When the leaves turn golden, orange, and red, it’s tempting to take to the hills for long Hudson Valley bike rides, family apple-picking, and haunted hayrides. But before you jump into the fall fun, check off these basic to-do’s to get your Albany lawn tucked in for a long winter.
With our frigid temperatures and snowy weather, Albany lawns and gardens need extra care in autumn to prepare for spring success. Follow these 11 tips to ensure grass is healthy and ready to grow once the weather warms.
- 1. Rake regularly
- 2. Keep watering until the ground has frozen
- 3. Dethatch, if needed
- 4. Aerate to give roots room to grow
- 5. Test your soil, if needed
- 6. Overseed before the first frost
- 7. Fertilize for strong growth
- 8. Control weeds with herbicide
- 9. Time your last mow
- 10. Winterize your sprinklers
- 11. Tuck in your garden
- Hire a pro to prepare your Albany lawn for winter
1. Rake regularly
“So, where are all the trees?” is a question no one’s ever asked while visiting Albany. From red maples to white oaks to pagoda dogwoods, we have no shortage of gorgeous deciduous trees, which means loads of fall color — and a fair amount of raking.
Rake your leaves every three to four days to keep your lawn healthy. Why? Dead leaves prevent sunlight, water, and nutrients from reaching your soil and grass roots, which causes soil compaction and invites disease and pests.
By raking in fall, you’ll keep your soil healthy, loose, and oxygen-rich for strong grass growth in spring.
Pro Tip: Don’t toss your dead leaves in the trash! Either mow them and leave them on your grass to decompose, or compost them to spread over your lawn or garden in spring. Shredded leaves are an excellent organic mulch that’ll give your grass a nutrient infusion.
2. Keep watering until the ground has frozen
As the weather cools, it’s tempting to retire the sprinklers and ditch the hose, but keep up your watering routine until grass stops growing and the ground freezes.
A big secret to Albany lawn success? We grow cool-season grass here, which means it grows most productively in spring and fall (not summer!). So, fall watering is vital to vigorous growth, strong roots, and winter survival. Give your grass 1 inch of water per week.
When to stop watering in fall: Stop watering after our first hard freeze, typically in late October to early November. A hard freeze is when the air temperature falls below 28 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s cold enough for both the air and the ground to freeze.
Follow these watering tips for Albany lawn success:
- Water in the morning before 10 a.m. to minimize evaporation from the midday sun. Do not water at night, as this will invite diseases and pests.
- Water deeply and infrequently (once or twice a week) to encourage deep root growth. Shallow, frequent waterings train grass roots to stay near the soil surface, which makes them weaker and less drought-resistant.
- Avoid watering your grass when temperatures dip below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The air temperature may not be freezing, but frosty winds can cause a sheet of ice to form overnight and suffocate your grass.
- Do not water grass when there is snow cover, as this can cause grass suffocation and matting.
3. Dethatch, if needed
If your grass looks thin and patchy, or if weeds are invading, your lawn may need to be dethatched so grass roots can get the nutrients they need. Dethatching is the process of vigorously raking the soil surface to remove the layer of thatch from your lawn.
What is thatch? Thatch is the layer of dead organic matter (like leaves and grass particles) that lies between blades of grass and the soil surface. A little bit of thatch is healthy: It insulates the soil and gives grass roots a nutrient boost. But, when the thatch layer gets too thick (over half an inch), it prevents water, air, sunlight, and nutrients from reaching grass roots.
How to tell if you need to dethatch: Insert a measuring stick into your grass and measure the spongy brown layer of matter between your grass and the ground. If it’s over half an inch thick, it’s time to dethatch.
How to remove thatch: Deeply rake your soil surface using a manual dethatcher, electric dethatcher, power rake, or verticutter. For smaller areas, a manual or electric dethatcher may be sufficient. For larger lawns, opt for a power rake or verticutter.
