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Whether you maintain your lawn yourself or hire someone to do it for you, it's important to know when to do what at which time of year. Winter is a time of resting the land, spring is new growth, summer is stasis, and fall is preparation for winter.
In Massachusetts, winter is harsh. In California, winter is mild. Fall's tasks in both places are the same; the main difference is when in fall you do them. In areas where winter brings snow, you'll start the tasks that follow early in fall. In warmer climates, like California, you can wait awhile.
For a long time, I didn't know how to maintain a lawn. I was never allowed to learn when young because I had so many brothers and the outside work was their job.
Hence, when I first moved to my little house in Roseburg, Oregon, in my twenties, it didn't occur to me that I would have to take care of the lawn. My neighbors brought it to my attention when the grass grew knee high and I hadn't cut it. I didn't do anything about it then, either—I didn't know how.
With the onset of summer, the now waist-high grass died and the neighbors called the fire department. The firemen told me I should have cut the lawn a long time ago and explained what a hazard it was. They asked if I had a job (yes). Then they suggested I hire a neighborhood boy to mow it—he could use his parents' lawnmower. I was mortified. Why hadn't I thought of that?
The embarrassment of that experience changed my life. I immediately signed up for an auto mechanics class at a two-year college nearby and promised myself to learn everything I could to maintain my own home.
Thirty years later, I lived in a large condo complex with extensive lawns. The Board of Directors hired a landscaper, who started doing everything wrong. I thought at first that he didn't know his job, but later wondered if he was deliberately causing problems, so he could charge more money for fixing them. He set weird watering schedules and didn't fix broken pipes or sprinkler heads until floods or geysers (or residents) drove him to it. The lawns started looking really bad.
Meanwhile, I had started a HOA landscape committee with some of the other residents as volunteers. Together we catalogued what needed to be done and broke it up into seasonal tasks. What the landscaper didn't do, we tried to do . and photographed the difference. He was eventually fired.
Where I live now in water-conscious Southern California, I maintain our house lawns together with a landscaper who does the basics. My watering schedule works well and so does the seasonal one. Here is my list of fall tasks.
With the right choice of grasses and good lawn maintenance, your lawns should look nice year round (except when covered with snow). These seven tasks are the most important ones to carry out in fall:
Most lawnmowers have settings that let you adjust your mowing height (like a vacuum cleaner does). During the hot summer months, your grass is served well by letting it grow as high as you can, taking off as little as possible when you mow. This provides shade for the little grass blades and protects the soil somewhat from evaporation.
But fall brings rain and, eventually, cooler weather. This is the time to lower the height of your lawnmower's cutting blades, so it cuts the grass shorter. That way water can evaporate more readily, so when it rains the roots don't rot in the still warm air. It also reduces breeding conditions for insects that like warm, wet soil.
Roots intertwining under the surface of the soil can create an impervious layer, called thatch, much like the turf roofs of old Ireland (also called thatch). Those thatch roofs were constructed to resist rain—to let it roll off the house and onto the ground.
Just so, if you don't do anything about the thatch on your lawn, like poking holes through it (aeration), over time the lawn will become impervious to water. Water will just run off the surface into the storm drains and your grass will die.
The perfect time to aerate is in the fall. For this, you can use spiked aerator shoes or a pitchfork or, if you have the money, purchase or rent a lawn aerator (about $60 per day to rent). Not only do the holes created by aerating allow for water penetration, they also provide additional air in the soil for soil microbes to breathe.
Aerator shoes are not full shoes, per se. They're add-ons. You strap them onto your own sturdy work shoes with the straps provided. I particularly look for a high-quality shoe with buckles that are metal, not plastic, so they last longer. The shoes have long spikes that dig into the ground when you walk across it.
Really good lawn caretakers use a mulching lawnmower or attachment when they mow the lawn, in order to provide a natural fertilizer. The mulcher chops up the grass cuttings as you mow and leaves them on the ground. Microbes in the soil then break down the cuttings into nutrients for your lawn.
