Experts weigh-in on the best way to prepare your lawn for the new season.

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canoes in Buckhorn, Kentucky in the fall
Credit: Ronald E Grafe/Getty Images

Fall denotes beautiful rich-hued foliage and crisp, cool temperatures, but with this change in weather comes a change in lawn care. And fall lawn care goes beyond just cleaning up fallen leaves. "After a long summer of pets, kids, and searing heat, your lawn can be left looking battered and worn, which is why the fall is the perfect time to repair it," says Brian Parker, senior merchant, live goods at The Home Depot. "The maintenance that you perform in the fall can help sustain your lawn's ongoing health throughout the year." In fact, aerating, mowing, and fertilizing are just some of the essential steps for fall lawn care we're sharing here; ensure your lawn grows healthy and strong by taking note of our advice.

Aerate Your Lawn

Let your lawn breathe. "Your [soil may be compressed] from rainfall during the previous seasons," says Parker. If you don't own an aerator, he recommends renting one. "Holes formed from aerating will provide room for water, air, and fertilizer to travel deeper into the soil. This important step will help your lawn look lush and healthy by spring," he says. We suggest using a power aerator or star-wheeled cultivator to till the target area to a depth of about 1/4-inch. Then, lightly coat the area with fresh soil, and sprinkle grass seeds to match the surrounding grass. Sow about 15 seeds per square inch (check the seed-box label for application rate). Till once again and tamp lightly with your foot to get good seed-to-soil contact. Use bamboo stakes or bent twigs to mark newly seeded areas, and water well.

Fall Lawn Cleanup

Cleaning up your lawn means so much more than just raking leaves, though that's still an important task, mentions Ryan McEnany, public relations and communications specialist for Bailey Nursery. "I know that raking up the leaves isn't the most glamorous task, but it really is important so that your lawn can continue the photosynthesis process of absorbing the sun's rays to keep healthy and green. Just like the plants in your garden, the grass needs to continue seeing that sun to be healthy in fall and again next spring," he says.

Another important lawn cleanup task in the fall is trimming your grass. "Generally speaking, [cutting] three inches is a good rule of thumb," says Parker. "Your grass will be less exposed to disease and disruption when it's not long and matted." Cutting back small amounts of your shade and ornamental flowering trees will be important, too. "Trim shade and ornamental flowering trees to prevent branches from falling on your lawn or garden due to wind or heavy snow," he says. "By pruning dead limbs you're preventing the hazards a fallen branch may bring to the home." He recommends cutting close to the trunk, but not flush with it, so as not to cause even more damage in the future.

Mulch Your Flowerbeds

An important aspect of fall lawn care is to prepare your yard for the cold months ahead. "Adding mulch around the base of trees and plants can help prevent them from freezing once winter comes," says Parker. Looking ahead to next spring, now is a good time to add mulch to any garden beds you might want to expand in the new year. "Planning ahead will guarantee that the soil is free of unwanted growth once the ground is warmer and ready for planting," he explains.

Be Sure to Fertilize

"Use a slow-release fertilizer that has a high concentration of nitrogen (it's the first number on the N-P-K ratio listed on each bag)," says McEnany. "Nitrogen is the element that encourages green growth, so it's key for turf development." He recommends giving one application of fertilizer in early autumn so plants can start to re-establish their root systems that may have suffered during the summer, and another application a couple of months later to help store energy for next spring—as well as break down any mulched leaves from the fall months. McEnany cautions against fertilizing a lawn right next to a garden bed of blooming shrubs, "high-nitrogen fertilizer is intended to promote green growth, so it can slow flower development. In this instance, hand-fertilize as you near the flower bed versus a broadcast application, and then give your flowers a bloom-boosting fertilizer that's higher in phosphorus to push out those flowers."

Watering Is Still Important

Your plants still need water, so don't forget to give them a drink just because it's cooler out. "Also like your garden, continue watering the lawn until frost," says McEnany. "It will not need as much water as you give it in the summer, but it's important to keep the soil evenly moist until frost hits and the lawn goes dormant."

Store Items Like Lawn Furniture

Preparing your lawn for the upcoming winter is pivotal in ensuring the safety of you and your plants. Winter storms can be brutal, so returning tools and lawn furniture inside or to a shed can save you time and money in the long run. "Clean, repair, and put away any lawn furniture," says Parker. "Close down and drain fountains, and water features before freezing temperatures arrive." It's also important to drain and store hoses and sprinklers in the fall, too. Clean and put away garden tools, and after their last use of the season, prepare mowers and other lawn care equipment for the winter. And don't forget about your warm-weather plants. "Store or cover pots and planters that might crack in freezing rain or ice," he says.

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