This article is supposed to be about the “do’s and don’ts” of fall landscaping. The truth is though; there are very few don’ts when compared with the do’s.
Talk to most people familiar with horticulture and landscaping and they will agree fall is a great time for landscape maintenance and installation. While spring is the season that most people think about updating their yards, fall is often an even better time for these outdoor enhancements.
Depending on whether you are planting, pruning, renovating your lawn or adding irrigation, there are many reasons why autumn is a prime season for landscape projects. One of the main benefits of landscaping in the fall is increased moisture and cooler temperatures. This weather is beneficial as it helps new plants become established and provides a good growing environment for new or renovated lawns. It is also a good time to think about irrigation and drainage as the increased rain will reveal problem areas where water is pooling. Additionally, irrigation needs to be prepared for the cold winter months ahead by proper winterization. I will outline in further detail the landscaping that should be performed in the fall and what should wait.
Landscaping in the Fall
Plants, Shrubs & Trees
Most landscape renovations involve adding new trees, shrubs and plants of all types. Fall is great time to install new plant material because it provides the best environment for plants to become established. The cooler temperatures and increased rain helps root development and reduces the initial shock a plant experiences when it is transplanted. Transplant shock is also reduced because the plants are in their winter dormancy period. Planting during this time also gives maximum amount of time for the plants to grow before the hot, drier weather of the following summer. There is also a practical reason why planting and doing other landscape enhancements is a smart thing to consider in the fall. It is during this time that landscape companies are not as busy and can more likely schedule projects sooner.
Similar to plants, shrubs and trees, fall is also a good time to maintain, renovate or replace turf. September, October, and November are great months to prepare your lawn for the harsh elements of the upcoming winter for the same reason as stated above; fall is a cooler time of year with increased moisture. There are several steps that need to be taken to ensure your lawn has the proper base to withstand extreme freezes, frost and thaw patterns, soggy wet conditions and a lack of sunshine. At a minimum, lawns must be given a proper feeding with a winterizer fertilizer. This provides your lawn with the nutrients it needs as it enters the dormant winter period.
Your lawn can be further strengthened for winter with proper lawn renovations such as aerating, thatching and over-seeding. However, the window of time for over-seeding or seeding a new lawn is much shorter in the fall than in the spring so over seeding and adding new lawn is an item that, depending on your schedule, could wait until spring. An important fact that few people realize is that autumn is when lawn root systems are the most active in their growth and development. Now is the time to provide your lawn with the resources it needs to be lush and healthy in the spring. Raking leaves on a regular basis is another item that will protect your grass. Though your lawn is entering a dormant season it still needs maximum light and air flow. Letting leaves remain on your grass will suffocate your turf and leave brown and yellow spots that look ugly during the winter months and delay growth in the spring.
Irrigation & Drainage
Irrigation and drainage is another key part of the landscape that needs to be prepared for winter. You should take advantage of the fall months to assess the state of your irrigation system and determine potential problem areas for winter drainage. The main item concerning your irrigation is to ensure that it is properly winterized for freezing temperatures to come. This process uses highly pressurized air to blow all water from the pipes and heads to protect them from freezing and cracking.
Fall is also a good time to spot areas that are not draining properly. Soil can become dry and compacted over the dry, hot summer months and once the rain of fall arrives, pooling water can reveal where drainage needs to be improved. Another landscape enhancement, which can help with drainage but also protect structures, is to install drain rock strips around buildings. This can assist with mitigating water run-off from the building downspouts and garden beds but also keep mud from splashing up on the building siding.
Preparing for Winter
In addition to enhancements, there are other key landscape maintenance items that need to be made a priority in the fall. I’ve already addressed lawn maintenance above, but similarly, plants need to be properly prepared for winter.
Don’t Feed Plants…
While lawns need to be fertilized in the fall, most plants should not receive feeding during this time. They are on the verge of dormancy and any fertilizer will force the plant to expend energy on growing, beginning new softwood growth which is then vulnerable to the harsh freezes ahead. This has the potential to damage and possibly kill the plant.
…But Do Feed Trees & Shrubs!
The one exception to this is deciduous trees and shrubs. Deciduous plants store their energy for the winter so instead of directing that food towards new growth it is used to preserve the plant until the spring. In terms of pest and insect control, most treatments should wait until dormancy in the winter. Dormant oil is an environmentally friendly product that can be used to suffocate insect eggs nesting in trees and shrubs. During the plant’s dormant period is the ideal time to perform this treatment. Some treatments have varying ideal application times depending on an insect’s life cycle. Crain fly, for example, should wait until late winter to be treated.
Fall is also the time that the majority of shrubs and trees should be pruned as their growth period is ending and they are entering into dormancy. There are, however, a few varieties and situations where pruning should wait until the spring. Radical non-selective pruning, such as cutting back a shrub to the ground or significantly cutting back a hedge, should wait until the spring. This kind of pruning can stimulate new soft growth that may freeze. There are also a few varieties of trees and shrubs that should be pruned at alternate times of the year. Trees, such as the Elm and Camperdown, can’t be pruned while they are in leaf as they can get Dutch elm disease. Generally speaking, Heaths and Heathers are another plant that shouldn’t be pruned in the fall. Most Heaths bloom in the fall and winter and Heathers bloom in the summer so pruning in the spring avoids clipping new buds and gives time to promote bud growth for the next bloom time. Because the Irish Heath blooms late spring until fall it should be pruned in the early spring.
Along with pruning, weed control and bed mulching is a maintenance item that is important to do during the fall. I’ve talked about plants entering dormancy and how this relates to how you care for and prepare them for winter. Just as you fertilize lawn and deciduous plants before dormancy, weeds should be killed before they enter dormancy. The reason for this is once they hit dormancy, you have no control over them other than hand-pulling. This is more labor intensive and it is why I recommend a thorough treatment of your weeds before winter. Once this is done, you can use the leaves that were raked off of your lawn and use them as mulch throughout your beds. This will protect and insulate your plants while also keeping weeds down in the spring. Though this isn’t always a preferred practice by clients because of aesthetics, it is the best practice environmentally as it is a natural way to control weeds and strengthen soil quality.
As I’ve revealed, while there are a few landscape tasks that should not be done in the fall, for the most part, it is the best time to maintain the grounds, prepare plants for the winter ahead, and install new design projects. The main “don’t” when it comes to landscaping in the fall is really: “don’t wait!”.