At surface level, lawn care seems like a simple activity. Plant some seeds, leave the sprinklers on, and break out the mower every once in a while, right? As many of you know, it’s not that simple. From customizing your lawn in terms of the type of grass, to improving your soil, and fine-tuning your watering routine, lawn care is a year-round hobby for those who want to have the perfect yard. Fall lawn care is an essential part of your annual maintenance routine, and today I’ll explain the most important projects to take on this fall to winterize your lawn and set it up for success next year.
I live in New England, and especially for those of us with cool season grass lawns, fall is the best time of year to do many yard and lawn renovation projects.
Today I’ll explain exactly why that is, and share my best tips to become a fall lawn care superhero.
Let’s start with the basics.
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While there are no rules as to when you should start your lawn (or renovate it), fall is undoubtedly the ideal season, especially for cool season lawns.
The air and the soil stays moist, the days are cooler, but the soil is nice and warm and there’s still plenty of sunlight.
Add to that the fact that annual weeds are ending their life-cycle, and you have the perfect environment to start a new lawn from seed, aerate and overseed, de-thatch, top-dress, or do whatever else you need to for your lackluster yard.
And if you’re worried that your new grass will die with the first frost, don’t!
Early fall is the perfect time to plant new grass so that your lawn will be at its peak by the spring and in all of its glory by the following summer season.
For cool season grasses, you can start to see your lawn peak that very season. For warm season grasses, the seeds will take in the nutrients now and have a great start for the following year.
Either way, you can’t go wrong with a fall lawn care routine that includes seeding a new lawn or overseeding your existing turf.
The Two Types of Lawn Project for Fall
There are two basic types of fall projects that you should plan on completing for your lawn, and I’ll discuss each of these in detail in this article.
- Basic Lawn Projects You’ll Tackle Every Fall – Things like raking the leaves, mowing your grass to the right height, fertilizing your lawn with a product that supports root growth and development as your grass leaf growth slows down for the season.
- Big Projects You’ll Tackle Every Few Years – Monster projects like core aeration, dethatching, seeding, and top-dressing that will set your lawn up for success for years to come.
Let’s start with the basics, then I’ll give you a day-by-day schedule for an epic fall lawn project weekend so you can get outside and tackle a complete lawn reno in two days this fall.
Fall Lawn Care Basics (projects you’ll tackle every year)
Before taking on your fall routine, there are a few things you will want to take care of. These steps can be as simple as raking the lawn, to taking on new landscaping projects.
Get Rid of those Leaves
While crunchy leaves are one of the best features of the fall season, you will want to clear them from your yard in the fall (especially if you did any seeding – leaves can smother young grass).
Fallen leaves can prevent sunlight from reaching your lawn. Without proper sunlight, grass cannot grow to its full potential, and if the layer of leaves is too thick, your grass could die.
If you live in an area where the air is moist, it is crucial that your lawn gets enough sunlight to prevent any forms of lawn decay / fungus.
The easiest thing to do is to simply mulch your leaves with a mower that has a mulching blade.
Simply run over the leaves a few times with your lawn mower to chop them into tiny little pieces. Once they are small enough, they will be able to decompose naturally into the ground without smothering your lawn. This added carbon will help to make your soil rich with organic matter and nice and healthy.
But if you’re like me (and have giant Maple trees), your leaf layer may still be too thick, so you can bag those with your mower, or by raking them up and composting them with your grass clippings.
I have a whole article with my favorite leaf removal tools and techniques if you’re looking for inspiration.
Take to the Weeds
In the same way that your lawn is ready to grow in the fall, perennial weeds are as well. This makes it the best time to apply post-emergent weed control to clear your lawn of weeds so that a spring pre-emergent application can keep your lawn weed-free all next year.
If you decide to remove weeds by hand, it’s important to take out your weeds by the root. You will want to be careful because leftover roots or buds can spread and cause new ones to grow.
You can also apply herbicides and weed killer to your lawn. Since this is the time that plant roots are actively growing, this will be the best time of year to attack weeds by their roots to prevent them from popping up the following year.
Just make sure to leave enough time between using herbicides and spreading new grass seed if you plan to tackle both projects in the same area. The chemicals in herbicide can also kill grass or prevent seeds from germinating, depending upon what you are using.
Cut Your Grass for Winter
While mowing your grass is one way to keep it healthy, you will soon want to put the mower away for the season and winterize it.
The fall season allows your lawn’s roots to strengthen so your lawn will come back thicker and fuller next spring.
But while that root growth is happening below the surface, your grass leaf growth will slow to just about nothing.
