1. Pull a soil sample
The most important fall yard chore is the one least done: pulling a soil sample and sending it in for analysis at your County Extension Office—the government agency charged with helping citizens improve the land under their feet, free of charge. (You can find your local agent at Pickyourown.org/countyextensionagentoffices.)
“It will give you a baseline level that might tell you to reduce the fertilizer you’re applying, which will save you money and keep extra nutrients out of the environment,” says Jeremy DeLisle, program coordinator for the University of New Hampshire Extension Education Center in Goffstown, NH. “It’s important to pull the sample before the ground freezes.”
So do it. Soil test results will tell you what your soil lacks and what amendments you should add to give green things a fighting chance to survive. That might mean adding compost or lime to soil before winter sets in, which will condition the soil so you’re all set come spring when you start planting.
2. Protect fragile plants
Newly planted trees, fussy ornamentals, and roses can use a sweater in winter, especially in colder areas of the country where winter burn, caused by sunlight and dry soil, is a problem. Burlap is a good winter wrap, because it lets plants breathe. Pound in three stakes around the shrub, drape a double layer of burlap over the stakes, and fasten them with twine or staples. When the weather warms, remove the burlap and stakes.
Meanwhile, established plants that have survived several winters will love a fall layer of mulch, which warms soil and helps retain moisture (which plants need even in winter).
3. Plant and pack up bulbs
If you want glorious daffodils to greet you in early spring (and, like, who doesn’t?), plant their spring-flowering bulbs in fall or early winter. These bulbs need several months of cool temps to prompt them to bloom in spring. But don’t go nuts making sure you plant them before the first frost. If you can dig the soil, you can plant bulbs, which have their own energy stores. If the ground is frozen, you’re out of luck for that season. Live with it.
In warmer climates, pre-chill spring bulbs for six to eight weeks in your fridge, then plant them in December or January. You’ll have a shorter blooming season than your northern neighbors, but you should see some beautiful color before the weather turns hot.
While you’re planting spring bloomers, don’t forget to retrieve and pack summer bulbs such as dahlias, gladioli, caladiums, and elephant ears, which will rot in the ground during winter. Clean and store bulbs in a breathable container, like cardboard packed with sawdust, sand, or newspaper. Place in a cool (40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit), dry area. Check monthly during the winter, and toss any bulb that, despite your best efforts, has become mushy.
4. Sweat the fine details
- Even when temperatures fall, your landscaping needs an occasional drink so soil and roots don’t dry up. Mostly, nature takes care of that during autumn rainstorms. But if you’re in a drought area, water regularly.
- Aerate and seed lawns, which will green up more uniformly and faster in spring.
- Lower your mower blade to its lowest setting at the end of the mowing season, which will let the sun reach grass crowns.
- Gather seeds from spent plants, like sunflowers and salad greens, which will save you money during spring planting.