How To Prepare Your Lawn For Winter

How To Prepare Your Lawn For Winter

Another growing season has come and gone. For us cool-season lawn care enthusiasts, the past seven months have flown by, and it’s time to put our lawns away for a long winter’s nap.

So as temperatures drop, and with your nitrogen blitz underway and Halloween and Thanksgiving fast approaching, you’re probably asking yourself, what should I do to my lawn for winter? When do I apply a winter fertilizer? How much winter fertilizer? And what type of nutrients?

Preparing a lawn for winter should take place after your fall renovations and overseedings are complete, and the weather starts to cool. Whether you’re a master gardener or a novice DIY lawn and garden nut, these very important late-fall lawn care tips and tasks will help you winterize your lawn to prevent damage and ensure your grass and garden beds are well prepared for the winter weather ahead.

Here are the five most important steps for winter lawn care.

1. Clean The Lawn

Don’t leave leaves and debris on your grass over winter. Cleaning the lawn in the fall is the first step to properly winterize it. This manual yard work chore is one of the last of the season, so don’t skip this part.

I made the mistake of neglecting to clean my lawn my rookie year and woke up in April to snow mold galore (more on this below). Not to mention the extra spring clean-up I had to perform when all I wanted to do was to get my soil test, begin mowing, and throw down fertilizer. 

Leaves and thatch left on the lawn over the winter block the light and trap moisture, which can lead to snow mold, and other fungal problems. Don’t wait for the trees and shrubs to drop all of their leaves — rake often as they fall.

Remove as many leaves, sticks, and other debris as possible from the site. I personally don’t recommend mulching and leaving leaves on the ground over winter – bag them up and recycle them in your compost pile. 

2. Remove weeds

Weeds left in the lawn and garden over winter will come back again with a vengeance in the spring. Their weed seeds will get distributed more broadly, and they’ll hog resources like water and nutrients.

Pulling weeds to keep your desirable plants healthier later on is one of the most important steps for keeping the yard in good shape, and removing them from garden beds also makes it easier to plant in the spring.

3. Mow Low

Before your grass heads into winter dormancy, give it a final mowing with your lawnmower blades set one to two inches lower than your normal height. As always, take the lawnmower height down gradually. I usually set my mower blades at 2 to 2.5 inches for the final mow.

Because taller grass can leave your lawn more susceptible to snow mold and other funguses in the spring, a very low lawn mower height promotes top grass health come spring — and helps keep it greener throughout the winter.

A clean lawn and a shorter cut will winterize your lawn to set it up for both winter survival and early spring lawn success. Depending on Mother Nature, the last mowing is usually best done in mid to late November.

Make sure your blades are still sharp enough to cut your grass cleanly

4. Aerate

Soil compaction prevents your grass from growing thick and strong, and it promotes the growth of spring weeds. Compaction prevents water and nutrients from reaching the root zone and impacts root growth. The cure? Aerating your lawn. If you didn’t aerate as part of your early fall maintenance, do it now!

Aerating is an easy DIY project that’ll help winterize your lawn and promote strong plant roots. You can rent an aerating machine from your local home improvement store if you don’t have your own. Alternatively, you can get a pair of lawn aerator shoes and get some exercise walking your yard to aerate!

Aerate your soil when it’s moist, but not soggy. If it’s dry in your location, water your lawn the day before you aerate. If it’s too dry, it’ll be harder to aerate. If it’s too wet, you’ll just make a gigantic mess.

Make several passes in different directions, and concentrate on problem areas like where the kids play or the mailman’s daily path across the grass.

While you have the aerator out, pass it over your garden soil, too, so nutrients can easily make their way down to plant roots once you get your plants going in the spring.

Leave the soil plugs on the lawn and garden to disintegrate naturally and add their nutrients to the soil. If you haven’t already laid down more grass seed, post-aeration is a great time to do it!

5. Fertilize for Winter

Fall lawn fertilizer application is an important part of winter lawn care. around one to two weeks after your last mowing and aeration and just before the weather gets cold and the ground freezes.

Winter fertilizers are particularly important for providing nutrients for any new grass seed you spread in the early fall season.

When should I put winter fertilizers on my lawn?

The best time to apply winter fertilizer on your lawn is in late fall, between your last mowing of the season and before the ground freezes. In New England, this is generally the first 1-2 weeks of November.

The best time to apply winter lawn fertilizers on your cool-season grasses depends on what part of the country you live in. As the outside and soil temperatures get colder, the grass will become dormant.

Just before the ground becomes frozen, apply your winter fertilizer. The nitrogen will get into the soil and will be utilized next spring. This fertilizer will help kickstart your lawn in early spring, providing a quicker green-up.

The nitrogen applied late in the season is stored in the soil over winter and utilized in the spring as outside and soil temps rise. It helps promote greening, growing, and thickening faster in the spring than if you skipped winter fertilizer.

The best fertilizer to apply for over-wintering is one with mostly fast-release nitrogen (N) and some potassium (K). A fertilizer with a 10-0-20 ratio will provide plenty of K, but not a lot of N (about 1/3 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft.). A 20-0-5 is another popular choice as it will provide some K, but more N (around 3/4 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft.).

Here are the fertilizers that’ll keep your lawn in tip-top shape through winter weather.

Nitrogen

Adding nitrogen (N) to the lawn provides benefits for next year. The nitrogen that’s applied to the lawn in the late fall will help green up your lawn in the spring when soil temps begin to approach 50 to 55 degrees. It’s is also good for the new grass seeds (if you applied grass seed during early fall aeration).

