

In fall, cool season grasses, like Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, and perennial ryegrass, grow and utilize fertilizer while daytime temperatures are above 60° F. At the same time, warm season grasses, like Bermuda and zoysia grasses, transition into winter dormancy. Treat these grasses according to their unique life cycles.

Overseed and fertilize cool season grasses in late summer or early fall, four to six weeks before the first frost date. During this time, these grasses use the nutrient boost to heal damage from summer heat. New grass seedlings will continue to grow a deep root system well after the tops stop growing in frosty weather. Overseeding in fall gives the grass two cool growing seasons to become established before the onslaught of next summer’s heat stress.

Fertilize warm season grasses in early to mid August. Warm season grasses begin their transition to dormancy when the nights get cool, even while the days are still quite warm. Some of the nutrients applied now are stored in plant roots to help ensure a fast spring green up.

Soil acidity, or pH, determines how efficiently grass absorbs and utilizes nutrients. If a soil test determines that the pH is too acidic, apply lime to raise the pH in the fall. This adjustment will ensure that the soil and grass are in sync when fertilizer is applied in spring.

green grass with light snow cover

Winter lawn care tips

Continue regular lawn maintenance

Warm season grasses enter an obvious dormancy as they slow down, then stop growing and turn brown. Cool season grasses remain green and take advantage of warm weather throughout the fall and winter. Mow the lawn at the normal summer height until it stops growing.

Turn off the sprinkler system before the first freeze 

Grass only needs the equivalent of a half inch of water per week in the winter. Most years, rain and snow provide ample moisture. Water deeply once a month, if needed, to to avoid damage during a winter drought.

Control weeds

Opportunistic winter weeds germinate and grow at colder temperatures. Apply pre-emergent weed preventer in early fall to block annuals like poa annua, henbit, and chickweed seeds from sprouting. Dig up individual perennial weeds like dandelions or clover.  If the weed problem is more advanced, herbicides can help, but they must be applied within specific temperature ranges and while the weeds are actively growing. Carefully follow the directions on the product label.

Mulch or remove fallen leaves and other debris 

Recycle autumn leaves to benefit the landscape. Up to six inches of fallen leaves add a significant amount of beneficial organic matter and trace minerals to the soil. Just use the lawn mower to chop them up. But too much of a good thing is not good. Remove excess leaves, branches, and other debris from the lawn so they do not smother the grass. 

Limit traffic

When grass grows slowly or not at all, it is more susceptible to soil compaction. This is the time of year when dog paths become entrenched along fence lines, and the route to the garden shed becomes more obvious. Limiting overall lawn traffic will reduce this effect. Or, create intentional garden pathways with wood chips, gravel, or stepping stones on the most heavily used routes.

Use ice melt products that are safe for plants

Instead of rock salt, use potassium, magnesium, or calcium chloride. Salt is highly corrosive and damaging to both concrete surfaces and plants. On the other hand, these alternative ice melters include elements that plants actually use. The higher upfront cost of the safer alternatives is easily offset by the relatively lower amounts needed to do the job.

Life naturally slows down in the cold. Plants use winter as a time of rest and rejuvenation when they live off stored nutrients and internal structures are shored up. This is the time when lawns respond to a good vacation. As the manager of a landscape, the best thing you can do is give your lawn the break that it needs. Treat it well throughout the growing season so that it is robust and healthy at the end of the season. Send it off in good condition in fall, and it will come back in spring healthy, re-energized, and ready to grow.

Editors' Recommendations

Mark Wolfe
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Mark Wolfe is a freelance writer who specializes in garden, landscaping, and home improvement. After two decades in the…
Create a wildflower garden bursting with color and native plants! Here’s your guide
Plant these flowers for a lovely wildflower garden
A wildflower garden full of colorful flowers

The word wildflower probably brings to mind images of lush meadows and fields dotted with bright colors, but did you know you can bring a piece of that to your own garden? Wildflower gardens are easy to grow and great for the environment. You can even grow some wildflowers in pots or containers, so you can grow them no matter what kind of space you're living in.

If you’re looking for a place to start learning about wildflowers, you’re in the right spot! We’ll tell you everything you need to know to get started on your very own wildflower garden.

Read more
Want to make your neighbors jealous? Here are the best spring fruits to grow
Plant these fruits this spring for a tasty harvest
Ripe blackberries on the bush

Spring is a favorite season for many gardeners, and for good reason! The plants begin to wake up, the ground thaws, and you can begin planning and planting your next garden. There are plenty of plants to choose from, but there's nothing quite like fruit fresh from your own garden. If a ripe, juicy berry or piece of fruit sounds perfect to you, then keep reading! Here are what we believe are the best spring fruits to plant this season, complete with care tips so you can tell at a glance which ones are right for your garden.

Ripe, juicy blackberries are a delicious treat, and they’re easy to grow. Plant these fruits in early spring and make sure they’re in full sun. Blackberries do best in rich, well-draining soil. Mixing compost into your soil can help significantly. Blackberries need roughly an inch of water each week, and they thrive in soil that is consistently moist but not soaking wet. Most blackberry varieties are ready for harvest in mid to late summer.

Read more
Your guide to festive holiday flower bulbs this Christmas
Choosing and growing holiday flower bulbs
Red amaryllis with a white center

In between the animatronic Grinches and faux Christmas trees, you’ll likely find holiday flower bulbs at your local grocery and big-box stores come winter. If you’re interested in growing gorgeous holiday flowers during the holiday, you'll have plenty of options. Beyond vibrant poinsettias (which aren’t true flowers, anyway), enjoy paperwhites, amaryllises, hyacinths, and other floral delights as you deck your halls.

Holiday flower kits usually come with a growing medium, flower bulb, and pot. All you have to do is provide the bulb with sufficient light and water, and it may even give you gorgeous blooms by Christmas and New Year’s Day. With the right care, you can even get these flowers to rebloom throughout the year. 

Read more