Roger Cook bending over to do gardening
Photo: Keller & Keller
This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook gets started on his fall yard chores.
"This is prime time to prep your yard for the next growing season," says This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook. Cooling temperatures slow aboveground growth, and moister soil encourages strong root development. Removing spent stems, dead branches, and heavy leaf cover protects plants' overall health. Read on for Roger's fall checklist.

Aerate The Lawn
If rainfall pools on the grass, it's time to aerate compressed soil so water and nutrients can reach the roots. A garden fork can do the job on a small yard, but for larger lawns Roger uses a walk-behind aerator that pulls out 21⁄2-to 3-inch-deep soil plugs, which will break down naturally by spring.

Feed Your Grass
Cutting back on fertilizer in late summer prevents perennials from wasting energy on leaf production. "But grass roots keep growing until the ground gets down to around 40 degrees," says Roger, "so this is a good time to feed them." Apply a high-phosphorus (12-25-12) mix to lawns in fall to encourage roots, so turf greens up earlier in spring

Mow a Final Time
Roger trims turf down to 11⁄4 inches for the last cut of the season. "Disease has a harder time with shorter grass," Roger says, "and fallen leaves blow across the lawn because they have nothing to latch on to." Don't go too low, though: Grass makes most of its food in the upper blade.

Collect Leaves
To make fallen leaves easier to transport, rake them onto a plastic tarp. Roger adds them (along with leaves he's cleared from the gutters) to a compost bin—a simple chicken-wire pen will do. Flip the leaf pile every week with a garden fork to aerate; the "black gold" that results next year can nourish lawns, flower beds, and shrub borders.
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