Fall Lawn Care Checklist for Rochester

Close-up of a green rake with leaves trapped beneath it's tines

When you live in a place known as Flower City, having a lackluster landscape is nothing short of scandalous. As any home gardener should know, the foundation of every beautiful landscape is a well-maintained lawn. But lawn care can get complicated, especially since lawns need different things at different times of the year. 

In fall, it’s time to prep your lawn for the tough winter ahead and give it a jump-start on healthy growth next spring. How do you do that? You can start by following the 11 steps on our fall lawn care checklist for Rochester. 

  1. Keep watering until the ground freezes
  2. Be diligent about raking leaves
  3. Dethatch if needed
  4. Aerate if the soil is compacted
  5. Overseed before the first frost
  6. Test your soil annually
  7. Fertilize for robust growth
  8. Apply pre-emergent and post-emergent weed control
  9. Plan your last mow of the season
  10. Winterize your sprinkler system
  11. Prepare plant beds for winter

Follow these steps, and who knows? Maybe your home will be a tourist stop at next year’s Lilac Festival.  

1. Keep watering until the ground freezes

Sprinkler that is on and sitting in a yard
Meredith Harris | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

If you’re serious about lawn care, there’s something you should know about the cool-season grasses that grow in Rochester. They’re still growing throughout much of autumn. This point in the year might actually be the most important growth period for your grass because the roots are primarily what grows in fall. 

A deep, healthy root system is essential for your lawn to survive winter and begin next spring with weed-free, pest-free, and disease-free new growth. You must continue to provide your lawn with about 1 inch of water per week during this period of root growth if you want that system to develop. 

As always, the best way to encourage root development in fall is to water the grass deeply and infrequently, instead of frequent shallow watering. Beware of overwatering, too, since too much water encourages fungal growth and lawn diseases. Keep an eye on the weather. Your lawn won’t need supplemental watering if rain provides 1 inch of water each week. 

Don’t stop watering the lawn until the ground freezes. In Rochester, that usually happens in mid to late November. 

2. Be diligent about raking leaves

Did you know cleaning up the leaves that litter your lawn every fall is about more than just appearances? Raking leaves regularly before they have a chance to build up is vital for your lawn’s current and future health. Even though this chore can be a pain (figuratively and literally), you should rake your yard every three or four days throughout the fall.

A thick layer of leaves will block the sunlight and water your grass needs for photosynthesis, preventing that important fall root growth we talked about earlier. Consistent debris buildup also will create ideal conditions for pests and lawn diseases, which will haunt you well into next year if you let them develop. 

3. Dethatch if needed

Graphic explaining thatch on grass

Think of dethatching as a deeper, more intense raking that not only clears surface debris but also the thatch underneath. An alternate name for dethatching is actually “power raking.” Yet another common word for this process is “verticutting.”

You may not need to dethatch every year, but you will need to dethatch if:

  • Thatch in your lawn has built up to more than ½ inch thick 
  • You plan to aerate the lawn

What is thatch? Thatch is the layer of plant debris that builds up between the soil and the grass and then eventually decomposes into the soil and adds nutrients. If the layer of thatch in your yard is more than ½ inch thick, that means it’s building up faster than it can decompose.

Why should you remove excess thatch? Too much thatch will have the same effects as too many leaves building up in the lawn. A layer of thatch thicker than ½ inch can smother the grass and limit its growth. All that decomposing debris also increases your lawn’s risk of hosting pests or developing fungal diseases. 

When should you dethatch the lawn? For Rochester’s cool-season grasses, fall is the best time to dethatch, since the grass is actively growing and should be able to recover from the process quickly. You also should dethatch any time before you aerate the lawn so the aeration machine has unblocked access to the soil.

4. Aerate if the soil is compacted

There’s a common misconception that aeration and dethatching are interchangeable. While they often go together, these two aren’t the same thing and don’t serve the same purpose.

Aerating the lawn does NOT remove thatch. Aeration goes even deeper, loosening the soil itself. In the process of aeration, a special machine called a core aerator literally pokes holes in compacted soil to give roots more breathing room and easier access to water and nutrients in the soil. 

Note: Just like with dethatching, you may not need to aerate your lawn every year. Aeration is only necessary if your soil becomes so compacted that it limits the grass’s growth. 

When is the best time to aerate the lawn? The best time to aerate is always during your grass’s growing season, which for Rochester’s cool-season grasses means either fall or spring. Beware that if you aerate in spring, your lawn will be more susceptible to weeds throughout summer. So really, fall is the best time for you to aerate.

5. Overseed before the first frost

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

Remember that fall is the growing season for your cool-season grass. Early fall is the best time to overseed these grasses because the new grass will grow healthier and develop stronger roots than it would in spring or summer.

To give new seedlings plenty of time to establish roots before going dormant, overseed about 45 days before the first frost of the year. In Rochester, the first frost usually occurs in the middle of October, so you should overseed in early or mid-September for the best results. 

What is overseeding? Overseeding is basically planting more grass in sparse or unhealthy sections of the lawn, resulting in thicker turf. 

6. Test your soil annually

A professional soil test will let you know what your soil lacks so you can amend the soil to fill in those weak spots. The results of your test might suggest adding lime, phosphorous, organic material, or other supplements to the soil. 

You can have your soil tested locally through Cornell University’s Monroe County extension office.

