It’s already mid-October, and so far, the fall weather has been pitch-perfect. But in just two short weeks, daylight savings time will end (hello, early sunsets), and the winter weather won’t be far behind.
Our two most recent weekly blogs have covered various aspects of home winterization, or how to prepare your house as well as your outdoor living space for the coming ice, snow, wind, and sub-zero temperatures.
The final installment in our home winterization series considers your yard and garden, and five steps you should take to prepare them before the season’s first hard frost.
1. Mow Your Lawn with Care
Even in the summer, it’s important not to mow your lawn too often or cut it too short. You can go even longer between each mowing in the fall when you should generally cut your grass once every two weeks until all the leaves have fallen.
Since the upper Midwest is a cool climate, your grass should be about two inches high after the final mowing of the season. Longer areas of grass are more vulnerable to “snow mold,” a winter fungal disease that can kill your lawn.
2. Give Your Lawn its Fall Feeding
It’s a common misconception that grass only needs to be fertilized in the spring, as it enters its growth phase. But your lawn actually does best when it’s given nutrients four times a year — in the early spring, again in the late spring, once in the summer, and one final time in the fall.
In autumn, your lawn needs an infusion of nutrients to help it recover from the summer heat and prepare for winter dormancy. Feeding your lawn with an organic, phosphate-free fertilizer by late November will strengthen its root system and increase its nitrogen storage for a healthy lawn in the coming spring.
3. Go Green with Your Leaf Cleanup
Although mowing your lawn every two weeks through the autumn takes care of a lot of fallen foliage, you’ll probably still have to gather and remove a few big leaf piles as the season goes on, especially if your property has its share of large trees.
Instead of collecting leaves in a lawn waste bag to put out with the trash, collect their mulched remains in the grass catcher of your lawnmower. After raking as many leaves as you can out of your garden, use your mower to chop and “vacuum” the leaves off your lawn.
You can use shredded leaves to insulate and regenerate your compost, or you can use them as a mulch replacement to insulate your perennial garden (see below).
4. Clean and Mulch Your Perennial Beds
Perennial beds, or the areas of your garden which contain plants that return each year, should be cleaned and mulched before winter — ideally after the first hard frost so the temperature of the soil has a chance to stabilize first.
Removing old stalks and leaves makes your plants more disease-resistant; adding a generous layer of mulch (shredded wood and/or chopped leaves) keeps them well insulated and provides nutrients to the soil as organic matter breaks down through the winter.
Besides keeping your winter beds looking tidy, you’ll protect your returning plants and leave them ready for spring. Just remember to keep the mulch at least three inches away from the plants’ main stalks to prevent rot.
5. Tend to Your Trees and Shrubs
Trees and shrubs may be among the hardiest members of your garden, but they’ll have a much easier time getting through the winter if they’re in good shape in the fall. One of the best ways to support both deciduous and evergreen species is by giving them a good soak just before the ground freezes, particularly if the recent months have been relatively dry.
Then, right after the ground freezes, spread a generous layer of mulch around the base of each tree or shrub, keeping it at least 12 inches away from the trunk itself (or trunks in the case of many shrubs). Besides protecting roots from freezing and thawing, this helps the underlying soil retain much-needed moisture.