Fall Lawn & Garden Maintenance Tips

by Erin Hynes

Fall can be a great time to take care of some garden and yard maintenance, leaving more time in spring for planting. Here’s a breakdown of what you can do now, and what you should leave until warm weather returns again.


Fertilizing a lawn

Do fertilize your lawn. As temperatures drop and days grow shorter, grasses put their energy into developing roots. If you live in the northern US and didn’t fertilize in spring, follow the directions on the fertilizer label for how much to apply. If you fertilized in spring, apply half the amount recommended on the bag if you live in the North. If you live in the South, spring is the best time to fertilize.

Green tip: Organic lawn fertilizers are readily available and are less likely to burn your grass if you apply too much.

Do divide perennials, if they’ve become so crowded that they bloom less or if you want to split a large clump into smaller clumps to plant elsewhere.

Generally, in fall you can divide perennials that bloom in spring or early summer. Here are a few good candidates for fall dividing; unless a plant is marked with an * you can divide in spring instead: bleeding heart (Dicentra), cranesbill (Geranium), coral bells (Heuchera), coreopsis, daylily, foamflower* (Tiarella), heliopsis (Heliopsis helianthoides), iris, lungwort*(Pulmonaria), Phlox (Phlox paniculata) and pinks* (Dianthus). You can divide peonies if you want more plants, but don’t have to divide them because of crowding. This article explains how to divide.


Do corrective pruning. After the leaves fall from trees and shrubs, it’s easier to see which branches are broken, rub against others, grow in a crazy direction or bump into the house. Cut them off using pruning tools where they meet a larger branch or the trunk. Don’t leave a stub, which won’t heal and leaves the plant vulnerable to disease.

Do plant. Fall is the only time to plant spring-flowering bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, crocus and snowdrops. You can plant until the ground is too frozen to dig.

Fall is also a good time to plant trees, shrubs, perennials and ornamental grasses. Although you can plant them until the ground is frozen, their chances for survival improve if you plant in early fall, giving them more time to develop roots. Remember to water them if you don’t get about an inch of rain each week.

Do control weeds. Lawn weeds such as dandelions, violets and creeping Charlie — also called ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) — get their second wind now.

Unfortunately, there are no good organic options for controlling these weeds once they’re established in a lawn, other than digging them out (which doesn’t work well for creeping Charlie). Borax has long been touted as an organic way to control creeping Charlie, but it’s not reliable. Corn gluten meals does control dandelion seeds just as they start to sprout, but won’t kill established plants. Commercially available organic herbicide sprays aren’t selective for broadleaved weeds, so they damage the surrounding lawn unless you protect the grass with a barrier like cardboard; plan to spray more than once. If you have a lot of weeds, it’s faster just to dig them out.


Don’t shear spring flowering shrubs. Lopping a foot or two off spring-flowering shrubs to make them shorter removes the buds that produce next year’s flowers. If you must control their size, cut off the longest branches at their base — you’ll make them more compact and still enjoy flowers next spring.

Don’t fertilize trees and shrubs. Fertilizing stimulates tender new growth that won’t have time to toughen up before winter. If your woody plants need fertilizer — and healthy, established ones rarely do — wait until spring. For more details, see How to Feed Weak or Sick Trees and Shrubs.

Don’t bag your leaves. It’s like throwing away money. For other options, see our article 6 Leaf Disposal Tricks.

Don’t cut back ornamental grasses and attractive perennials. Wait until spring growth starts before cutting back ornamental grasses and perennials that look good in winter. Not only do they give you something to look at during the cold months, but their stems trap leaves and snow around the base of the plant, which protects the roots from freezing.

Do you have any lawn & garden tips you’d like to share with the community? Show off your green thumb by writing your tips in the Comments section below.


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