Fall Lawn Care Checklist for Cleveland

Close-up of a sprinkler head shooting water out onto a lawn

Is your Cleveland lawn prepared to handle the brittle cold and lake-effect snow this winter? Sure, we might grow cool-season grass here in Forest City, but that doesn’t make our turf immune to freezing temperatures. Our fall lawn care checklist for Cleveland will get your yard prepped for winter so it can make a comeback in spring. 

Our fall lawn care tips for Cleveland: 

  1. Rake the leaves
  2. Dethatch the lawn
  3. Aerate the soil
  4. Overseed
  5. Fertilize
  6. Apply pre-emergent herbicide
  7. Time the last mow
  8. Continue to water
  9. Winterize your irrigation system
  10. Prep the garden beds for winter

1. Rake the leaves

As the leaves begin to fall from your trees onto your lawn, it’s time to grab the rake from the shed. A layer of leaves covering the yard isn’t healthy for your grass, and we want your grass to be its healthiest when winter arrives. Rake dry leaves every few days and wet leaves as soon as possible. 

An excessive amount of leaves in the yard can: 

  • Prevent photosynthesis
  • Invite pests and diseases
  • Kill your turf

2. Dethatch the lawn

Graphic explaining thatch on grass

Just like a pedicure removes dead skin from our feet, dethatching removes dead (and living) organic matter from our lawns. This intertwining layer of dead and living organic matter is called thatch, and it accumulates between the soil and the grass blades. 

A little bit of thatch is good for the yard. A thin thatch layer acts as mulch for your turf, helping the soil conserve moisture. But once thatch is ½ inch thick or more, it becomes unhealthy for your lawn and should be removed. 

Too much thatch can: 

  • Encourage pests and disease 
  • Create poor drainage
  • Block nutrients, water, and oxygen from reaching the root system
  • Prevent herbicides, fertilizers, and insecticides from working effectively

Why we dethatch cool-season turf in fall: Similar to aeration, thatch removal is tough on grass. Autumn is the optimal time for turf to recover from these treatments. Removing thatch also should be performed before overseeding to expose the grass seed to soil. 

3. Aerate the soil

What is aeration? Aeration is the process of relieving compacted soil by removing cylindrical plugs of soil from the ground. Removing the soil creates small holes which allow water, oxygen, and nutrients to reach the roots. 

Fall is the best time of year to aerate cool-season lawns. Here’s why: 

  • Although summers in Cleveland are mild, the warmer temperatures are still a bit stressful on our turf. Aerating your lawn in autumn helps to relieve your turf of any compacted soil it developed in summer. 
  • A turf’s active growing season is the best time for recovery after an invasive treatment like aeration. 
  • Aerating the lawn before overseeding is an excellent way to expose grass seed to more soil. Overseeding cool-season turf is best done in fall, making fall an optimal time to aerate. 

4. Overseed 

infographic showing the best time for overseeding on the US map,

After a fun summer of cornhole and bocce ball, your yard might have a few patchy areas from all that foot traffic. Fall is the perfect time to plant new grass seeds in those areas. Autumn’s temperatures and growing conditions are just right for your new seedlings to germinate. 

When to overseed your lawn: The best time to overseed cool-season turf is early fall, at least 45 days before the first frost. Cleveland is in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zone 6, which means we can usually expect our first frost to occur sometime in October. 

How overseeding works: As the grass seed grows, your lawn’s patchy areas will gradually fill in. Those bare patches will be much less of an eyesore come springtime. 

5. Fertilize 

Summer is tough on your grass, so let’s give it a health boost with some fertilizer. But before you go showering your lawn with nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), make sure to refer to your recent soil test results. 

Remember, a soil test has several advantages. A soil test reveals: 

  • Nutrient deficiencies in the soil
  • The soil’s salt levels
  • pH imbalances
  • Soil factors that might be hindering your turf’s growth
  • The best fertilizers and soil amendments you can add to balance the soil and ensure healthy turf growth

Autumn is the best time to apply a majority of nitrogen fertilizer to your cool-season turfs. According to the Purdue Extension, fertilizing cool-season turf in fall

  • Promotes summer recovery
  • Enhances shoot density
  • Maximizes green color
  • Prepares the turf for winter
  • Does all of the above without a growth surge

What does N-P-K mean? Most fertilizers contain a ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Fertilizer labels often display the ratio in the order N-P-K. 

For example, a fertilizer package displaying 24-25-4 means it contains 24% nitrogen, 25% phosphorus, and 4% potassium. A soil test will reveal the best ratio for your turf.

6. Apply pre-emergent herbicide

Have you noticed weeds sprouting in your lawn in early spring? That’s because they’ve had all winter to germinate. If you want to help keep your lawn weed-free this spring, you can take preventative measures in the fall by applying a pre-emergent herbicide: 

How pre-emergent herbicide works: Pre-emergent herbicide creates a chemical barrier on the soil’s surface that prevents weed seeds from growing. It’s different from post-emergent herbicide, which kills weeds only after they’ve established, not before. 

