How to Winterize Your Lawn

ice covered branches with a single leaf visible

Getting your lawn ready for winter takes work, but that healthy spring lawn is well worth it. Here are a few tips to help get your lawn ready for the frigid winter season.

How to winterize your lawn (no matter where you live)

These pre-winter lawn chores apply whether you live in Miami or Minneapolis. 

1. Keep on mowing

It’s important to continue to mow as long as your turfgrass is growing. If you’ve got trees that lose their leaves in the fall, increase your mowing frequency to stay on top of the leaf litter, even though your grass may not need cutting. Make sure you have a mulching blade, as this will provide the finest cut on the leaves (and the grass blades). 

Mulched leaf litter and grass clippings make a great soil amendment as long as you don’t have a newly planted lawn. If the leaf coverage gets above 50% on the lawn, bag the leaves and throw them in the compost pile or on your flower beds.  

Cool-season grass tip: Mow down to 1 ¼ – 1 ½ inches for the last mow of the fall, after the grass goes dormant. This will help prevent diseases from gaining a foothold in your grass when it snows.

illustration showing the cool and warm season grasses on the US map, along with the transitional zone

Warm-season grass tip: If you raised your mowing height over the summer by ½ inch, bring the mower back down by ½ inch for a shorter fall cut.

Here are the recommended mowing ranges for warm-season grasses:

Grass TypeGrass Height
Bermuda (Common)1-2 inches
Centipede1-2 inches
St. Augustine2-3 inches
Zoysia1-2 inches

Source: UGA Lawn Calendars

2. Take care of your tools

Inside a tool shed with garden tools and supplies hanging in an organized manner on the back wall, with a lawn mower on the floor
Robert Couse-Baker | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Ok, tool fans. You’ve used your tools all summer long, and now they need a little TLC before they go into winter hibernation. Here’s how to get your mower and hand tools ready for winter storage.

Note: These are general guidelines. Always check your mower manual for specific instructions.

  • Sharpen your mower blade

Option 1: Take it to your local small engine shop and have them do it.

Option 2: Do it yourself.

  • Disconnect your spark plug wire.
  • Turn the mower on its side with the air filter up.
  • Use a socket to remove the nut on the mower blade. (Wear a glove to help you hold the blade as you turn the socket.)
  • Use a vice to hold the blade. File the edge until it’s sharp with no nicks.
  • Hang the blade on a nail to check for level.
  • Clean the underside of the mower. (Scrape or use a hose or pressure washer.) 
  • Replace the blade. 
  • Attach the spark plug wire.
  • Add fresh fuel with a fuel stabilizer to the tank. (The label will say how much stabilizer to use.) 
  • Check your spark plug and air filter. If either needs replacing, do that now.
  • Change the oil.
  • Run the engine for 10 or 15 minutes. This will move the stabilizer into the fuel lines and carburetor. 
  • Clean the lawn mower’s exterior.
  • If you see any rust on the mower, use a wire brush to remove it.
  • Use a hose and a brush, if needed, to clean the exterior. Let it air dry (if it’s not too cold) or blow it with a blower to remove excess water.
  • Make sure the mower is dry. Spray rust preventer on the metal before it goes into storage.
  • Clean your hand tools.
  • Clean the tool with a dry cloth to get rid of debris or dirt.
  • If you have surface rust, use steel wool or a wire brush to remove it. A baking soda and water paste may help this process along.
  • Use coarse or fine sandpaper if any rust remains.
  • Rinse the tool, and dry it off with a towel.
  • Coat the tool with camellia or mineral oil.

3. Winterize your sprinklers

sprinkler on and sitting in a yard
Mohammad Rezaie | Unsplash

Most people leave this job to the pros, but if you’re up for a DIY challenge, it’s within the reach of most homeowners.

Every system is different, but the basic principles are the same:

  1. Shut off the water that goes to your irrigation system. 
  2. Close off the valve to your backflow preventer.
  3. Run compressed air through the system.
  4. Turn the ball valves and test cocks on the backflow preventer to 45 degrees.
  5. Drain the water lines that go to your system (usually in the basement).
  6. Shut down the controller.

We’ve covered this topic in more depth in our piece How to Winterize Your Sprinkler System.

Warm-season time-saver: If your sprinkler lines are below your frost line, you may not need to blow out your pipes. You should always drain your backflow preventer, though. Also, turn off the water to the system and shut down your controller.

If you’d rather leave it to the pros, expect sprinkler winterization to cost $60 – $120.

Illustration of the US showing the frost lines across the country

Pro Tip: Insulating your backflow preventer pipes is always a good idea. Grab some foam pipe insulation and insulation tape to keep your pipes toasty throughout the winter months.

4. Trim diseased, dead, and damaged limbs

Man trimming and pruning a tree up above his head
Claudio Barrientos | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

If you want to do a quick once-over on your bushes and shrubs, now’s a good time. Winter snow and ice can cause unhealthy limbs to break, causing litter in the lawn and possible damage to things around it.

Go through your bushes and trees and trim any limbs that are diseased, dead, or damaged

Pruning healthy limbs only works during certain times of the year — and late fall is not one of those times. But limbs that are diseased, dead, or damaged can be removed any time of year.

5. Cover your shrubs

green leaves from a plant covered in snow

You can bring container plants inside, but larger plants may need help if they’re to survive the cold winter temps. If you have delicate shrubs next to the house, you may need to protect them from falling snow

Wooden A-frame shrub covers or shrub protectors are a popular choice for small to medium-sized shrubs. For larger plants like rhododendron bushes, you can buy plant tents. The steel rods protect the plant from snow and the breathable mesh material allows moisture and air to circulate. 