However, too much Nitrogen applied late in the season promotes more top growth in the lawn – this is a time where the cool-season grasses become dormant. This excessive “winter” growth will foster spring diseases, like red thread and snow mold.

How much nitrogen should I apply to my lawn for the winter?

You should apply a full pound of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. to your yard. For example, if you have a 5,000 sq. ft. lawn and choose a 20-0-5 fertilizer, you would need 25 lbs. to deliver 1 lb. of N per 1,000 sq. ft. to cover your total area. This is especially important if you threw down grass seed in the early fall months during aeration and overseeding.

Potassium

Potassium (K), is an essential “all-around” vitamin for the yard. Potassium helps it ward off diseases during cold, harsh winters, and helps the lawns absorb more nutrients in the soil.  Grasses use potassium to effectively make proteins and starches to store for the winter.

The Macro-Micro Blend by Yard Mastery is a very good option. Using the Nitrogen Calculator, the 24-4-8  formulation will cover 6,500 sq. ft. and deliver ~0.75 pounds of N per 1,000 ft², and plenty of K.

ProPEAT 17-0-4 is another affordable option, as the 17% Nitrogen will deliver 0.68 lbs. of N while covering 10,000 sq. ft. at that rate.  Your lawn will wake up and bounce back faster in the warm weather come spring. Use our Lawn Fertilizer Calculator to help calculate how much you need. 

Lime

A neutral pH level is key to a healthy lawn. If your soil test indicated a low soil pH level, and you skipped lime in September, apply that to your cool-season grasses now. Any lime will do, though I prefer the ingredients in Jonathan Green Mag-I-Cal Plus. 

6. Apply a Fungicide

Snow mold generally occurs in cool-season grasses in early spring when the snow has melted, the weather gets warmer, and the grass starts to green up.

Snow mold happens when the grasses freeze and thaw throughout the winter. Longer grass that has a tendency to flop over onto itself and become matted is also prime turf for fungus. And as previously mentioned, leaves that smother the grass can also cause snow mold. 

By following proper clean-up tips for your lawn, you can help prevent snow mold. You can also apply fungicidal products to your lawn just before the hard frost for winter protection. Lawn fungicide products like Propiconazole 14.3 at 3-4 oz. per 1,000 sq. ft. will help prevent snow mold in your turf.

And as temperatures begin to increase enough to start melting the snow (around February here in Massachusetts, for example) you can apply another round. The idea is to get the fungicide down between the thaw and refreeze, which may be a small window of opportunity. 

7. Don’t forget the garden!

If your garden soil stays bare over the winter, a cover crop planted in the fall can help it retain nutrients for better growth in the spring. Cover crops are easy to plant, and you can pull them up in spring when it’s time to sow your seasonal plants.

Plants like rye, oats, have extensive root systems that break up soil compaction. Legumes, like peas, soybeans, or clover, are known as nitrogen fixers. Broadleaves like mustard, alyssum, and buckwheat germinate quickly and help shade out weeds.

All of these plants are easy to grow. Water them thoroughly after you plant them for the best results.

8. Sit Back, and Relax!

Now that you’ve prepared your lawn for winter, you can sit back and enjoy the lawn care-free winter months! While you’re watching the snow fall, start planning for spring — it’s right around the corner, and there’ll be a lot to do to get the lawn ready for summer. Check out my articles on getting your lawn ready for spring and summer!

Winter Lawn Care Wrap-Up: A Few More Tips and Tasks for Cool Season Grasses

  • Bag your clippings, and compost them.
  • Limit foot traffic on frozen lawns to prevent damage.
  • Use a calcium chloride snow/ice melter instead of salt on walkways near grass, plants, shrubs, and trees.
  • Give your lawn one last raking when the last of the leaves fall from the trees — don’t forget the leaves trapped under bushes and shrubs!
  • Put your lawn tools away until the spring — empty the gas in the lawn mower, and clean your tools so they’re ready for warmer weather!
  • Fast-release Nitrogen, No/low Phosphorus, Med/High Potassium
  • Recommended 0.7 lbs./1,000 sq. ft. of Nitrogen or more (24-4-8 or 17-0-4)  

Preparing Your Lawn for Winter FAQs

When should I put winter fertilizer on my lawn?

The best time to apply winter fertilizer on your lawn is in late fall, between your last mowing of the season and before the ground freezes. In New England, this is generally the first 1-2 weeks of November.

As the outside and soil temperatures get colder, the grass will become dormant. Just before the ground becomes frozen, apply your winter fertilizer. The nitrogen will get into the soil and will be utilized next spring. This fertilizer will help kickstart your lawn in early spring, providing a quicker green-up.

What type of winter fertilizer should I apply to my lawn?

The best fertilizer to apply for your winter fertilizer application is one with mostly fast-release nitrogen (N) and some potassium (K). A fertilizer with a 10-0-20 ratio will provide plenty of K, but not a lot of N (about 1/3 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft.). A 20-0-5 is another popular choice as it will provide some K, but more N (around 3/4 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft.)

How much nitrogen should I apply to my lawn for the winter?

You should apply a full pound of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft. For example, if you have a 5,000 sq. ft. lawn and choose a 20-0-5 fertilizer, you would need 25 lbs. to deliver 1 lb. of N per 1,000 sq. ft. to cover your total area.

Why should I apply a winter fertilizer to my lawn?

A final fertilizer application of nitrogen and potassium in the winter can kickstart your lawn the following spring. The nitrogen applied late in the season is stored in the soil over winter and utilized in the spring as outside and soil temps rise. It helps promote greening, growing, and thickening faster in the spring than if you skipped winter fertilizer. This winter fertilizer application is often considered the most important feeding of the season.

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