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12 Ways to Prep Your Lawn and Garden for Fall

Make your life easier in the spring by being proactive in the fall. Check out these tips for getting your lawn and garden ready for the colder months ahead.

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pulsating sprinkler sprays water on lawnFamily Handyman

The Best Way to Water Your Lawn? Water in the Fall

Your lawn still needs water in autumn, even though the leaves are changing, the growing season is winding down and your grass isn’t growing as fast. Fall watering helps your lawn recover from summer stress and gain strength for the winter ahead. Also, if you fertilize in the fall, watering is necessary for the fertilizer to dissolve and soak into the ground where it’s needed. So don’t put your hoses or sprinklers away until the ground starts to freeze — your fall grass still needs the water.

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Fertilize in the Fall

If you want the best lawn in town, fertilize four times a year. But if you can only bother to fertilize once a year, you still have a great lawn if you only fertilize in the fall. Choose a fertilizer that’s labeled 4-1-2. (Those numbers refer to the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the fertilizer.) Better yet, ask an expert at a garden center for advice about the best fertilizer blend for your fall grass type and local soil conditions.

Apply the fertilizer about three weeks before the last mowing of the season. Fertilizing in the fall provides energy and nutrients for the grass roots as they multiply in cooler weather before the grass goes dormant. The roots store food for the winter as well, which gives the grass an initial growth spurt when it emerges from dormancy in the spring.

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Drain Garden Hoses to Avoid Having to Buy New Ones

You may sometimes neglect to drain garden hoses before putting them away for the winter. Usually, it’s not a problem. But every once in a while, freezing water splits a hose open. You may have to replace a few cheap hoses, or maybe an expensive one or two(ouch!). That’s just wasted money because draining hoses is so quick and easy: Blast out the water with an air compressor or stretch them out on a sloped yard or driveway. If you need to buy a new garden hose, learn how to do a simple test, right in the store, to see if the hose will be kink-free!

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winterize lawn mowerFamily Handyman

Three Easy Winterization Steps for Your Riding Mower

Before your riding mower hibernates for the winter, take a few minutes to prevent springtime headaches.

  • Moisture inside an unused engine leads to corrosion. ‘Fogging’ the engine — spraying an oily mist into each cylinder — prevents this. All you have to do is remove the spark plugs and blast in some aerosol fogging spray (sold at auto parts stores). Then reinstall the spark plugs.
  • Storing a battery that isn’t fully charged can lead to permanent damage, especially in cold weather. Connect the battery to a battery charger and charge it until you get a reading of 12.7 volts.
  • Stored gas will slowly gum up the whole fuel system, and the repairs can be expensive. So add a fuel stabilizer such as STA-BIL or Seafoam to the gas tank before winter. (Adding stabilizer to your gas can year-round is also a good idea.) But remember that stabilizers aren’t effective in gas that contains ethanol. If you don’t know whether the gas contains ethanol, run the engine until the tank is empty.

Another tip: Cover the air intake and exhaust openings with plastic wrap or aluminum foil to keep critters from homesteading in your engine over winter.

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Tender Bulbs flower

Save Your Tender Bulbs

A lot of northern gardeners treat tender bulbs — such as calla lilies, caladiums and gladiolus — as annuals, allowing them to die at season’s end. Instead, overwinter them so they’ll be fit and healthy in the spring. To make it simpler, plant tender bulbs in containers. After frost kills the tops, whisk the containers into cool storage in a basement or attached garage. Water sparingly — maybe once a month — while they’re dormant so the soil doesn’t totally dry out, and bring the containers back out in spring.

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clean guttersFamily Handyman

Clear Those Gutter Spouts

This is an ongoing fall chore that you shouldn’t overlook — clean all those wet autumn leaves from gutter spouts before the blockages damage your gutters and your roof. Your plumber’s snake is a great tool for pulling clumps of wet leaves out of clogged downspouts. Check out more gutter-cleaning tips here.

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winterize lawn mower for storingFamily Handyman

Cut the Grass Short

First, rake and remove all of those dead leaves before the snow flies. Otherwise they’ll be sodden mats in the spring and smother the sprouting grass below. (Plus it’s lots easier to rake dry leaves!)

Then, just this one time of the year, set your mower to cut your grass short, at 1-1/2 or 2-inches. In cold climates, it will reduce the chance of snow mold forming. And tall grass blades won’t lie down and smother the new grass next spring.

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winterize sprinkler systemFamily Handyman

Winterize Your Sprinkler System

You can pay the irrigation company to blow out your sprinkler system every fall, or you can use your air compressor and do it yourself. You just have to be careful not to leave any water in the line or it might freeze over the winter and burst a pipe. Also be aware that even the largest home compressor isn’t powerful enough to blow out the entire system at once, so you’ll probably have to blow it out zone by zone.

If you’re into number crunching and you have the original irrigation layout showing the gallons per minute (gpm) of each sprinkler head, just divide the total gpm of each zone by 7.5. That’ll give you the cubic feet per minute (cfm) your compressor needs to blow out the zone. Otherwise, just rent a 10-cfm compressor and hose from your local tool rental center.

Set the compressor air pressure regulator to a maximum of 80 psi for rigid PVC pipe systems, or 50 psi for flexible black polyethylene pipe. Then turn off the water supply and set the system timer to open just one zone. Next, open the manual drain valve at the end of that zone (if equipped).

Close off both valves on the backflow preventer. Then remove the plug on the blow-out port and screw in a quick-connect hose adapter. Snap on the air hose and connect the other end to the compressor (see photo). Then blow out the line. The heads should pop up and spit out water. Disconnect the hose as soon as they run dry.

Don’t overdo the blow-out — without water cooling the plastic gears, they can melt in less than a minute. So move on to the next zone and allow the heads to cool. Then go back and blow out each zone a second time.

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Leaf Lawn FertilizerFamily Handyman

Mulch Leaves for Fall Grass Fertilizer

If you’re not a fan of raking leaves, then consider investing in a mulching mower. A mulching mower shreds leaves into tiny flakes that settle into the fall grass and decompose into natural fertilizer. You might have to go over some areas two or three times to completely chop up the leaves. Still, it’s fast, easy and it makes the grass happy — and there’s no raking involved!

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Snow blow driveway winterizationFamily Handyman

Get Your Property Ready for Snow

Before the snow flies, take a few minutes to inspect your property. Remove rocks, dog tie-out cables, extension cords, holiday light cords and garden hoses. Then stake out paths that run near gardens so you don’t accidentally suck up rocks and garden edging with your snowblower. Mark your walk and driveway perimeters by pounding in driveway markers. If the ground is already frozen, just drill a hole using a masonry bit and your battery-powered drill.

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Reseed Late in the Growing Season

For a healthy spring and summer lawn, reseed in the late summer/early fall. Whether you’re seeding a small patch or a whole yard, you’re going to be much more successful if you wait for the cooler, damper weather of late summer or early fall. It’s almost impossible to get seed to survive during the dog days of summer — in most regions, it’s simply too hot and dry.

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Aerate the Soil

‘Aerating’ simply means making holes in the ground by removing plugs of soil. And it’s the single most important task you can perform to maintain a healthy, good-looking lawn. It relieves compaction caused by foot traffic and creates extra pore space in the soil, allowing air, nutrients and water to enter. All of that helps roots to thrive.

Aerate your lawn at least once a year, preferably in the fall. Or do it twice or even three times each year if you can. You can rent a lawn aerator at any home and garden equipment rental store. Be sure to get one that actually removes plugs of soil rather than one that just pokes holes in the ground.