Benefits of Winterizing Your Lawn

small plant covered in snow

As the colder months roll in, it’s time to get your lawn ready for a long winter nap. Take some steps now to winterize your lawn and you can rest easy this winter knowing your lawn and equipment will be ready to go come spring.

What is winterization? 

Winterizing just means preparing for the cold weather. Winterization includes things like applying fertilizer, aerating your lawn, overseeding, liming, and properly storing your equipment.

Taking care of your lawn year-round is important, but fall is a critical time to address any lingering lawn issues and prepare it for the harsh winter. This will ensure your grass is healthy, well-fed, and ready to spring forward when the temperatures warm. It may take time to see the fruits of your labor, but trust us, it’s worth it!

5 ways winterization helps your lawn

1. Grow a deeper and stronger root system

The lawn of your dreams starts at the root. Grass needs strong, deep roots in order to get enough nutrients, stay resilient, and maximize water uptake. 

Shallow root systems are much more likely to lose nutrients due to leaching (when nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus move with water out of the roots). Leaching happens when the amount of water going into the soil is more than that soil layer can hold. When the soil can’t hold any more water, the water leaks down to the layers underneath. Soil close to the surface has a low water storage capacity, hence its susceptibility to leaching.

Leaching leads to:

  • Grass that’s dull in color or sparse
  • Grass with lower resiliency to foot traffic, drought, and extreme temperatures
  • Toxic soil that decreases the population of helpful bugs like earthworms
  • Increased chances of erosion due to weak root systems
  • More money spent on fertilizer that’s being wasted

Air it out with aeration

illustration showing how aeration works and the benefits of aerating soil

What is aeration? It’s a process where you create small holes in the soil in order to improve the circulation of air, water, and nutrients. Without aeration, you run the risk of soil compaction, which can starve your grass’s roots. 

Aerated soil encourages strong, healthy root growth and a more resilient turf. Make sure you aerate when your grass is still actively growing to avoid putting too much stress on it. If you have warm-season grass, hold off until spring to aerate.

2. Better chances of surviving winter

Are you the type to anxiously check the lawn every morning after a hard frost? Stop leaving your lawn’s survival up to chance. Taking steps in late fall to prepare your grass for the colder months greatly increases its chances of surviving until next spring. 

What does your lawn need to survive winter?

Colder months mean fewer nutrients available to your turfgrass. Photosynthesis can’t happen if the soil is too cold. That means grass doesn’t have chlorophyll to feed on, which is why it enters a dormant state. 

Because your grass is so vulnerable at this time, it needs protection from disease and damage. Raking, mowing, and late fall fertilization all help your grass defend against fungus and repair any injuries.

Raking

Raking doesn’t just keep things looking tidy: It helps prevent damage from snow mold. Snow mold is a fungal disease caused by compacted soil, matted foliage, and snow sitting for long periods of time on top of turfgrass. Raking gently loosens up affected areas and lets the soil dry out more quickly.

Mowing

Although you don’t need to mow once your grass has completely stopped growing, mowing into late fall benefits your grass. It helps fallen leaves decompose faster, adding organic material to the soil to act as fertilizer. For your last mow, set the height to 2-2.5 inches or the lowest height you reached that season (if lower than 2 inches). Grass that’s too tall runs the risk of getting matted with frost, which can lead to snow mold.

Fertilization 

Fertilization is the most important step you can take to help your lawn survive winter. During the summer, your grass’s root system is damaged by drought, heat, and stress. It needs nutrients in order to repair and continue growing.

Try applying a fertilizer that’s a mix of slow- and fast-release nitrogen fertilizer in late fall. The fast-release nitrogen helps quickly build carbohydrates to bolster repair work, and the slow-release nitrogen will keep feeding your lawn throughout winter so the roots can keep getting deeper and stronger.

3. Earlier “spring back” next year

By the tail end of winter, we’re all ready to see some green. If you feel like you’re waiting by the window for weeks to see something sprout, these winterization steps will help.

Lime your lawn

If you’re not familiar, lime is a material used to raise your soil pH. A neutral pH is 7.0; above 7.0 is alkaline (basic) and below 7.0 is acidic. All grass prefers a soil pH that’s slightly acidic to neutral (between 6.0 and 7.0), but if the environment is too acidic, grass is unable to take up essential nutrients. If the plant doesn’t have access to key nutrients, it can’t grow. 

Why do this before the winter? Lime takes time to break down and get into your soil, but you don’t want to apply it when your grass is totally dormant. If you apply it in the fall, your ground will be in tip-top shape come growing season. Not to mention, freeze-thaw cycles, rain, and snow help break down the lime.

Test your soil pH before liming. The most reliable way is to submit a soil sample to your local county extension office for testing. They’ll send a report back that includes how much lime to apply. 