A note about herbicide: Keep in mind that it’s not a good idea to overseed and apply herbicide at the same time. A pre-emergent herbicide will often prevent the grass seeds from growing, just like it does with weed seeds. 

Refer to the product label to determine when you can safely overseed. In many cases, you may have to wait until a later season to plant grass. You’ll have to decide which lawn care step, either applying herbicide or overseeding, is most important for your lawn this fall. 

7. Time the last mow

close-up of the back side of a lawn mower sitting on grass
Phil Roeder | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Once your autumn grass has stopped growing, give it one last mow and then put your lawn mower away for the winter. 

How low should you mow? You’ll read many places online that you should cut the grass shorter than usual on the last mow. But that might not be the best solution for your turfgrass. The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and the Colorado State University Extension recommend keeping your mowing height the same in fall. 

Why the last mow is important: You don’t want your lawn entering winter with long grass. If you skip the last mow of the season, your turf might become susceptible to snow mold and unattractive matting. 

Follow the one-third rule: Never cut off more than one-third of your grass’s blade length. For example, if your grass is 3 inches tall, don’t cut off more than 1 inch. Cutting off more than one-third of your grass can stress the turf and make it susceptible to weeds and disease. 

8. Continue to water

Even though temperatures are cooler in fall, we’ve still got to quench our turf’s thirst. 

But be careful: Only water the lawn when the temperature is above 40 degrees. The air temperatures might not be freezing, but cold winds can make tiny droplets of water freeze to the turf. According to the Colorado State University Extension, a layer of ice on the grass that persists for more than a month can suffocate the grass

Irrigation tips: 

  • The Oklahoma State University Extension and Purdue Turfgrass Science Program recommend determining when to water your lawn based on your grass’s appearance instead of following a set schedule. The ideal time to irrigate is when your lawn shows signs of needing water, such as wilting or a blue-grayish appearance. 
  • Most established lawns need about 1 to 1 ½ inches of water per week during the active growing season. Dormant lawns typically need about ½ inch of water per week. The precise amount of water your lawn needs varies depending on many factors, including windy days, air temperature, rain levels, your turf type’s drought tolerance, and how well your soil type retains moisture. Remember, the rule of thumb is to follow your lawn’s visual cues to determine how much water it requires. 
  • The best time to water the lawn is early in the morning. Avoid watering past 10 a.m. as the sun will evaporate the water. Watering before 8 a.m. is ideal. 
  • Evenings are not a good time to water. Although the sun might not be out to evaporate the water, water droplets will cling onto the grass and invite pests and diseases. 
  • When watering your lawn, remember to water infrequently for long periods to encourage a deep root system. Watering frequently for short periods will promote a weak and shallow root system. 

9. Winterize your irrigation system

No one wants to deal with frozen pipes when they can be enjoying their time at the toboggan chutes. Before the temperatures get too low, winterize your irrigation system to prevent the water inside from freezing. Otherwise, you’ll be left with burst pipes, cracked plastic, broken sprinkler heads, and money down the drain.

10. Prep the garden beds for winter

Want to give your flowers and vegetables a victorious spring growing season? The trick is to start prepping them in the fall. If you don’t winterize your garden beds, the cold temperatures can make your perennial plants susceptible to pests, disease, and weeds. 

A few winterization tips: 

  • Remove weeds and dead annuals–– they make great winter real estate for pests and disease. 
  • Divide the perennials so that they aren’t as competitive for space and nutrients next spring. 
  • Insulate the beds with mulch so that the soil temperatures are well regulated. Otherwise, your plants might grow too soon if soil temperatures rise on an unexpectedly warm day. 
  • Give the plants a big gulp of water before the cold temperatures arrive.

Fall prep puts the spring in your lawn’s step

We get it –– fall lawn care might not sound so appealing. But come springtime, you’ll finally get to see the fruits of your labor. From planting new grass seed to spreading fertilizer, fall lawn care gives your turf the nutrients and strength it needs to survive our harsh winter and rock ‘n’ roll in spring. 

And once the ground begins to thaw and the birds begin to sing, you can follow our spring lawn care checklist for Cleveland to get your lawn ready for summer. 

Too busy to mow the lawn? Don’t know how to work an aerator? Hire a local Cleveland lawn care pro to handle the hard work for you. Instead of mulching flower beds, pulling weeds, dethatching the lawn, cook yourself a bratwurst and kick your feet up. 

Main Photo Credit: Shaylor | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is an artist, writer, and nature lover. She enjoys teaching readers about the importance of eco-friendly lawn care, integrated pest management, biodiversity, and sustainable landscaping.