Prepare Your Yard For Winter

by Coldwell Banker Evergreen Olympic Realty, Inc. on September 21, 2011

As you enjoy these beautiful fall days, it is the perfect time to prepare your lawn and garden for the winter.  Doing so now will help your yard look its best when spring next rolls around.  Following are a few tips we gathered from MSN Real Estate and Better Homes and Garden.  For the best information about plant hardiness in our area check out the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map at

Ten Tips for a healthier yard and lawn:

1. Time to fertilize the lawn.   Fall is the most vital time to feed your lawn.  “From mid to late September the first fertilizer application should happen and be high in nitrogen. The second application, roughly about Thanksgiving but before the ground is frozen, should be a fertilizer that’s high in phosphorus, which will prepare the plant for next year”, recommends, Jim Welshans, Penn State University. A good way to determine if you’re giving your lawn what it needs is to get a soil test.  The test will inform you of the soils pH and nutrient levels, and provide recommendations for fertilizer amounts.  Further, homeowners can crush fallen leaves to create a fine mulch on their lawn. 

2. Repair summer’s damage. Now is a great time to repair a damaged lawn and reseed. Help the seeds take root by top-dressing them with up to one-quarter-inch compost or soil.  Don’t forget to water!

3. Don’t put away the hose. While we wait for our famous Pacific Northwest rains, watering shouldn’t end on Labor Day. Generally speaking, says Mugaas, a lawn should get an inch of water every 14 to 21 days. The ground should be moist as it heads toward winter, but not soggy, which could encourage mold.

4. Go easy on the pruning. Pruning promotes growth, and you don’t want to encourage growth when plants are preparing to go dormant for winter. There are some exceptions, so call your local cooperative extension service if you have doubts about a particular tree.  Now, is, however a good time to cut off dead wood so insects have no place to hide.

5. Cover your garden plot. To prep your garden for winter, plant a nitrogen-rich cover crop like clover that you can simply turn under come spring, suggests Elaine Anderson, program coordinator for the Washington State University/King County Extension Master Gardener Program. Or, “a lot of people just cover the beds in burlap — keeps the weeds down. That’s fine.”

6. Transplant away! The experts agree: Autumn is a great time to transplant trees and shrubs. Planting trees in the fall provides a longer growing season for tree roots to establish without other stresses such as heat.  “This allows the tree to put all of its energy into root growth” explains, Shane Harris, a regional extension agent in east-central Alabama.

7. Mulch!  Mulch!  Mulch! Most likely, the organic mulch you spread to protect the soil during the summer months has substantially decomposed. It’s important to spread new mulch now — a thicker winter layer — to protect plants and soil over the winter months. The idea is not so much to keep the soil warm as it is to keep the temperature even. Once the soil is frozen, mulch keeps it frozen. So if you have shade trees, convert the fallen leaves to mulch and use it throughout your property.  Pull the mulch away from the tree trunk a bit to make it less of a home and meal for voles, chipmunks and mice during the winter. 

You may also mulch perennial and shrub beds with pine needles or chopped leaves. This protects both plant roots and the soil and moderates the effects of extreme temperature changes during winter freezes and thaws.

8. Flower Beds.  Flower beds don’t need a ton of work, but there are some things you can do. One recommendation is to clean out perennials — things that have a lot of dieback on them.  The northwest’s wet springs can keep a lot of moisture in the soil, promoting rot in plants like peonies that have heavy root systems. Experts recommend leaving ornamental grasses in place because they look beautiful in the winter.

9.  Do you have a pond?  Now is the time to clean it.  In particular, netting out the abundant leaves that, upon decay, build up the nutrients and cause spikes in ammonia levels that are harmful to fish, says Brett Fogle, president and owner of Florida’s MacArthur Water Gardens.  If it’s a small pond, you might consider tossing a cover over it from late fall through the winter. Consider using a bacterial additive in the water — microbes that speed the decomposition of leaf scum, fish waste, etc., says Fogle. Also, he says, it’s a good idea to drain your pond by 25%-50% for the winter months.

10. Think spring.  Now is the time to plant bulbs for spring. They’re not very expensive, and they give you something to look forward to. Another tip: “It seems sort of counterintuitive to go shopping for plants right now,” says Anderson, of the King County Master Gardener program. But she suggests buying perennials that are in bloom now, so you know what they’ll look like later. In the Pacific Northwest, that could mean hardy perennials like yarrow and asters.

Fall gardening will get you outside and bring great joy when spring is again here!

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