Fall Lawn Care Checklist for Syracuse

Young boy playing in the leaves

Just as the Giants and Jets take to the field every fall, Syracuse homeowners take to their yards raking leaves, seeding the lawn, pruning trees, and mulching around flower beds to prepare their lawns for the cold winter.

Cool-season grasses like Kentucky bluegrass, fine fescue, tall fescue, and perennial ryegrass thrive in Syracuse’s snowy and cold winter and mild summer.  

1. Rake to remove heavy leaves

Those golden and burgundy leaves paint a marvelous palette in the sky. However, once they’ve fallen, your lawn screams “rake me.” Not only will your lawn look more orderly, but mounds of dumped grass block sunlight and lock in moisture that will fester disease and decay.  

Rake at least every three days, especially if deciduous trees grace your lawn. While they display gorgeous colors in the fall, their foliage quickly blankets your grass.

Depending on the size of your yard and the number of trees, a leaf blower is an efficient alternative to a rake. Gas leaf blowers rate first in power, but battery-operated and corded electric ones create less noise and come with less maintenance.  

Pro Tip: No matter what make or model leaf blower, keep in mind the weight. You don’t want to be bogged down and not be able to handle the machine after 15 minutes or so. 

What to do with those piles of raked leaves? Start a compost pile as leaves are rich in carbon, an essential nutrient for photosynthesis and your lawn’s success. Maybe you can bargain with the neighborhood children to have a jump or two in the pile in exchange for a shovel full of leaves for your new compost pile.

2. Dethatch to remove the spongy layer

illustration explaining thatch on grass

That layer of dead stems, leaves, and roots settled on your soil beneath the grass is thatch.   Depending on the amount, thatch can either be beneficial or detrimental to your grass. If your lawn has a thatch buildup more than half-inch thick, it’s detrimental to healthy growth. Left to fester, the thatch breeds diseases that will lead to grass decay. Also, a heavier layer of thatch stymies the flow of air, water, and fertilizer, all necessary ingredients for your lawn.

If less than a half-inch, the thatch protects against soil temperature fluctuations, captures water efficiently, and actually serves as mulch.  

You’ll be able to distinguish the difference between “good” thatch and “bad” thatch by its texture. If you cut off the top layer of a section in your lawn and it’s spongy, you’ll need to dethatch.

When is the best time to dethatch? Dethatch your cool-season grass in early fall during its active growing season and when the soil is moist.  

Methods to dethatch:

  • For small areas, use a manual rake 
  • For larger areas, use a power rake or dethatching machine

3. Aerate to reduce compaction

illustration showing how aeration works and the benefits of aerating soil

Aeration is a process of punching small holes in the grass to allow water, air, and nutrients to penetrate the soil. This process not only allows necessary ingredients to penetrate the soil but also aids in root regeneration.

You should consider aeration if you have:

  • Heavy foot traffic on the lawn
  • Vehicles or heavy equipment on your lawn
  • Heavy, clay soil
  • Compacted soil

Fall is the preferred season for aeration because your cool-season lawn is actively growing.  Early spring is your next best option. 

Depending on the size of your yard, aeration can be done by hand with a garden fork or a core aerator. You can rent small, walk-behind core aerators from your local garden equipment retailer or nursery.  If you decide the job is more than you want to tackle, call in a professional aeration service.  

4. Overseed to fill bare patches

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

Do you have ugly bare spots on your lawn? Consider overseeding.

What is overseeding? Overseeding is spreading grass seed over your existing lawn to cover bare spots caused by pests, diseases, foot traffic, and summer stress. It prepares your lawn to be full, thick, and healthy in spring.

It’s often said, “Timing is everything,” and in Syracuse, the best time to plant grass seed is in early fall. Here’s why: With mild temperatures during the day and cool temps at night, it provides an excellent environment for grass seed germination.  

For Syracuse lawns, it can take a few weeks to a few months for new grass to germinate:  

  • Kentucky bluegrass: 30-60 days
  • Perennial ryegrass: 12-21 days
  • Tall fescue: 21-30 days
  • Fine fescue: 21-50 days

Steps to overseed:

  • Mow to about 1 ½ inches to 2 inches
  • Dethatch
  • Aerate
  • Apply compost
  • Fertilize, if necessary
  • Spread the seed
  • Water daily 

5. Stop mowing when the grass stops growing   

With the cooler fall weather, grass growth will eventually slow down. You know you can stop mowing when your grass stops growing. For the last mow of the season, it’s advisable to leave cool-season grass a bit longer as a deterrent to disease. As the temperatures drop, mow shorter until, eventually, the lawn will hibernate.

Recommended heights for cool-season grasses in the fall:

  • Kentucky bluegrass 2 inches
  • Perennial ryegrass 2 inches
  • Fine fescue 2-2.5 inches
  • Tall fescue 2.5 inches

Always adhere to the one-third rule. Do not mow more than one-third of the grass length in one mowing. The theory behind this tip pertains to sunlight absorption. If more than one-third of the grass blade is mowed, less area remains for sunlight to penetrate. Also, a deeper cut might weaken and inhibit root growth.  

illustration explaining the one-third rule for mowing grass

6. Fertilize to help growth

Proper fertilization will result in a lush, healthy spring lawn. Apply fertilizer in October or early November before the grass begins to discolor as a reaction to the cold air.

Before fertilizing, conduct a soil test to check the nutrient levels. If your soil is deficient in nutrients like potassium, you can apply the proper fertilizer to accommodate the depletion. 

