Fall Lawn Care Checklist for Camden

person standing among fallen leaves

New Jersey winters are nothing to sneeze at. Just like we stock up on coats, soup, and vitamin C, your lawn needs proper preparation for the cold months, too. 

Knowing when to take certain lawn care steps can be confusing. Our guide will walk you through each step of fall lawn care so you can feel confident that your Camden landscape will be healthier than ever come spring. 

1. Keep up with raking

You might be tempted to leave the crimson and orange autumn leaves on the ground and call it “decoration,” but the importance of raking goes beyond aesthetics. It’s important to rake once or twice a week, depending on how many deciduous trees you have in your yard. 

Why does raking matter?

Decomposing dead leaves cause a variety of problems, including:

  • Compacted soil
  • Blocking light, oxygen, and nutrients to your grass
  • Breeding ground for pests
  • Inviting lawn diseases 
  • Thatch buildup 

You might think decomposing organic material is good for your grass. It’s true that dry, dead leaves can be recycled as compost. But they need to go through a composting process with a nitrogen-rich item for a few months before being spread back onto the ground.  

2. Water until the ground freezes

Don’t turn your sprinklers off just yet. Just because the summer sun is fading doesn’t mean your grass doesn’t need water. Cool-season grasses, like the ones that grow in Camden, do grow in autumn. In fact, it’s an essential period for root growth, which plays a big role in your lawn’s success next year. 

Deep root systems are important because they allow the maximum amount of water and nutrients to enter the plant. This results in more resistance to injury, disease, and weeds. 

Tips for watering:

  • Water deeply but infrequently – 1-1.5 inches of water a week is a good rule of thumb
  • Keep an eye on the weather – if it’s rained more than 1 inch, you don’t need supplemental watering 
  • Water before 10 a.m. 
  • Maintain your sprinkler system 

Stop watering when the ground freezes. In Camden, the first freeze is usually in the beginning of November. 

3. Dethatch, if needed

illustration explaining thatch on grass

If you have a dense, healthy lawn with few weeds and no disease, you probably don’t need to dethatch right now. If you have any bare patches or a lot of weeds, you might consider it. Dethatching is the process of removing the layer of thatch from your lawn. It’s also known as “power raking” and “verticutting.” 

What is thatch? Thatch occurs when grass grows faster than dead materials can decompose. The dead leaves and grass get woven into the living grass, creating a spongy layer on top of the ground. A little thatch is good for your grass — it’s like the shock absorbers in sneakers. When it gets too thick, though, it blocks nutrients, water, air, and sun from reaching grass roots. 

How to tell if you need to dethatch: Cut out a triangle of turf 6 inches deep. Squeeze the spongy layer above the soil and measure it. If it’s more than ½-inch thick when squeezed, it’s time to dethatch. 

How to dethatch: 

  • Wait until right after you mow. 
  • Mow the grass at half its normal height. 
  • Use a dethatcher (you can rent this from a garden center) or a rake to pull up the thatch.

Why dethatch in the fall? Because cool-season grasses are actively growing and taking in nutrients in the fall, they can recover from injury faster. Fall is also a prime time to aerate, and it’s important to dethatch first so the aeration machine can reach the soil.

4. Aerate

illustration showing how aeration works and the benefits of aerating soil

Dethatching followed by aerating is the best facial a lawn can get, and early fall is the perfect time to do it. If you’ve ever seen a lawn with a bunch of small holes in it, it’s not tiny gophers; it’s probably aeration.

What is aeration? Aeration is the process of creating holes in your lawn (with a rake or an aerator) to make it easier for nutrients, air, and water to make their way through to grass roots. 

Aeration is also key for relieving compacted soil. Soil can become compacted overtime due to repeated traffic (like your dog running the same path over and over), doing yard work on too-wet soil, and mixing sand into clay soils. Core aeration can help relieve compaction.

Benefits of aeration: 

  • Reduced stormwater runoff
  • Increases disease resistance and drought tolerance
  • Reduces fertilizer needs
  • Can help smooth out uneven lawns 
  • Gives roots space to spread out
  • Boosts new grass growth, especially when overseeding

How do you aerate? You can use a rake or a spike aerator for spike aeration (these poke holes into the ground). You also can use a core aerator to remove plugs of soil. Core aeration makes a bigger impact on your soil, but is a more intensive process. 

5. Test your soil

You can’t tell everything from your soil just by looking at it. Soil is more than just dirt — it’s a complex system of minerals, organic matter, and living organisms, all of which influence the growth of your grass.

It’s a great idea to get a soil test in the fall so you know what kind of fertilizer to apply and if you need to make any soil amendments over the winter. If you’ve gotten your soil tested in the past three years, you can skip this step. 

What does a soil test tell you?

  • Nutrient levels and deficiencies
  • Salinity (salt) levels
  • pH levels (if your soil is acidic, neutral, or alkaline)
  • Recommendations for what additions your soil needs

You can get a soil test from Rutgers Cooperative Extension. They provide instructions for how to take a sample from your yard and send it in. It usually takes two weeks to receive a soil report, so plan accordingly. 

6. Overseed

After one too many outdoor cookouts, your lawn could have a few bald spots. Some patchiness is to be expected, especially if you have heavy foot traffic. Overseeding is an easy solution to getting a thick carpet of green again.

Overseeding is just the process of spreading new seed over an existing lawn (usually done with a seed spreader). Since fall is when cool-season grasses are putting down roots, it’s the best time to overseed in Camden. The best time to overseed is at least 45 days before the first frost. For New Jersey, that’s around mid-September. 