Benefits of dethatching:
- Increases the flow of nutrients and oxygen
- Strengthens roots and encourages deep growth
- Exposes young grass shoots to sunlight
- Improves the effectiveness of fertilizer
- Controls weeds and reduces the need for herbicide
- Reduces susceptibility to disease, fungus, and pests
- Saves water
- Reduces runoff pollution
When to dethatch: Dethatch in late August to mid-September, when our cool-season grass is still actively growing. Dethatching is temporarily stressful for your grass, so it’s important to give it time to recover before the winter freeze.
How often to dethatch: Most Albany homeowners don’t need to dethatch every year, as dethatching is only necessary when the thatch layer gets too thick. With proper mowing, watering, raking, and fertilizing practices, you’ll only need to dethatch every few years.
4. Aerate to give roots room to grow
Think aeration and dethatching are the same thing? Think again! While they’re often done in succession, aeration and dethatching accomplish different goals. Aeration is the process of poking holes in your soil to alleviate compaction, give roots a space to grow, and increase the flow of nutrients.
Imagine your lawn is getting a facial. Dethatching removes the first layer of dead skin (or, in this case, thatch). Then, aeration exfoliates the pores so your lawn can breathe again.
- Gives roots space to spread
- Increases the flow of nutrients, air, and water
- Loosens soil and reduces compaction
- Encourages dense, green grass growth
- Increases your grass’s drought resistance
- Reduces fertilizer and pesticide needs
- Increases resistance to disease, fungus, and pests
- Increases the population of beneficial soil organisms like bacteria and earthworms
- Reduces runoff and erosion
When to aerate: Like dethatching, aeration is a strenuous process, so it’s important to give your grass time to recover before the cold winter weather. Aerate your lawn in early fall, right after dethatching. It’s easiest to aerate when the thatch layer is freshly removed.
How often to aerate: Aerate your lawn every year or every other year, based on the condition of your lawn. If kickball games, hide and seek, and puppy rampages are frequent occurrences in your yard, it’s a good idea to aerate every year. Otherwise, Albany’s loamy Honeoye soil is fairly resistant to compaction, so every other year may be sufficient.
Pro Tip: Leave soil cores on your lawn after aerating. They’ll act as natural compost and work their way back into your soil within two to four weeks. It’s a great idea to overseed your lawn after aeration while the soil is open.
5. Test your soil, if needed
Is your soil due for a checkup? If it’s been over three years since your soil was tested, or if you’re about to make a big landscaping change, it’s time to order a pH and nutrient analysis.
The Albany County Soil and Water Conservation District offers affordable soil pH and nutrient testing to Albany homeowners. They’ll sample your soil, fill out the paperwork, and send the sample for testing. In one to two weeks, you’ll get your complete soil report, including fertilizer and lime recommendations.
A soil test tells you:
- Your soil’s nutrient levels and deficiencies
- pH levels (acidic, neutral, or alkaline)
- Salinity (salt) levels
- Soil issues that may be stunting plant growth
- What organic or synthetic additions your soil needs
With your soil report in hand, you can make the necessary soil amendments for your grass and plants to thrive. With Albany’s slightly acidic Honeoye soil, you may need to give your garden a dose of wood ash or lime to raise the pH.
Test your soil every three to five years or when you’re making a big lawn change, like transitioning from a turfgrass backyard to a wildflower meadow.
Pro Tip: Don’t send in wet soil samples. Wait until a dry day to test your soil. If you’re taking your own samples, follow the Albany County Cornell Cooperative Extension’s instructions for sampling your soil.
6. Overseed before the first frost
Did the last kickball game of summer do a number on your lawn? If your lawn has bare patches, fall is the perfect time to overseed. Remember, fall is an especially productive season for our cool-season grass, which means grass seeds are itching to sprout.
When should I overseed? Spread seeds at least 45 days before the first frost to give seedlings time to establish before the cold snap. In Albany, our first frost typically occurs in early October, so plan to overseed in late August to early September.
What type of grass seed should I use? To ensure evenness in color and texture, overseed your grass with the grass variety used in the rest of your lawn. For Albany homeowners, that usually means Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, fine fescue, or a blend of these grass types.