Until the ground freezes, your lawn will experience dormant growing where the roots are being strengthened under the surface. This is why many fall lawn fertilizers are high in phosphorous, a nutrient that aids in root growth and development.
One quick note on the use of lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus – some states and communities have passed legislation which bans or limits the use of phosphorus fertilizer due to eutrophication of ponds and streams. For example, in my state (Maine), you are allowed to use it when establishing a new lawn or re-seeding/overseeding an existing lawn, or when a lab-based soil test indicates that phosphorus is needed, but are not allowed to use it outside of these circumstances. I recommend that you check for local restrictions and consider a phosphorus free lawn fertilizer like this one from Jonathan Green.
You’ll want to get that last mow of the season in, but note that if you mow your lawn right when the grass blades stop growing for the season, this could interfere with the rooting process.
Personally I like to mow a bit shorter than usual for my final mow, but leave enough coverage so the grass plants have some protection through the winter.
Poor drainage can result in an unhealthy lawn. While the best time to plant and overseed your grass is in the fall, this is also the best time to top-dress your lawn to level it, or even to take on a larger regrading project.
The fall weather is a great time to regrade, level, and roll your lawn for a few reasons. For starters, the soil is moist and easier to work with when tilling and flattening. There will be less dust, and the work will be more pleasant due to the cooler temperatures.
If your lawn is extremely unhealthy, there’s no better way than to start over in the fall than with a newly graded lawn, top-dressed with rich top-soil or compost and seeded with a blend of seed proven to thrive in your climate.
Tackle this in September and within weeks your lawn will be green again and in much better shape.
Fertilize This Fall
While it may seem counterintuitive to fertilize your lawn in the fall as its growth is slowing down, choosing a fall lawn fertilizer high in potassium will really support the health of your lawn.
This means that as your grass leaf growth slows to a crawl, the plant will put its energy into staying healthy with root development and disease resistance, standing up to the shock of fall frosts and winter freeze. This will help your lawn green up fast and stay green longer during the following growing season.
My Favorite Fall Lawn Fertilizer Options
These are a few good options for fall fertilizer, and most of them work about the same.
These are three of my favorites (links take you to the products on Amazon):
- Espoma Organic Lawn Food – Fall Winterizer (NPK ratio: 8-0-6)
- Jonathan Green Winter Survival Fall Lawn Food (NPK ratio: 10-0-20)
- Greenview Fall Lawn Fertilizer (fairway formula) (NPK ratio: 30-0-12)
The Jonathan Green Winter Survival is my top pick because it has such a healthy dose of Potassium. You can order it directly from the manufacturer right here to ensure you get the freshest bag.
Fall Lawn Care Big Project Weekend (what I do every other year)
Now that you have undergone all preparations for the fall, you can begin to build your annual fall lawn care routine with key projects to maintain and improve your yard over time.
Most of these projects I do during a single weekend all at once, completing that project weekend every other year on my New England lawn.
Here’s what that project weekend looks like (and I’ll describe each of these projects in more detail below):
Fall Lawn Project Weekend Schedule
- Friday late afternoon – Water the lawn well if it hasn’t rained recently. This makes the soil softer and easier to work with the next day.
- Saturday morning – Trip to the rental center to pick up the dethatcher and core aerator on a one day rental. Spend the morning dethatching yard, cleaning up debris.
- Saturday afternoon – After lunch finish cleaning up any remaining debris from dethatching, then core aerate your lawn, hose down both machines and return them to the rental center. Finally, take a trip to dispose of the dethatching debris if you don’t have a compost pile.
- Sunday morning – Pick up load of screened compost (you can schedule a bulk delivery for Friday or Saturday instead if you don’t have a trailer). Overseed your yard, rake in the seed with the back of a leaf rake, then spread starter fertilizer (both will fall into the core aeration holes for great soil contact and even distribution).
- Sunday afternoon – After lunch spread 1/4″ layer of screened compost over seed, level it with a rake, and set up sprinklers to get the new seed watered in and make watering easy for the next few weeks.
One of the best times of year to dethatch your lawn is in the fall, just before overseeding.
Thatch is a thick layer of material that accumulates in your lawn over time. It consists of dead plant matter, old roots, sticks, and other organic matter.
Your soil type, grass type, and lawn conditions will dictate whether or not you have to dethatch your lawn (not everyone does), but most lawns will benefit from this project every 2-3 years at a minimum. Experts like horticulturist Nicole Forsyth, M.S. say that the best practice is to do so annually.
