Does fall lawn care typically conjure up images of endless raking? Does early winter lawn care usually mean applying expensive synthetic fertilizers in preparation for the spring? With the steadying hand of a lawn care professional, who can help you take advantage of nature’s seasonal bounty, there is an easier, more practical, and more environmentally efficient way.
Fall Lawn Care
Fall is an apt seasonal name. Every year, like clockwork, trees disrobe themselves of their leaves. In natural settings, these grounded leaves do not inhibit growth: they serve an important ecological function. Consider leaves the annual gift that trees give to the soil.
What does this mean for lawn care? It means that, within reason, grounded leaves will improve the health of your lawn. As the National Wildlife Federation notes on their website, “A leaf layer several inches deep is a natural thing in any area where trees naturally grow . . . Leaves form a natural mulch that helps suppress weeds and at the same time fertilize the soil as they break down.” Some estimates suggest that a tree canopy covering more than 20 percent of your lawn could have detrimental effects on grass growth, so a consultation or some assistance from an expert, familiar with the local climate, your variety of grass, and optimum amounts of leave cover, is often a good first step in the decision-making process (Green). As these fallen leaves decompose, with the help of bacteria, moisture, and oxygen (for a great overview of composting, read this article from the University of Illinois Extension), they provide the soil with nutrients and natural weed suppressant.
What if your lawn has a LOT of trees? Besides consideration of effects detrimental to grass growth, sometimes there are also Homeowners Association or Covenant Community guidelines, or just personal preferences, about tidiness. Excess fallen leaves can also encourage pests and fungal diseases, as well as clog drains (Green). So while nature’s bounty is a boon for the ecosystem, it often makes sense, depending on your preferences and available time, to call in some help. With or without your prompting, a professional should be able to find alternative uses for the extra leaves. For example, a 3-6 inch layer of leafy mulch for planting beds will help with weed suppressant, water and soil retention, and overall soil health (Green). If there are still remaining leaves, a compost pile in your backyard, covered with a tarp to encourage bacterial growth at high temperatures, will eventually yield highly fertile compost for future growth. Municipalities also typically provide composting services, meaning that if you cannot use the compost, someone else will be able to.
Best Time To Fertilize
Isn’t fall the most important time to fertilize my lawn? According to Lawncare.org, if you have cool seasonal grasses, the predominant type in North America (think Bermuda or Bluegrass), then “Fall or early winter are the best times to fertilize.” Again, that does not necessitate buying synthetic or even organic fertilizers. Both leaves and lawn clippings provide natural ways to fertilize the soil, creating an abundance of grass-supportive organic matter over time. Synthetic fertilizers, especially the quick release types, often run-off and eventually pollute bodies of water. Nitrogen in these fertilizers means high levels of nitrogen in waterways that eventually can create aquatic dead zones and poison fish. If you’re uncertain about how to keep your lawn healthy in a natural way, professional advice is a great starting point. Let’s keep our lawns, water, and fish healthy.
How low should I cut my grass before the winter months? The mowing should be low enough to discourage burrowing animals that might destroy root structures when building their cozy, winter subterranean homes. Tall grass is also more exposed to frosts (Burke). However, as a more general, cross-seasonal practice, excessively short mowing is water inefficient and can destroy budding root structures (Eliades). So before mowing your lawn, in the winter or otherwise, consider the water needs within your climate, the age, and type of your grass, and mow accordingly. It might make sense to get a second opinion. Lower mowing might look better in the short term, but might mean extra time, money, effort, and brown patches in the future. Nevertheless, mowing a couple of inches lower in the winter, especially in colder climates, might be beneficial.
Taking Care of Crops
Ok, my lawn looks great, but can I also harvest crops along its margins in the winter? The answer is yes, and depending on your climate, it is an emphatic yes. Barbara Damrosch, writing for Mother Earth News, says, “At any latitude in the United States, there’s enough daylight to grow a wide range of winter crops.” Depending on your climate and your desired crop, this might require a winter protective device, but there are also plenty of hearty options that can withstand cold temperatures uncovered. When sown in the late summer, spinach, lettuce, arugula, chard, Winterbor kale, carrots, turnips, and radishes are all often harvestable throughout the winter months (Damrosch).
Fall and winter are great times to improve the quality of your lawn, but it does not have to be a time and resource-intensive endeavor. Skip the synthetic fertilizers, let some of the leaves lie, and if you are so inclined, sow a few winter annuals in advance for fresh, homegrown vegetables during the winter months. Let nature run its course with fewer interventions, get reassuring help and a second opinion from a lawn care professional if necessary, and reap the benefits of nutrient-rich soil, begetting happy grass, over the following seasons and years.
Jordan has worked as a mortgage lender and real estate agent. He is a self-described “housing professional” with over 20 years of experience in the industry. After retiring at the early age of 50, he shifted his focus to sharing his personal wisdom with others.