If you have decided not to mulch grass cuttings, then fall is the best time to apply commercial lawn fertilizer. The weather is not too hot, so it won't burn the grass. And the late fall and winter rains will wash the fertilizer down into the soil, keeping it moist enough to do its work.
Test your soil in several spots first to see which nutrients are missing. Then check your local hardware store for a fertilizer that provides those missing nutrients. You can disburse it with a hand-push spreader like that pictured below—either renting or buying one, depending on how often you'll use it. If your lawns are really big you can have someone else do it, or rent a type of disburser that attaches to the back of a tractor. Spreaders are also good for overseeding your lawn in spring and fall.
The richest lawns have a mix of hot and cold weather grasses. Spring and fall are when you refresh your stock, so to speak, sowing seed for the season ahead to replace whatever has died. So in fall, you will overseed the winter cool-weather grasses.
Perennial rye grass is the most common winter grass used in warmer areas. It has a fine texture, grows quickly, and blends in well with warm-season grasses like Bermuda. If you want to keep rye grass healthy, give it shade in the summer and overseed it in fall.
Overseeding is just what it sounds like. You buy a bag of grass seed and, when the weather cools down below 75 degrees, cast it out over the existing lawn. Then you water a little to let it sink down, and let the rain take care of the rest.
In colder climes, make sure to overseed earlier in fall, rather than later. A good frost will kill underdeveloped seedlings. Give your seeds time to sprout and grow a little, before it starts to freeze at night.
Most functioning irrigation systems need light troubleshooting and maintenance on a regular basis, plus one or two major repair sessions per year. Fall is the best time to do a thorough check for malfunctioning controllers, sprinkler heads, and leaky pipes.
This is especially crucial in cold weather areas where pipes can freeze and break underground. You're wanting to prevent this from happening, if at all possible. Having your system in tip-top condition before winter hits will give your system the best chance of surviving the winter unscathed.
Fall is also the time to change your watering schedule to accommodate increased rainfall and cooler weather. Typically, you will water less often and will use less water each time. If your system is automated with a controller that sets the times for watering your yard, you might even want to turn the system completely off, once the rainy season starts.
In warm-weather, dry areas like the southwestern part of the United States, you might want to water extra thoroughly in fall, instead of cutting back. This will prep the soil for a healthy growing season in spring. After the rainy season has finally started (if it does), then you can stop irrigating until the weather warms up again.
This is the other big need in cold-weather climes. Where winters bring snow and ice, it's important not to leave water standing in the underground irrigation pipes. Water expands when it freezes, breaking pipes and sprinkler heads, setting you up for massive repairs come spring. It's much better to take all the water out of your pipes (and fountains and pools) and leave them empty before the Big Freeze.
In warm weather areas, you can simply close the shutoff valve, so no more water can enter the irrigation pipes, then run the irrigation system until all the water that's there has been sprayed out. You'll finish by opening all the stopcocks to let those pipes drain too (see video below).
To make absolutely sure there's no water left in the system in cold weather zones, you can blow it out with air, using an air compressor. Again you'll close the shutoff valve. Then you'll attach your air compressor hose to a stopcock below the back flush valve, and run air through each of your irrigation stations, letting the air help blow out every bit of water in those pipes. The second video below shows how to do that.
Some of these instructions may seem to contradict each other, but it totally depends on weather patterns in your area. The ultimate goal in cold-weather areas is to create the stage for a healthy growing season in spring. The ultimate goal in warm-weather areas is to keep the lawn looking nice even in winter. Two different goals that require some similar, and some different activities in fall.
Once your fall lawn tasks are done, then you can relax inside where it's warm. Unless you want to pull dandelions, there's little work to do in the winter when maintenance requirements are low and fewer water bills to pay too, since winter rain or snow irrigates your lawn for you. So you can kick back with a glass of wine and bask in the glow of fall tasks well done, while anticipating a cool, lazy winter coming up.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 21, 2017:
This is a very useful article, especially for me. My lawn isn't in a very good state at the moment. Thanks for sharing all the tips.