Topdress your seeds with a quarter-inch layer of compost and keep seeds moist as they germinate.
7. Fertilize for strong growth
Want to give your grass a nutritious snack before it goes dormant for the winter? The perfect time to fertilize your Albany lawn is in September, when grass is growing and the soil is just beginning to cool off.
If your lawn grows beautifully without fertilizer, stick to your lawn routine and skip the fertilizer. However, if your lawn needs a green boost, slow-release fertilizer will do the trick.
The Albany County Cornell Cooperative Extension recommends spreading fertilizer zero to four times each year, depending on the foot traffic and use your lawn receives.
|Level of |
|How often to |
|When to fertilize|
|Light or no |
|0 – 1||September |
(or not at all)
|1 – 2||September |
|Heavy foot |
|3 – 4||September, |
According to Purdue University, applying fertilizer:
- Encourages continuous, dense grass growth
- Prevents weed intrusions
- Protects grass’s rich green color
- Encourages rapid recovery from damage
- Improves drought, heat, and cold tolerance
- Increases disease and pest resistance
- Prepares turf for winter
What is N-P-K? N-P-K is the ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (the three most essential lawn nutrients) that a fertilizer contains. For example, a fertilizer with an N-P-K ratio of 9-0-6 contains 9% nitrogen, 0% phosphorus, and 6% potassium. Your soil test results will tell you the best N-P-K ratio for your lawn.
Unless your soil test report says your lawn requires phosphorus, do NOT apply a fertilizer that contains phosphorus. New York State law forbids the use of phosphorus fertilizer on existing lawns unless it’s specifically needed. Choose fertilizer with a middle zero in the N-P-K ratio (ex. 12-0-4).
Guidelines for applying fertilizer:
- Spread fertilizer on a dry day, when there is no rain predicted in the next two days.
- Lightly water after applying fertilizer to help the fertilizer percolate into the soil. Use about a quarter-inch of water.
- Do not apply more than 1 pound of nitrogen (N) per 1,000 square feet per application.
- Do not apply fertilizer within 20 feet of a water body.
- Do not apply fertilizer between Nov. 1 and April 1. When the ground is frozen, fertilizer will run off into the Hudson River and pollute the water.
8. Control weeds with herbicide
Grass isn’t the only plant that thrives in fall. Cool-season weeds love to sprout as the weather cools. A healthy, well-fertilized lawn is always the best defense against leafy intruders, but herbicide can help if your lawn leans toward the weedy side.
Apply pre-emergent herbicide to stop fresh weeds from taking root, and spray post-emergent herbicide to eliminate existing stubborn weeds.
Pre-emergent herbicide prevents weeds from germinating by creating a chemical barrier at the soil surface. Spraying pre-emergent herbicide is a proactive way to manage weeds before they appear, so you won’t have to get your hands too dirty in spring.
Pre-emergent herbicides are excellent at preventing these common Albany weeds:
- Buckhorn plantain
When to apply pre-emergent herbicide: Early to mid-September.
Pro Tip: Hold off on the pre-emergent herbicide if you’re planning to overseed your lawn this fall, as herbicide can prevent germination and stunt the growth of seedlings. Instead, weed by hand or spot spray with post-emergent herbicide as weeds appear.
Though pre-emergent herbicide is your best line of defense, some strong-willed weeds may still rear their heads. Spray post-emergent herbicide to vanquish pesky summer annuals and persistent perennials.
Post-emergent herbicides will kill tough weeds like:
- Ground ivy
- Yellow nutsedge
- Creeping speedwell
When to apply post-emergent herbicide: Mid-September, when temperatures are still above 50 degrees Fahrenheit and weeds are actively growing.
9. Time your last mow
Keep on mowing until your grass stops growing! Once you notice your grass isn’t getting longer, give your grass a final cut before the snow starts to fall.
Cutting your grass to the right height is especially important for the final mow. A lawn that’s mowed too high can get matted or develop unattractive snow mold over the winter, while grass that’s cut too short can’t photosynthesize properly and may die in our frigid temperatures.