Steps for a soil test:  

  • Use a garden spade or small shovel
  • Dig into the soil approximately 6 inches
  • Collect about 20 samples from different areas around your yard
  • Place in plastic container
  • Do not collect wet soil

An at-home soil test kit can be purchased from your local extension office or a nursery retailer.  However, you also can send the sample to the Cornell Cooperative Extension Office.

Once you get the results, you will know better which fertilizer to apply. 

What is N-P-K? N-P-K refers to the fertilizer’s ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (the three most essential soil nutrients). For example, a fertilizer with a ratio of 26-0-12 contains 26% nitrogen, 0% phosphorus, and 12% potassium. 

What’s the best N-P-K ratio for my lawn? Your soil test will tell you the ratio of nutrients your lawn needs, so you can choose a fertilizer that addresses your lawn’s nutrient deficiencies.

7. Winterize your irrigation system

As the weather turns cooler, winterize your sprinkler system by adjusting the water flow or shutting it down. 

It’s important to shut down the system completely if the temperature drops below freezing. The excess water left in the system can cause cracked pipes and/or sprinkler heads. 

There are three methods to winterize your irrigation system: manual drain, automatic drain, and the blowout method. Which method is right for you? That depends on your irrigation system and how it operates.   

Automatic drain:

  • Shut down your system.
  • Drain the system of all water.
  • Completely turn off the entire system.

Manual drain:

  • Shut down the water supply to your system.
  • Set the backflow preventer to 45 degrees.
  • Drain backflow lines.
  • Utilizing the faucet close to the backflow, drain again.
  • Drain water from the manual drain in the  manifold and keep it open during the winter.
  • Go back to the main water supply and turn on the faucet to drain the water.

Blow out/compressed air: 

  • Proceed with caution.
  • Turn off water.
  • Check compression tolerance according to the manufacturer’s manual.
  • Shut off backflow preventer.
  • Take off the cap to the blowout line.
  • Connect the air hose.
  • Activate the zone the furthest distance from the compressor.
  • Start the compressor for a certain period of time and then turn off.
  • Set ball valves and test cocks to 45 degrees.
  • Open drain at the valve box and drain.
  • Disengage the entire system.

Pro Tip: It’s best to hire a professional to perform the blow-out method. 

8.  Clean your lawn care equipment

All reusable gardening equipment should be thoroughly cleaned, oiled, and sanitized to remove all soil before storage. Apply a bleach solution and then air dry.

If you use a riding mower, it also needs to be prepped before hibernation. Remove the spark plugs and blow in some aerosol fogging spray. To winterize your lawn mower, connect the battery to a charger or, if it runs on gas, you should run the engine until the tank is emptied.

For gas and battery-powered mowers:

  • Clean off any debris, including grass clippings
  • Completely wipe down the mower (moisture can result in corrosion)
  • Disconnect spark plug and drain the gas on gas model; remove battery on battery-powered mower
  • No matter what model or type, store mower in a dry place such as a garage or shed

For leaf blowers:

  • Clean or replace the filter
  • Replace/disconnect spark plug
  • Drain excess fuel
  • Clean carburetor
  • Inspect straps for wear
  • Check hose for cracks
  • If there’s a bag, empty it

For weed eaters:

  • Wipe down the entire length of the weed eater with a rag and soapy water
  • Remove and clean the air filter
  • Replace/disconnect spark plug
  • Drain excess fuel
  • Clean carburetor
  • Store it in a ventilated area off the ground

The one basic maintenance rule for all — keep it clean!

These are just some basic maintenance tips. It’s best to thoroughly read and follow your manual’s instructions.  

9. Prune trees and bushes

Survey your garden to inspect for any branches when overloaded with snow or ice, that could result in damage to a car in the driveway, the house, or any other structure. These trees and bushes need to be trimmed immediately!  

If you are overwhelmed by this task, contact a local professional tree trimming service.  

Coniferous evergreens — such as juniper, fir, and spruce — should be pruned in late fall.  

By mid-September, before the frost sets in, perennial beds and borders should be pruned and reworked. If it appears the flowers are crowded together, divide plants and replant in another area. Refresh the garden for spring and remove any leggy or dead flowers. 

10. Get rid of gutter glut

It’s a dirty job but someone must do it otherwise those gutters and spouts could back up with frozen snow. Your gutters need to be thoroughly cleaned and flushed before the first snowfall. Gutter fasteners also might need to be repaired or replaced.

While the glut must go, this can be a dangerous task for a homeowner. Balancing on a tall ladder wielding a gushing hose could result in an injury.

If you decide to tackle the job yourself, start with a sturdy ladder, a gutter scoop, and a tarp. After you’ve manually removed the debris, then it’s time to flush gutters and downspouts. 

Pro Tip: Recruit a neighbor to assist with steadying the ladder. Also, with help from an assistant, it will reduce the number of times you’ll need to go up and down the ladder. He/she will be able to hand you the necessary tools and/or hose.

If your gut is telling you it’s not a good idea for you to tackle this task, then it’s time to call in a professional gutter cleaning crew

Fall back to football

Now that you’ve completed your fall lawn care checklist, you can watch or play football, carve a pumpkin, enjoy a hayride, visit a museum, or enjoy Armory Square.

Keep in mind, if you require assistance, do not have the proper equipment, or are just overwhelmed, call your local lawn care professionals.

Main Photo Credit: Scott Webb | Pexels

Liz Chojnacki

Liz Chojnacki is a multimedia writer -- blog posts, radio scripts, bios, photo captions, catalogs, and much more. She also enjoys putting pen to paper. She has had the privilege and pleasure of gardening in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, New Mexico, South Africa, and now Florida. Liz resides in Florida with her husband and three dogs.