Your First Garden: What You Need to Do in Fall for a Lush Lawn in Spring

Our town is what many would call quaint. With a population of around 25,000, it’s not small, but it still manages to have a small-town feel. When a Starbucks moved into our village center last year, there was a lot of hand-wringing and calls to support our local businesses. It’s that kind of place—where people are passionate about mom-and-pop stores and actually walk to get places and make regular eye contact, to boot.

So we were surprised when we moved here to find that many of our neighbors hired professional landscapers to mow their lawns. There are no McMansions here. Most lawns are compact and don’t take an inordinate amount of time to mow. So why were so many of our down-to-earth neighbors outsourcing their lawn-mowing?

When fall came a few months later, we discovered the reason. Our neighbors weren’t just throwing away money (and their ideals) for the heck of it, they were paying for a whole regimen that included regular mowing, yes, but also, more important, aerating, overseeding, and fertilizing. And fall is prime time for putting this regimen to action.

Should we be following the lead of our neighbors who have their lawns on programs? How much attention does our lawn need anyway now that temperatures are dropping? I asked Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Landscape Professionals, for some advice.

Q: Now that it’s fall, can you stop mowing and watering?

Above: Don’t say goodbye to your lawn mower for the winter just yet. Your lawn may need a couple more trims before it goes dormant for the winter. See this manually operated mower from Manufactum and others like it in 10 Easy Pieces: Reel Lawn Mowers.

A: Short answer, no. “There’s a misconception that the lawn care season starts in the spring. It actually starts the previous fall with proper aeration, overseeding, fertilizing, mowing, and watering,” says Henriksen. Depending on where you live, you should continue to mow your lawn until late October to mid-November (those in the south and warm climates may never get a break). How short should it be? Keep grass cut to a height of between two and two and a half inches. “Avoid the temptation to mow too closely.” she advises. “As long as the lawn is green, it’s making food that it will store down in the roots for use next season.”

As for watering, don’t slack off on that chore either. “One way to know when to stop watering is to go by the leaves. After the leaves drop to the ground, it’s a sign that homeowners should give trees and shrubs one final deep watering,” says Henriksen. Doing so ensures that the “root systems will have time to absorb moisture from the soil as it soaks down before freezing temperatures set in. Gradually reduce the amount of water applied as fall progresses so that the plants have the opportunity to acclimate to the coming winter weather.”

Q: Is any part of the program skippable?

Above: The lush lawn at Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista, from Glass House Landscape: A “Permanent Camping Trip” for Architect Philip Johnson.

A: Bad news for those who love shortcuts and hacks. According to Henriksen, you can’t just neglect your lawn and hope for the best. “Looking at lawns in human terms, we get pretty grumpy if we miss a meal, and we will not stay healthy for very long if we are deprived of water. Lawns are no different,” she says. “Fall aeration, overseeding, and fertilizing all work together in creating a healthy lawn and landscape. Aeration provides an excellent bed for overseeding, and fertilizing helps boost the new and established grass created during the overseeding process.”

Q: What is the proper order of tasks?

Above: A proper fall lawn care program includes aerating, overseeding, and fertilizing. Photograph by Dennis Burnett, courtesy of Tait Moring & Associates, from Landscape Architect Visit: At Home with Tait Moring in Austin, TX.

A: First, aerate. Aeration involves poking the soil with small holes to allow air, water, and nutrients to reach the grass’s roots. You can rent an aerator, as my husband did our first fall in the suburbs, but it’s not for the fainthearted or weak-muscled (he never did it again). Follow with overseeding. “Overseeding is done by broadcast spreading or using a slice seeder, a machine that mechanically places the seed in the soil,” says Henriksen. Last, follow with fertilizer “to give new and established grasses a boost.”

Q: Is overseeding necessary if your lawn has no bare patches?

Above: Overseeding is especially critical if you want to fill in your lawn’s bare spots. Photograph by Claire Takacs, from Can This Garden Be Saved: I Don’t Like Mowing Around Trees.

A: To paraphrase Henriksen, overseeding is a must. (She is tough!) “Each year, a certain percentage of the grass on your lawn simply reaches the end of its lifespan. Others succumb to insects, disease, or exposure to extreme environmental conditions such as heat or drought. Unless you plan to replace these dead plants, other plants such as weeds and native grasses will fill these voids in your lawn.” Furthermore, she says that researchers are constantly improving the performance of grasses that we use in our lawns. “These are the plants you want growing in your lawn, and overseeding at the time of aeration is a quick and efficient way to introduce them.”

Q: What about fertilizers?

A: Wait, let me guess. It’s a nonnegotiable? “Most soils do not provide enough of the proper nutrients plants need, so fertilizing gives grass the extra boost of the nitrogen they need to be healthy,” says Henriksen. “Fertilizing is a science and requires a bit of math. The only way to know what type of fertilizer your soil needs is to have it tested for levels of nutrients. Your lawn care company can perform soil testing and interpret the analysis for you.”

For more fall landscaping tips and information, Henriksen suggests visiting LoveYourLandscape.org, the NALP’s educational website for consumers.

Lawns seem like too much work? Read Pros and Cons: Artificial Grass Versus a Live Lawn.

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