Did you already test your soil in the spring of this year? If so, there’s no need to do it again in the fall. You can use the same results from your previous test to determine what amendments your soil needs. It’s a good idea to test the soil annually, or at least every few years. 

7. Fertilize for robust growth

Agriculture experts at Cornell University recommend one of two yearly fertilizing schedules for cool-season grasses in Rochester:

Number of fertilizer applications per yearWhen to apply fertilizer
2Late spring > Early fall
3Late spring > Early fall > Late fall

It’s up to you to decide if your lawn needs two or three fertilizer applications a year. If you’ve traditionally only done two applications and you aren’t satisfied with your lawn’s growth, you might want to experiment with the three-application schedule this year. 

Note: If you’re going to fertilize in late fall, do it after the last mow of the season. The date of the last mow will vary, but it usually falls in early to mid-November. 

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

It’s always better (and easier) to prevent weeds in the first place than to try and get rid of them once they’re established. The best way to prevent weeds is to take care of your lawn year-round. A healthy lawn will choke out weeds instead of the other way around. 

If proper lawn care maintenance isn’t enough to keep the weeds at bay, you can try herbicides as an alternative. There are two types of herbicides:

  • 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

Every fall, you should apply a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent cool-season weeds that pop up in winter and early spring, including these common weeds in the Rochester area:

  • Shepherd’s purse
  • Chickweed
  • Wild oat

When should you apply pre-emergent herbicides in fall? You should apply pre-emergent herbicides before temperatures start to cool down, which usually means September in Rochester. 

You also may need to apply a post-emergent herbicide in fall to kill off any lingering summer annuals that tough out the cooling temperatures. Some common summer annual weeds for Rochester that might stick around through fall include:

  • Dandelion
  • Galinsoga
  • Ivyleaf morning glory
  • Plantain

When should you apply post-emergent herbicides in fall? You’ll have to play this one by ear. Summer weeds should die off on their own as temperatures begin to drop. If you still see a large amount of these weeds in your yard in September, it may be time to turn to herbicides. 

9. Plan your last mow of the season

person using a manual push mower to cut the grass
Cindy Shebley | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Some experts recommend cutting your grass shorter than usual for the last mow of fall, while others say it’s better to keep the cutting height the same. Whether you go shorter for the last mow or not, be careful not to “scalp” your lawn. Scalping occurs when you cut the grass too short, causing damage and stress. A scalped lawn may not survive winter.

When is the last mow of the season? When the grass stops getting longer, that means the fall growth period is over and it’s time for the final mow of the year. The exact date will depend entirely on your specific lawn. 

10. Winterize your sprinkler system

Water that remains in your irrigation system through a freezing Rochester winter can cause severe damage to your sprinklers, possibly beyond repair. It’s crucial that you winterize your sprinklers by removing all water before the first hard freeze of the year. 

Rochester’s first hard freeze usually hits in late October or early November. Just to be safe, the latest you should winterize sprinklers is early October. If water remains in your irrigation system through even one hard freeze, it could be too late. 

How do you winterize a sprinkler system? There are three popular methods for winterizing sprinklers. Which method you need to use will depend on the exact irrigation system you have and what it allows.

  • Manual drain method: 

1. Turn off the water supply 

2. Open manual valves and let water drain out 

3. Drain the backflow device last

  • Automatic drain method: 

1.Turn off the water supply

2. Run the sprinklers briefly to reduce water pressure inside the system 

3. Automatic draining will begin on its own once the pressure drops low enough

  • Blow-out method: 

1. Turn off the water supply 

2. Put on safety goggles 

3. Connect an air compressor to the irrigation system 

4. Turn on the sprinkler farthest from the compressor 

5. Close backflow valves in the irrigation system 

6. Open the valve on the compressor and gradually add more pressure until you see water coming out of the sprinkler head you turned on 

7. Turn off the sprinkler head once the spray of water stops 

8. Repeat for each sprinkler head, one at a time 

9. Release any remaining air pressure in the system once all the water is gone

10. Make sure all irrigation valves are closed 

Note: The blow-out method is time-consuming and potentially hazardous. Avoid this method if possible. 

11. Prepare plant beds for winter

If you want your beautiful Flower City blooms to show their faces next spring, you need to protect them from the harsh winter ahead. In fall, before the first freeze, take these steps to prepare your flowers, shrubs, and ornamental trees. 

  • Remove dead plants
  • Remove weeds
  • Add soil amendments like compost and manure so they have time to break down into the soil before spring
  • Cover plant beds with plastic sheeting or another protective covering to shield the soil from snow
  • Divide overgrown plants and transplant the bulbs
  • Prune perennial plants (do your research first to find out if your plants react well to fall pruning)
  • Add a thick layer of mulch on top of the soil to insulate your plants’ roots 

Fall lawn care pays off next year

Do you want your lawn to impress neighbors and garden-seeking tourists come spring? Beautiful lawns don’t just happen overnight. You have to put the work in during fall for your lawn to recover quickly after winter and grow to its full potential next year.  

If all this seems like too much work for you to handle, why not hire a professional lawn care service to do it all for you? Rochester pros are experts at working with local grass types and weather conditions. They’ll have your lawn looking its best without you lifting a finger. 

Main Photo Credit: Needpix.com

Jordan Ardoin

Jordan Ardoin is a writer and editor with a passion for sustainable, earth-friendly gardening and lawn care practices. When she isn't sharing her knowledge about lawn care and landscaping, you can find her curled up with a good book and a cat in her lap.