This story was originally published in September 2020.
Giving your lawn a little tender love and care before winter in Maine is essential to making sure that it looks healthy and vibrant come spring. With the seasons changing so quickly, though, it can be difficult to know where to start.
Get your rake and your lawnmower ready: here are the steps you need to take to keep your land looking fresh and ready for cold weather.
Colorful autumn leaves carpeting your lawn are a fall hallmark, but they can also cause aesthetic problems for your lawn. Removing foliage in the fall when it is dry is much easier than doing so in the spring when it is wet and matted down.
“The leaves up off your lawn in the fall make dead spots on your lawn in the spring,” said Chaz Longmuir, owner of Maine Lawn Pros in Brewer.
However, there is a case against removing fallen leaves in their entirety because leaf litter provides habitat for wildlife as well as benefits to your lawn like fertilization and weed suppression. Leaving a thin layer behind, or mulching leaves with a lawnmower to prevent thatching, will keep those ecosystem benefits while preventing potential dead spots from cropping up after the thaw.
“Why would you spend money on mulch and fertilizer when you can just make your own?” said Sarah Kern, community engagement specialist at the Center for Wildlife. “The leaves are packed with trace minerals that the trees take up from the soil. A lot of people start small with one section of that lawn that they leave, or if you want that front yard to stay pristine, maybe your backyard you can try experimenting with leaving leaves.”
Of course, leaving fallen leaves isn’t an option for all homeowners, especially those who must follow homeowners’ association guidelines. Find what works best for your lawn and your land.
At the very least, though, avoid bagging and tossing your leaves to languish unused in a landfill. Fall leaves make excellent mulch for raised beds as you prepare them for the winter. Some municipal recycling centers may accept leaf litter for compost, or local farmers may be interested in leaf litter for their own planting plots.
Weed your gardens
The cold will kill the weeds, right? Not quite. Some weeds that go dormant during cold weather will build more resilient subsurface systems during that time. In fact, fall is the best time to manage some more difficult weeds like dandelions and white clover to prevent them from wreaking havoc come spring.
Keeping your yard weed-free goes beyond your actual yard, too.
“Make sure that beds around the house or landscape plants are free of weeds,” said Matthew Wallhead, assistant professor and ornamental horticulture specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Mow (but not too much)
Properly mown lawns will stay healthier through the winter — but if cut too short, the grass may not be able to get the nutrients it needs in colder months.
Ben Goodall, founder and president of Goodall Landscaping, said that one of the most consistent problems he sees is that homeowners feel they need to cut their grass too short.
“That promotes a host of issues with shallower root growth, less dense turf and turf that’s more susceptible to disease,” he said. “Typically we encourage people to cut [to] between 3 and 4 inches.”
The task isn’t one-and-done, though. The frequency of mowing depends on the season, but in the fall, Goodall said you should be mowing about once a week during the fall to maintain the idea length before the snow settles in.
Aerate & fertilize
Aeration is the process of perforating the soil with small holes to allow air, water and nutrients to more easily penetrate the grass roots. This helps the roots grow deeply and produce a stronger, more vigorous lawn while alleviating soil compaction.
Aeration can be done by the homeowner if they have the proper equipment. A homeowner can rent an aerator from a hardware store or purchase one, though Longmuir said that latter doesn’t make much financial sense in the long-run.
“They’re kind of expensive,” Longmuir said. “For the price, they can probably have their lawn aerated [professionally] 50 times.”
Goodall said that it is “a very involved effort” that most homeowners will hire professionals to do.
“Certainly the service providers do an awful lot of that as well,” Goodall said. “We buy our products in such bulk and we’re so efficient at it we can even provide the service for what the homeowner can buy the materials for. There’s good value in having a service provider.”
Once you aerate your lawn, you may also want to add fertilizer in order to feed the grass throughout the winter season (especially if you removed leaves that would act as a natural fertilizer). Make sure you are not overfertilizing your lawn, and choose products that are healthy for the ecosystem in and around your property.
“You have a ton of organic fertilizers that are available,” Kern said. “The one that I love best is the Coast of Maine.”
Fix the thinning bits
Fall is the best time to conduct any maintenance that your lawn requires, especially in the Northeast.
“If you’re doing lawn renovations, fall is the best time to do it,” Longmuir said. “If you’re going to plant a lawn or do some lawn repair it’s always best to do it in the fall because the ground temperature is high from the summertime but you still get the cool nights and warm days.”
Address the patchy spots in your lawn by adding more seed. Try to choose grasses that are native to or adapted to the area so they can more hardily survive the extremes in weather for years to come. A lawn with a mix of seeds rather than a monoculture will also be more resilient, as well as a more hospitable place for all different kinds of wildlife
“Seeding starting in late August through about October 15 is an extremely important way to help get a healthier and more attractive lawn,” Longmuir said. “Our best lawns have that done every fall.”
Consider rewilding, and plan ahead
If you are concerned about your lawn’s impact on the environment, take this time to plan for rewilding your lawn. Naturalizing your lawn by skipping the pesticides and herbicides and instead letting plants like clover, dandelion and ground flower throughout the season will create opportunities for pollinators all season long. Over time, these lawns also require less maintenance and fewer resource inputs like fertilizer.
Prepare lawn equipment for winter
Once you are done tending to your lawn, it is time to put the equipment away. If you care about the longevity of your tools, though, stashing lawn equipment for the winter involves more than just tossing it into the shed.
Whether you recently purchased a lawn mower or have been using the same equipment for years, making sure that your equipment is ready for winter will prevent costs in the next season. Aside from regular cleaning and spot treating maintenance issues, Mainers should add fuel additives to prevent clogging for any gas-powered equipment. For electric equipment, either remove batteries or hook them up to a trickle charger.
“Batteries stored in cold locations that aren’t turned out periodically tend to deplete themselves,” Wallhead said. “Save yourself $50 by bringing it into the house.”