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How to Prep Your Lawn for Winter

The end of summer signals the best time to lay the groundwork for a lush field of grass come spring

Roger Cook using a lightweight rotary spreader to broadcast fertilizer, lime, and grass seed
Photo by Kindra Clineff

Q: What sort of lawn prep should I do before winter to get a jump start on next year's growing season?
—Dave krocak, St. Louis Park, Minn.

A: Roger cook replies: With summer's heat and dryness at an end, September is the best month to lay the groundwork for next year's lush lawn. That means aerating the turf—to reduce compaction and make it easier for fertilizer and water to reach the roots—and reinvigorating thin areas with compost and seed. Before you start, get a soil test so that you know the type and amount of amendments to add. (Repeat the test in three to five years.) Then follow the steps to follow.

Just remember: When aerating, fertilizing, or seeding, always go over the turf twice, with criss-crossing paths. You don't want stripes in your revitalized lawn.

Pictured: Roger Cook uses a lightweight rotary spreader to broadcast fertilizer, lime, and grass seed.


Steps // How to Prep Your Lawn for Winter
1 ×

Mow Low

 
Step One // How to Prep Your Lawn for Winter

Mow Low

roger cook showing how to mow low to prepare your lawn for winter
Photo by Kindra Clineff

Cut the grass down to 1 to 1½ inches, making it easier to aerate and to judge how much compost to add. If your grass is more than 3 inches tall, take it down incrementally over a few mowings—no more than a third of the grass blade at a time—to avoid stressing the plants.

 
2 ×

Aerate

 
Step Two // How to Prep Your Lawn for Winter

Aerate

roger cook showing how to Aerate and prepare your lawn for winter
Photo by Kindra Clineff

On a day when the soil is moist, not soggy—the core aerator's hollow tines can't easily penetrate hard, dry ground—take a couple of passes around the lawn's perimeter. This will provide a buffer zone for turning this heavy machine around as you run it back and forth over the rest of the lawn.

 
3 ×

Top-Dress

 
Step Three // How to Prep Your Lawn for Winter

Top-Dress

roger cook showing how to top-dress with compost and prepare your lawn for winter
Photo by Kindra Clineff

Where grass is sparse, prepare for seeding by spreading a half-inch layer of aged compost. I hold a snow-shovelful in the crook of my arm, fling it off with my free hand, as shown, then work it in with a leaf rake. Be sure your compost is cured: dry, crumbly, and cool to the touch. If it's hot and smells, it's more likely to harbor pathogens and burn your lawn.

 
4 ×

Fertilize

 
Step Four // How to Prep Your Lawn for Winter

Fertilize

roger cook showing how to fertilize and prepare your lawn for winter
Photo by Kindra Clineff

Distribute fertilizer and pelletized lime (if needed) using a rotary spreader. I use a high-phosphorus fertilizer to stimulate root growth; but you should let the soil test determine the best mix for your conditions. To keep the spreader from dumping too much fertilizer in one spot, open or close the hopper only when the spreader is in motion.

 
5 ×

Overseed

 
Step Five // How to Prep Your Lawn for Winter

Overseed

roger cook showing how to seed and prepare your lawn for winter
Photo by Kindra Clineff

Fill the spreader with seed, set its control to about two-thirds of the bag's recommendation, to account for overlapping passes, and distribute the seed over the compost. As when fertilizing, keep the spreader in motion when opening or closing the hopper. For large areas, you can save time by renting a power overseeder, which slices the turf and drops in the seeds. It eliminates the need to rake in Step 6.

 
6 ×

Rake and Water

 
Step Six // How to Prep Your Lawn for Winter

Rake and Water

roger cook showing how to rake and water ro prepare your lawn for winter
Photo by Kindra Clineff

Mix the seeds into the compost with a leaf rake held tines up, as shown. Water lightly—5 minutes at a time, two to three times a day—until the seeds sprout. Then water once a day for 15 to 30 minutes. Mow the lawn again when the existing grass reaches 3 inches; bag the clippings. After leaves have fallen, cut the grass back to 1½ inches for its long winter's nap.

 
 
 

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