In my experience the best time to dethatch is in the fall before aerating and overseeding your yard because it helps to expose your soil and improve seed-to-soil contact and germination rate of your new seed that will rejuvenate and thicken up your lawn with healthy grass.
If you plan to dethatch annually, buying may be better than renting. I have an article to help you choose the best lawn dethatcher for your property to help you get the right tool for the job.
The Dethatcher I Use & Recommend
For lawns up to a half acre there’s one clear choice when it comes to dethatching tools. I recommend The Greenworks 27022 10AMP Electric Dethatcher.
It works really well and will pay for itself after a few uses when compared to renting a power rake.
Core Aerate & Celebrate
Core aeration is something I recommend every homeowner do to their lawn every other year (at a minimum). Aerating is a process that involves cutting holes in your turf, which loosens it and allows oxygen, water, and nutrients to penetrate to the roots of your grass more easily.
It’s one of the best things you can do for your yard.
I like to rent a dethatcher and core aeration machine for a day, dethatch in the morning, rake up all of that dead grass and debris, then aerate my yard, wash off both machines and bring them back to the rental center.
This sets me up with a perfect lawn to overseed and top-dress the next day.
After your soil has been prepped, it is time to overseed your lawn.
Overseeding your lawn is a great way to have a healthier yard. It will make your lawn healthy, lush, and more dense.
I like to use a broadcast spreader and tend to apply with a heavier hand than the manufacturer recommends on the back of the seed bag.
Use one of these free online tools to measure your lawn size (my free tool is the best one and you can find it right here) and get an accurate amount of seed for your yard.
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Fertilize & Top-Dress to Impress
After the seed is spread I like to rake it in gently with the back side of a leaf rake. This helps work the seed down into the grass and core aeration holes to get in contact with your soil.
After this I like to use a starter fertilizer (this one from Scotts or this one from Jonathan Green are my go-to options), and then I spread a thin layer of screened compost or peat moss (no more than 1/4″ deep) across the entire lawn. This will protect the seed, keep it moist to aid with germination, and improve the soil.
It also gives you a chance to level out any low spots in the yard.
Where to Get Your Top-Dressing Material
I have access to a terrific compost facility in my town where community members bring grass and leaves to compost throughout the year and as a resident I can get as much screened compost as I can use free of charge.
Check to see if your community (or a neighboring one) has an option like this. If not, invest in a bulk delivery from your local nursery or garden center to top dress your lawn.
Creating a Fall Routine for Your Property
The Fall lawn care project weekend I’ve outlined above will set your lawn up for success the following season, and for years to come.
It’s a big weekend and a lot of work, but that sweat equity will transform how your lawn looks for the rest of the year. It’s something I do every other year on my lawn, and beyond that I can just fertilize four times a year, spread pre-emergent every spring, and mow.
I rarely have to do much weed mitigation because my thick lawn takes care of itself after I block annual weeds early each spring to give my lawn a jump-start.
Customize Your Fall Lawn Care Routine
While fall is the best time for lawn maintenance, always keep in mind that each lawn will vary depending on location.
Be sure to pick and choose the steps that apply best to your current location and situation. If you’re short on time in the fall, you can shift this project weekend to the spring (just wait until your soil temperature is at least 55 degrees so your new grass seed can germinate).
If you live in a dry climate, you will want to water your lawn more often. In a wet climate, you can let the rainfall do most of the work.
Take on Other Projects
While maintaining your lawn, you can also take advantage of the opportunity to do other projects.
Personally I like to do most of my lawn edging work in the spring, but I like to mulch my beds when I cut back perennials in the fall. It’s a great way to winterize garden beds, make your curb appeal pop, and even pop in some fall annuals to make your property look great.
Another great project to do in the early fall to get your property on point is to pot up some autumn containers with chrysanthemums or other hardy fall-flowering plants and grasses.
Fall Lawn Care – Important & Fun (if you embrace it)
One of the most important takeaways from the fall lawn care guide I’ve shared above is that maintaining your yard is a continuous process and the work you put in this year will pay off the following season.
Fall is one of the most important times of year to complete lawn improvement projects because it gives your yard a head-start for the following spring and will allow you to enjoy your property more (and work on it less) as we all come out of winter hibernation.
The second most important takeaway is that a single lawn care routine is not a one-size-fits-all remedy. Some lawns won’t need dethatching or aeration. Others may not need to be top-dressed or overseeded.
Understanding how each of the different lawn care practices and procedures available to you is the first step toward assembling the right game-plan for your property.
Enjoy the cool fall weather with your family and make your project weekend a fun time for the whole gang!
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