This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
6 Easy Ways to Get Your Home Ready for the Fall Season
1. Transplant crowded shrubs
The cooler temperatures of early-to-mid fall make it prime time for moving shrubs that have outgrown their space or are languishing in the wrong location. Here’s how:
- Prune or tie back branches with twine to prevent breakage.
- Use a sharp shovel or spade to score the soil just beyond the root ball. A typical 2-foot-tall shrub has a root ball about 14 inches in diameter.
- Dig down, angling the shovel toward the center to isolate the roots.
- Using the shovel, lift the root ball onto a tarp, keeping as much soil as possible around the roots to minimize shock. Drag it to its new location.
- Dig a new hole twice as wide and no deeper than the root ball.
- Place the shrub in the hole, with its best side facing forward and the top of the root ball at or just above grade; backfill with the excavated soil.
- Water well and spread a 2-to-3-inch layer of mulch around the base, making sure to expose the root flare around the main stem to avoid trapping moisture against it.
“Keep watering plants in fall, up until the first hard freeze. Doing so will help assure their survival through the long stretches of cold, windy weather to come.”—This Old House Landscape Contractor Jenn Nawada
2. Put cordless yard tools to bed
Before you retire battery-powered lawn gear for the winter, use a stiff wire brush to clean out dried debris from the underside of the mower or string trimmer. Now is a good time to sharpen or replace worn blades, so they’ll be ready come spring.
If you have a cordless chainsaw, remove the battery, empty the oil tank, clean off debris, and lubricate the chain before storing. Unplug all batteries and their chargers, and store them in a temperate, dry place.
Check the manufacturers’ charging instructions; while some recommend storing batteries with only a partial charge, lawn-tractor batteries may need to be connected to a low-voltage trickle charger to keep the batteries viable till they’re ready for full use.
3. Plug basement leaks
Older houses may have air and water leaks in the foundation. Water leaks are usually obvious after a heavy rain; if ignored, they will get worse and damage the foundation. Water seeping in through foundation cracks can be caused by drainage issues; add downspout diverters if needed to channel water away from the house.
TOH mason Mark McCullough recommends using type N mortar mix to seal holes or cracks in the foundation that are leaking water. Fixing air leaks—typically around windows and doors, and at the rim joist—will keep your basement warmer and lower your energy bills. To identify them, stand in the basement during daytime hours, turn off all the lights, and look for spots admitting daylight.
These can be sealed with expanding urethane foam; once the foam has cured, minimize its appearance by cutting away the excess.
4. Inspect gas fireplaces
Fireplaces that burn natural gas or propane require professional service and maintenance yearly, since these combustion appliances need to operate and vent properly to carry away the carbon monoxide they produce. Here’s what you can do:
While cleaning the glass, check for cracks or chips, and that the gaskets around the glass aren’t degraded. If ceramic logs are starting to crumble, have them replaced. It’s also a good idea to vacuum up any loose debris on the floor of the firebox, which can clog burner ports and impede full combustion.
Examine the walls outside the unit. Burning gas produces a lot of water vapor, and peeling paint and wallpaper or obvious damp spots can signal a leak in the flue. Check the chimney exterior, too; whitish stains on brick or crumbling mortar joints can indicate excess condensation. Call in a pro if you see any of these signs.
5. Take care of wood thresholds
Between foot traffic, sun, rain, and snow, the transition strip at an entry door really takes a beating. Now is a good time to renew its finish.
TOH painter Mauro Henrique likes to start fresh, sanding off any existing paint or stain down to bare wood and recoating from scratch.
Once the old finish is stripped off a painted threshold, he starts with a coat of oil primer and follows with two coats of porch and patio enamel, sanding with 120 grit between coats. For thresholds that have been stained and clear-coated, after a thorough sanding, he follows with a coat or two of stain as needed, followed by three thin coats of marine spar varnish.
6. Get grubs under control
Noticed small patches of dead grass on your lawn or places where skunks or raccoons have dug up turf? You may have grub trouble.
The whitish, C-shaped larvae of several types of beetles (including Japanese beetles, june bugs, and chafers), grubs emerge in early fall, feeding on grass roots until cold weather, when they burrow deeper and become dormant. Come spring, the grubs become active again and continue to feed until they mature.
Now is an ideal time to control their numbers. There are lots of grub-control products on the market, but many of them contain neonicotinoids and pyrethrins, insecticides that can also kill bees and other beneficial insects. A safer alternative: Treat the lawn with a product containing Bacillus thuringiensis galleriae, a naturally occurring bacterium that is less harmful to other insects.
Studies by several state university agricultural schools have shown the bacterium to be more broadly effective than other natural remedies such as milky spore.