How to protect your shrubs in 3 easy steps:

Step 1: Tie up the shrubs with twine or jute. Tie them as tightly as possible without breaking any branches.

Step 2: Cover the shrubs with a shrub protector or plant tent that will bear the brunt of falling snow.

Step 3: Hammer stakes into the ground and attach them to the frames.

If you’re a DIYer, a wooden A-frame shrub protector is an easy weekend project. If you’re not as handy, they are easy to purchase.

6. Reduce weeds

close-up of crabgrass along the edge of a lawn
NY State IPM Program at Cornell University | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Weeds are inevitable, but you can greatly reduce weeds by denying them favorable conditions in your lawn. Chemical controls are also an option but are often recommended by grass type, season, and type of weed. Here, we’ll explore a few general tips to reduce the weeds in your lawn this winter. 

Mark your weeds

Crabgrass is a widespread annual weed that plagues many homeowners. It sprouts in the early spring and dies at the first hard frost. If you have a large area with crabgrass, put markers or stakes in your soil before the winter kill. (And keep it mowed to prevent it from dropping seeds.) Then, once you get a few days of 55-degree soil temps in spring, put down your pre-emergent in those areas. This way you don’t have to spread chemicals over the entire lawn.

A good offense is the best defense

According to the University of Missouri, a dense tall fescue lawn mowed at the correct height will “reduce annual weed populations up to 80%.” Who doesn’t want 80% less crabgrass, right? If you aerate/dethatch, fertilize, and overseed each year (at the correct time), you should see much less weed pressure.

Get some winter exercise

Winter can be a good time to get out and hand-pull annual winter weeds like henbit, deadnettle, or annual bluegrass. Broadleaf weeds (as opposed to grassy weeds) are especially easy to spot because they don’t look like your grass. If you suffer from common winter annual weeds, you can put out a pre-emergent in late summer or early fall. If you’ve missed this window, hand-pull over the winter after they germinate to prevent a new generation from setting seed next year.

Read your weeds

Your weeds are like your grass — they require certain conditions to thrive. If you deprive them of those conditions, they weaken or die. 

  • Ground ivy 

Problem: Thrives in soil with poor drainage. 

✓ Solution: Aerate to open up the soil’s pores and add good organic matter such as compost.

  • Crabgrass 

Problem: Is encouraged by a low mowing height, low soil fertility, and too much or too little water.

✓ Solution: Mow taller to shade out the seeds, get a soil test to correct imbalances, and regulate moisture in your lawn.

  • Annual bluegrass 

Problem: Prefers compact soil, low mowing heights, and excessive fertility and water. 

✓ Solution: Aerate, mow taller, and reduce fertilization and watering.

Cool-season lawn winterization tips

During fall and early winter, there are a few lawn care tasks that are specific to northern lawns. Check out these cool-season lawn winterization chores.

7. Dethatch, aerate, fertilize, overseed

illustration explaining thatch on grass

These are four separate processes, but they’re usually done together. (If you have a newer lawn, dethatching won’t be necessary.) Here’s an overview of how to prep your cool-weather grass for a great spring.

If you need to put down new seed, follow this process in late summer or early fall.

  • Mow the lawn to 2 inches high.
  • Dethatch your lawn — Dethatching removes excess matter that sits between the grass and the soil. Thatch over ½ inch does more harm than good. 
  • Aerate — If you can’t push a knife in the soil with just your thumb pressure, you may need to aerate. Aerating will reduce compaction in the lawn. A core aeration machine will pull cores out of the soil to allow better air and water flow to the roots.
  • Fertilize — After you dethatch and aerate, your soil is ready to go. Use a spreader to put down starter lawn fertilizer to get your seed off to a great start. Make sure your fertilizer is designed for new grass seed. It should have plenty of phosphorus for strong root growth.
  • Overseed — After you’ve prepped the soil using the three steps listed above, get a good cool-season grass seed mix. Apply with a spreader and push it lightly into the soil with the back of your rake. Cool-season mixes usually include perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, and some type of fescue. With a mix of different species, you account for sun and shade and reduce the potential for disease and insect pressure. 

Pro Tip: If your soil has a high clay content, throw down compost before you overseed. Rake it over the lawn at about ½ inch. It helps improve the soil’s ability to drain and develop strong grass.

8. Do dormant seeding

Spreading seed by hand over an area that has little to no grass

What if you’ve missed the early fall window to overseed your lawn? If you live in an area that stays snow-covered throughout the season, dormant seeding may work for you. 

  • Mow the lawn to 2 inches high.
  • Loosen the soil. Use a hand rake for small areas, or use a slit seeder or power rake for larger areas. Rake up the debris.
  • Put down your seed.
  • Water with 0.10 inches of water or less until the ground is moist but not soggy. Keep the soil lightly damp until the first snow. The idea is to put the seed down right before the first snow and to have the snow cover it the entire winter.

Dormant seeding works in the most northerly regions of the country. In Minnesota, for example, plan to do this from late October through mid-November. You should see the new growth next year by late April or early May. Contact your local Extension office to ask if this will work in your area. 

If winter lawn preparation is too much for your to-do list, contact one of our local lawn care professionals. They’ll get your lawn winter-ready before Jack Frost starts nipping at your nose.

Main Photo Credit: Artem Sapegin | Unsplash

Sarah Bahr

Sarah is a writer who has previously worked in the lawn care industry. In her spare time, she likes to garden, raise chickens, and mow the grass with her battery-powered lawn mower.