In general, the ideal grass height for the last mow is 2.5 inches. However, your lawn’s specific mow height depends on your grass type. Here’s how high to mow your cool-season grass.
|Common grass type in Albany||Recommended mowing height|
|Kentucky bluegrass||1.25 – 1.5 inches|
|Turf-type tall fescue||1.5 – 3 inches|
|Perennial ryegrass||1.5 – 2.5 inches|
|Fine fescue (like Chewings and creeping red)||1.5 – 2.5 inches|
Follow the one-third rule. Never cut more than one-third of your grass’s total height in a mowing session. If you mow too low, you could damage your grass and leave your grass vulnerable to diseases and pest infestations.
Keep your mower blades sharp. Dull mower blades increase fuel use by up to 20% and tear off the tops of grass blades instead of giving them a clean cut.
Pro Tip: Mow your lawn with a mulching mower and let grass clippings lie on your lawn to decompose. They’ll act as organic mulch and return nutrients to the soil. In fact, grass clippings can reduce your lawn’s need for nitrogen by 25% to 50%, which means greener grass with less fertilizing.
10. Winterize your sprinklers
The birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and … your sprinklers are leaking all over your lawn. No one wants to wake up to the first day of spring only to discover damaged pipes, cracked plastic, and broken sprinkler heads. Protect your irrigation system by winterizing it in early October, before Albany’s first hard freeze.
With our frigid temperatures, even a small amount of water at the bottom of the pipes can cause cracking and fissures as the water freezes and expands. So, you’ll need to do more than just shut off the water and quickly drain the pipes.
To winterize your sprinklers, you’ll need to “blow out” all the water from the system using compressed air. Make sure you’re wearing proper eye protection, and then follow our step-by-step instructions to prep your sprinklers for winter.
Note: Blowing out your sprinklers can be a complicated process and a risky DIY project. It’s a good idea to call an Albany pro to winterize your irrigation system for you.
11. Tuck in your garden
It’s time to sing your flowers and veggies a lullaby and tuck them in for a long, cold winter. Winterizing your garden protects your plants from damage and disease so they’ll grow back strong in spring.
Here in Albany, a blizzard could snap off branches and flatten perennials, or a sudden cold front could lower the soil temperature and damage plant roots.
Here’s how to prepare your garden for Albany’s tough winters:
- Clean out dead weeds and annuals for a tidy, disease-free garden bed. (Leave annual roots in the soil, as they’ll improve the soil as they decompose.)
- Prune and trim overgrown branches and stems.
- Divide overgrown perennials so roots have space to spread in spring.
- Mix compost into your soil to decompose over the winter. Come spring, you’ll have rich, loamy soil perfect for plant growth.
- Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch (like wood chips or compost) around your plants to insulate the soil and protect roots from sudden temperature fluctuations.
- Tie your shrubs and large perennials with jute or twine to protect branches from snow damage.
- Install a burlap screen around plants to shield them from winter winds and salt spray from the roads.
- Bring potted warm-weather plants indoors for the winter months.
- Give your garden a deep watering one last time before daily temperatures fall below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pro Tip: Wait until spring to plant a new garden. In the meantime, spread a layer of compost or mulch over the planting area, plan out your garden design, and pick out your favorite native plants so you’re ready to garden when spring arrives.
Hire a pro to prepare your Albany lawn for winter
From picking the perfect pumpkin at Engelke Farm to getting spooked at the Field of Horrors, the Albany area has no shortage of fall festivities. But before you make a mad dash for the apple cider donuts or jump on a hayride, it’s important to prepare your lawn for a cold, snowy winter. Start planning in mid-August to get your lawn tucked in, so the first frost doesn’t give you the wrong type of jump scare.
If you’d rather enjoy the Fallbany Art and Craft Market than put your garden to bed, hire a team of Albany lawn care pros to prepare your Hudson River lawn for a gorgeous green spring.
Main Photo Credit: jwvein | Pixabay