Fall Lawn Care Checklist for Philadelphia

Young girl standing in a open area, surrounded by leaves and she is pulling leaves off of the bottom of a rake

When the leaves change color in Philadelphia, there’s a reason we call it “fall” — let the cleanup begin! Get your yard ready for winter by prepping it before the first snow flies.

Cool-season grasses are most suitable for Philadelphia yards. Most likely, the lawn is made up of Kentucky bluegrass (KBG), perennial ryegrass, or fine and tall fescues — or a blend of all three.

On the checklist for fall lawn care:

  1. Rake up or blow fallen leaves
  2. Mow one final time
  3. Test the soil pH before adding any chemicals or fertilizers
  4. Fertilize with synthetic or organic products
  5. Apply pre-emergent herbicide for weed control
  6. Overseed, if necessary
  7. Aerate to let your lawn breathe

1. Rake leaves

Having a yard with deciduous trees (and some evergreens) means leaf-raking is a necessary and unavoidable task. A few leaves on the ground won’t hurt, but heavy foliage will damage the lawn.

Wet leaves stick together and create vegetative mats. These rugs can suffocate the grass while breeding fungi and attracting insects.

Rake every few days or at least once a week. Leaf blowers make this chore easier, but only if you’re “blowing in the wind” because heavy breezes in the opposite direction make the job tougher. 

If raking, run a rake several times over the grass to keep thatch from developing. Thatch is a carpet-like rug of dead stems, living organisms, roots, and rhizomes that spread between the grass roots and soil. 

2. Mow for the final time of the season

Looking down onto a manual push mower mowing the lawn
Andrew Gustar | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

The lawn needs a final cut before the first frost of the season. In Philadelphia, the average time for the first autumn frost is the third week of November, but because the weather can change quickly in Pennsylvania, you’ll want to keep an eye on the forecast in October.

Set the mower blades for grass to be cut at 1 ½ to 2 inches high. Changing direction each time you mow and cutting in opposite patterns helps grass blades remain upright. Mow the lawn when it’s completely dry (that can be a challenge in October or November). Take care not to drop the mower’s cutting blades too low — cutting grass too short damages healthy root systems.

Leave grass clippings on the lawn to become natural fertilizer. A few leaves on the ground won’t hurt, but if you have heavily dropping deciduous trees in the yard, remove the fallen leaves before the last cut of the season.

3. Test the soil

Before applying any fertilizer or weed killers to the lawn, test the soil to determine its pH value. The pH is a measurement of hydrogen ion concentration — the more ions present, the more acidic the soil. The pH scale is 1 to 14; levels below 7.0 are acidic and above 7.0 are alkaline.

Soils around Philadelphia and surrounding areas vary. To find out what your soil is, you can purchase a test kit from your local garden store or send a sample to Penn State Cooperative Extension. Most soils in Philly are acidic, so you may need to add lime to keep the pH in balance. 

You should test your soil at least once every three years to get an accurate reading on your soil’s health.

4. Fertilize your lawn

When it comes to fertilizing, you must choose products best suited for the pH balance. Chemical fertilizers with the right amounts of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) are available, but natural products like bone matter, plant-based, and compost are better for the environment. 

Philadelphia lawns can be fertilized once or twice a year – mid to late spring and/or late summer/early fall.

5. Apply pre-emergent herbicide

As just about every homeowner knows, weeds are part of life. There are two types of herbicides to treat weeds:

  • Pre-emergent herbicide: Applied before weeds sprout, during their germination period; prevents weeds from growing; has no effect on existing weeds
  • Post-emergent herbicide: Applied after the weeds have already sprouted; kills existing weeds

Applying pre-emergent herbicides to tackle weeds like crabgrass might be effective if you can destroy the seeds before germination. In the fall, it is best to apply pre-emergent herbicides after the last mow of the season, before the soil temperature drops below 55 degrees.

Treating the lawn in autumn helps cut back on winter weeds like henbit, chickweed, corn speedwell, and dandelions. You won’t get rid of them completely because dandelions germinate in spring, but treating them in the fall means fewer seeds will survive the winter. Dousing the lawn with herbicide in the fall keeps perennial weeds from storing food and nourishing their roots. 

6. Overseed, if necessary

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

Got a few bare spots in the yard? Reseed the lawn with cool-season grass blends (KBG, fescues, ryegrass). Cool-season grasses germinate anytime the temperature is above 55 degrees, but the best time is in late September to mid-October when the grass is dormant. Reseeding in fall keeps you from having to work with wet, cold soil in the spring. It also allows grains to begin germination as soon as the soil begins to warm up in spring.  

Here’s how to DIY:

  • Test the soil. A pH level between 6.5 and 7.0 is ideal for most Philly lawns.
  • Remove weeds and apply a broadleaf herbicide. (Tip: If perennial weeds return every year, and the lawn is covered by 50 percent or more, consider tearing everything out and starting over).  
  • Purchase premium seeds. Good products fight drought, disease, infertile soil, and insects. The National Turfgrass Evaluation Program can help you determine the best seeds available — something to know before visiting a garden store. Mixes of KBG, fescues, and ryegrass vary depending on how much sunlight an area gets. Some bags may be labeled as “sunny lawns,” “sun/shade mix,” or “shade mix.” If the area has a lot of foot traffic or is generally hot and dry, consider a grass seed that’s completely turf-type tall fescue.
  • Rake the dead grass and other debris. Loosen the soil.  
  • Scatter seeds over the soil and bury them about a 1/4 inch deep. (Tip: Read the seed bag instructions — applications vary by whether the ground is bare or just a bit thin).
  • Cover bare areas with a light layer of straw.
  • Water consistently — the soil must always be damp. Monitor soil moisture until the ground freezes (usually around Thanksgiving).
  • Stay off the grass! If weeds crop up, don’t worry, you can treat them in the spring.

7. Aerate to let your lawn breathe

Grass roots need water, air, and food to grow. But the turf struggles when soil becomes compacted. In fact, a layer of grass 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick can be choking on itself because water and nutrients cannot reach the roots. Aerating the lawn gives sod more room to store water, oxygen, and nutrients. 

The best time to aerate is always during your grass’s growing season, which for Philadelphia’s cool-season grasses means either fall or spring. But to avoid weeds growing and competing with your grass growth in the summer, the best time to aerate is in the fall. Small yards are relatively easy to aerate with a hand-corer, but for bigger jobs, you may want to hire a professional.

A little fall lawn prep goes a long way

There’s nothing like that first cut in spring when the grass is fresh and fragrant. But after mowing it every week throughout spring, summer, and fall — especially if you have more than one acre — this chore can become tiresome. Still, if you want that sweet carpet of green grass next year, prepping it for winter keeps the turf solid and ready for spring. 

Need some help from a professional? Check out lawn services in Philadelphia for a pro connection that will help you take your “to do” list to an “it’s done” list.

Main Photo Credit: Needpix.com

Teri Silver

Teri Silver is a journalist and outdoor enthusiast who spends her weekends mowing her 5-acre lawn and puttering around in 3 gardens. The best parts of the year are summer and fall, when home-grown veggies are on the dinner table.