Fertilization

Just like we mentioned above how fertilization helps your lawn survive the cold winter by boosting the grass’s root system, it also helps it spring back in spring. Lime increases your grass’s ability to use nutrients, but there have to be nutrients to use in the first place. That’s where fertilizer comes in. Applying fertilizer in late fall when the grass is still green but has stopped growing will ensure your ground is full of the nutrients needed for rapid growth in the spring. 

“Winterizer” fertilizer is mostly just a marketing term. For warm-season grasses, look for fertilizer high in potassium (or potash). Potassium helps with water and nutrient uptake, allowing grass to build thicker cell walls so it’s strong enough to withstand drought, heat, and disease. For cool-season grasses, look for one high in nitrogen. This speeds up grass growth and gives it a vibrant green color. 

Make sure you follow instructions carefully. Too much of a macronutrient like nitrogen can cause problems like fungal growth. A soil test also can determine your nitrogen and phosphorous levels to see if fertilization is necessary. If it’s been more than two years since you last fertilized, chances are your levels are low.

4. Dense grass growth in spring

At the end of the day, the best defense against weeds and disease is dense grass. If you’ve struggled with fungus or crabgrass making your lawn sparse, it can feel like a vicious cycle. There are a few winterization steps you can take that will get your turfgrass looking lush come spring.

Take care of your tools

Ah, the dreaded equipment upkeep task list. It is the one step people like to skip, but it is very important. Sharpening your mower blade isn’t everyone’s favorite Saturday afternoon activity, but it goes a long way in cultivating a healthy lawn.

Dull mower blades shred grass instead of slicing it cleanly. Why is this a problem? It injures the plant, which makes it less resilient to stress (like foot traffic or drought) and more susceptible to disease. All of that leads to a sparse lawn. 

illustration depicting the grass cut with a sharp blade vs a dull blade

The end of fall is a great time to perform lawn mower maintenance. Did you know a mower blade needs to be sharpened about every 20 hours of use? Your blade is probably dull from frequent use during the growing season, and now your first mow next year will be crisp. 

Reel mowers vs. rotary mowers: Are you using the best mower for your grass? The two most common types of residential mowers are reel and rotary which use different cutting techniques. Reel mower blades cut grass when the edge of a spinning blade meets the edge of the cutting bar. The cut is like the two blades of a pair of scissors meeting. Rotary blades hack horizontally like machetes (which can cause tearing). 

Rotary mowers are generally more appropriate for cool-season grasses (because they’re cut higher) while reel mowers are preferred for warm-season grasses. Fine fescue and colonial bentgrass are exceptions to the rule and do better with reel mowers. The right mower will decrease grass injury. 

Overseed

Overseeding is an essential to-do for dense grass growth. This is especially important if your lawn has suffered damage from a fungal disease like snow mold or dollar spot. If left untreated, weeds are likely to take over bare patches, and it will be hard to get your grass back.

Overseeding just means sprinkling more grass seed, sometimes of a different variety, over your existing lawn and sparse areas. Buying a mix of varieties will account for sun and shade preference and reduce the potential for disease because they help make up for each other’s weaknesses.

The mild fall weather is great for seed germination because the seed can retain water better and won’t suffer under the intense heat of summer. Spring weather is also ideal, but not if you’re planning to apply a pre-emergent herbicide, which will kill your chances of germination. 

5. Decreased chance of disease

Turfgrass disease can be exhausting to deal with. It can be hard to identify and difficult to treat once it sets in. Most fungal diseases (aside from snow mold) are most active in the spring and summer, so the colder months are a great time to get ahead of them.

Which winterization steps decrease your chances of lawn disease? All of them! 

  • Aerating compacted soil decreases puddles, which is where disease festers.
  • Liming creates a healthy soil pH for your quick, strong growth.
  • Overseeding creates a dense turf. Mixing species decreases the likelihood of disease taking hold.
  • Mowing frequently until your grass stops growing so you’re never removing more than ⅓ of the leaf blade in a single session.
  • Fertilizing in late fall gives your grass the proper nutrients to stay resilient. 
  • Raking breaks up snow mold and stops moisture being trapped under debris.
  • Maintaining your mower prevents leaf blade injury which is a common cause of disease.

When should you winterize?

Depending on where you live and what your climate’s like, the best time to winterize is anywhere from late October to late November or a few weeks before the first frost. The general rule of thumb is to wait until about the time of your last mow (if you’re applying multiple applications of fertilizer, this applies to your last round). How do you know when your last mow will be? Well, stop mowing when your grass stops growing! Usually, this happens when daytime temperatures drop below 50 degrees. 

Remember: You don’t want your grass to go into winter with a bad haircut. The ideal grass height is 2-2.5 inches — low enough to avoid snow mold and high enough to prevent stress from the cold months. 

Too busy enjoying the beautiful fall weather to winterize your yard? Hire a landscaping professional in your area to help meet all your lawn care needs.

Main Photo Credit: Hide Obara | Unsplash

Rachel Abrams

Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Rachel Abrams studied creative writing at the University of Virginia. She enjoys volunteering at her neighborhood community garden and growing herbs in her New York City apartment.