What kind of grass seed should you use? You don’t want to have a patchwork of textures on your lawn, so overseed with the grass planted in the rest of your landscape. This might be:

  • Perennial ryegrass
  • Kentucky bluegrass
  • Tall fescue
  • Fine fescue
  • A blend of any of the above

Pro Tip: For maximum growth, topdress your seeds after you spread them with a thin layer of fine, filtered compost. All you need is a quarter-inch of the nutritious material. Your seeds will thank you with quick, dense growth. 

7. Fertilize

Just like we take supplements when we’re sick, cool-season lawns need fertilization after the stress of summer. The boost will bring it back to life and guarantee as much growth as possible before the winter chill. 

Benefits of applying fertilizer:

  • More nutrients available to help repair damage
  • Encourages vigorous growth
  • Prevents weeds from taking hold
  • Keeps grass vibrant in color
  • Increases drought, heat, and cold tolerance
  • Prepares grass for winter
  • Other plants and trees in your landscape will receive the nutrients too

Lawn fertilizer contains three essential nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). N-P-K is the ratio of those nutrients within a particular fertilizer. Your soil test will let you know what ratio your soil will benefit most from. 

A note on phosphorus: Although it’s listed in the three key nutrients, choose a fertilizer without phosphorus unless your soil test says your lawn needs it. This means there will be a 0 in the middle of the N-P-K ratio. For example, 9-0-6. 

How to apply fertilizer:

  • Spread it on a dry day when the weather is supposed to be clear for the next two days 
  • After spreading the fertilizer with your choice of tool, lightly water your lawn to wash the fertilizer off the grass blades and into the soil
  • Don’t apply more than 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. Too much nitrogen can lead to fungal disease. 

Tips from the University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources for preventing fertilizer from polluting waterways: 

  • Use slow-release fertilizers
  • Use drop spreaders instead of rotary spreaders
  • Before watering, sweep any fertilizer on sidewalks or driveways back onto lawns
  • Avoid overwatering after fertilizing

8. Apply pre-emergent and post-emergent weed control

Ah, weeds — the enemy invaders in your pristine turf. The best way to block weeds is proper lawn care year-round. When your grass is strong and healthy, it crowds out weeds before they get a chance to establish themselves. 

However, herbicides can give you a hefty advantage if your lawn is struggling from poor care in the past. There are two types of herbicides: pre-emergent and post-emergent. 

Pre-emergent herbicides

Pre-emergent herbicides are applied during weeds’ germination period, before they’ve sprouted, and prevent weeds from growing. They create a chemical barrier at the soil surface, so they won’t do anything to developed weeds. 

Apply pre-emergent herbicides before you need to break out your winter coat. Usually, that’s early to mid-September. 

Post-emergent herbicide

Post-emergent herbicides are applied after weeds have already sprouted. There are several ways they kill weeds. Some are absorbed into the plant and others leave a coating that prevents photosynthesis. You can use selective herbicides if you’re targeting particular weeds.

Apply post-emergent herbicide whenever you see weeds in your yard. In the fall, usually that’s during the last weeks of summer and first weeks of spring.

Hold off on herbicide if you overseeded your lawn this fall. The harsh chemicals can hurt young seedlings. Instead, pick lingering weeds by hand and apply pre-emergent herbicide in the spring. 

9. Winterize your mower

There’s nothing worse than setting aside an afternoon on a warm spring day for your first mow of the season only to be met with silence when you try to turn it on. Winterizing your mower is more than just putting it in the shed, and it’s essential for avoiding corrosion and deterioration. 

How to winterize your lawn mower:

  • Empty the gas tank or add a fuel stabilizer.
  • Disconnect the spark plug.
  • Remove the blade to clean and sharpen it.
  • Clean the undercarriage with a cloth.
  • Replace the blade.
  • Change the oil.
  • Change the air filter. 
  • Replace the spark plug.

When should you winterize your mower? You can’t plan your last mow too far in advance. It’s simply when your grass stops getting longer. 

10. Winterize sprinkler system

Skipping winterizing your sprinkler system can result in severe, sometimes irreparable damage, to your irrigation system. Any water left inside will freeze in a New Jersey winter and can expand beyond its container.

When should you winterize your sprinklers? Because the first frost is usually in early November, winterize your sprinklers in mid-October at the latest. 

How to winterize a sprinkler system

There are three main ways to drain your sprinkler system of water. The user manual will tell you which method is best. The options are automatic sprinkler drain, manual drain, and blow-out. The blow-out method takes a lot of time and can be dangerous, so avoid it if possible. 

Automatic sprinkler drain:

  • Shut off the water supply or disconnect the sprinklers. 
  • Wait a few seconds as the sprinkler heads run.
  • When the pressure reaches a certain level, sprinklers will begin to drain themselves.

Manual sprinkler drain: 

  • Turn off the water supply. 
  • Open the manual valves to let the water drain out.
  • Save the backflow device for last. 

Blow-out method: 

  • Turn off the water supply. 
  • Put on safety goggles.
  • Connect an air compressor to your sprinkler system.
  • Turn on the sprinkler farthest away from the compressor.
  • Close the backflow valves.
  • Open the compressor’s valve, slowly adding more pressure until water comes out of the sprinkler head. Turn off the sprinkler head once the spray of water stops.
  • Repeat for each sprinkler head.
  • Release any remaining pressure in the system and make sure all the irrigation valves are closed. 

Fall lawn care benefits you year-round

Setting aside a few weekends in fall to prepare your lawn for winter will set you up for surprise in spring. But if you’d rather watch your favorite musicians at the High Caliber Festival on the Battleship New Jersey and bring your kids to the South Jersey Pumpkin Show, call a Lawn Love professional to complete your fall lawn care checklist for you. 

Main Photo Credit: Pixabay | Pexels

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.