A Bit of Fall Lawn Maintenance 

Changing ingrained habits isn’t easy. Those concerning the maintenance of lawns, for example, go back generations. We still do just about everything the way our great-great-grandparents did. And it’s in spring that we traditionally lay turf or sow a lawn. Most gardeners wouldn’t even think you could do it in the fall, but you can and, in fact, you should!

Traditionally, it’s in early spring that we take care of any major operations on the lawn, such as laying sod, sowing, repairs, aeration, etc. However, if you want a healthy lawn, spring is actually not the best time to act.

Spring is Fine, but Fall is Better

Fall lawn with a light covering of tree leaves.
Fall is a great time to work on your lawn. Photo:

Fall is a much more suitable season or any major lawn work. And that’s only logical. The grasses that make up the majority of our lawns are cool season plants: they grow more vigorously and faster at temperatures ranging from 3 to 64° (1 to 18°C) than at hot summer temperatures. And grass seeds germinate best at 40 to 68°F (15 to 20°C). So, it only makes sense that you would sow lawn seed at the end of summer for best germination and continued growth.

In the spring, at least in most climates, temperatures warm up very quickly and a recently sown or sodded lawn doesn’t always have time to “root in” well before the heat overtakes it. 

Also, heat waves, common in summer and sometimes in spring, often give rise to a drought which is not at all beneficial to an established lawn. And even less to young grasses that are still poorly rooted. The result is a lawn of very average quality that generally only begins to really settle in the fall. 

Falls, on the other hand, are usually long, cool and moist due to increased rainfall and reduced evaporation. In other words, it’s the ideal climate for a lawn. Additionally, shorter fall days stimulate grasses to produce long, deep roots, just what they need for their establishment. 

From mid-August, and the whole month of September (even through October in regions with a mild climate), you really do have the ideal season to work on your lawn.

Fall Frost Warning?

Frosted lawn in fall.
There’s no reason to worry about a bit of frost on a newly sown lawn. Photo: Public Domain

But isn’t there a risk of frost in the fall? Yes, certainly, at least in the northernmost regions. To the people of North (and you know who you are!), therefore, I do recommend working on your lawns fairly early in the fall. 

But elsewhere, don’t be too concerned. First frosts are superficial and don’t damage most lawn grasses. It turns out—who knew!—that they are amazingly hardy. You can see a lawn totally frosted in the morning and healthy, green and lush in the afternoon. As long as the roots themselves don’t freeze (and that rarely happens until there are prolonged frosts in November), there is no reason to fear the effects of frost on young grasses. Just check ahead with a weather service (readily available online) to make sure that is no unseasonal frost expected over the next few weeks.

Sod or Seed?

Person unrolling a roll of sod
Laying rolls of sod is fast, but more expensive. Photo: Anna Shvets,

For quick repairs on an established lawn or for a new lawn, you have two choices: lay sod or sow seed. 

Laying sod is the least expensive method … and also the most expensive. Let me explain!

It costs nothing to cut sections of healthy lawn as you enlarge a flower bed, for example, and to use them to fill in weak or dead spots in an established lawn. 

This simply involves removing the section of dead grass and a few inches (centimeters) of underlying soil, adding a layer of good soil and cutting out a section of grass of the same size from elsewhere in your yard that can use to cover the hole. Then you water. That’s all. And it costs you … the price of one watering. Not so bad!

Laying purchased sod over a larger area is, however, expensive. You have to buy a lot of sod! But at least the result is, in principle, faster than that sowing gives you. 

All you have to do is level the surface to be sown, lay down a thick layer of good soil. (Never scrimp on soil quality: poor soil will always result in a bad lawn in the long run, no matter how careful you are!) That means at least 6 inches (15 cm) of top-quality topsoil. Level the soil with a rake and roll lightly. Rent a roller to do this, but avoid filling it with water, as is sometimes suggested. 

Stagger the laying of the rolls of sod as you would in a brick wall. This results in a more attractive effect. Then pass again with the roller to push the roots of the fresh sod into contact with the soil below. Then water well. 

Hand holding grass seed.
You can scatter grass seeds with a seed spreader or broadcast it by hand. Photo:

Save Money by Sowing Your Lawn

As for sowing lawn seed, it’s especially advantageous when you want to cover a large area at little cost or if you want to fill in an established lawn that’s too thin, yet you have no good quality sod you can harvest and move. The only downside is that you have to wait a month or more for the lawn to green up properly. However, what’s a month’s wait, really, given that a good lawn ought to last about 40 years!

To start, you need to buy grass seed. Again, don’t skimp on quality! You always want premium grass seed! You can, however, choose according to your growing conditions. If your lawn is in partial shade, for example, buy a mixture for shade. No grass will grow in deep shade—less the 3 hours of sun per day—though. You might want to consider a shade-tolerant groundcover for such a situation. (For more information on that subject, read Got Shade? Grow Groundcovers.)

There are also seeds for sunny areas and for sports fields (useful if you have young children). And, as laidback gardener, I highly recommend low maintenance lawn seed: less mowing, less watering, less fertilizer, fewer pest treatments and equal beauty!

Prepare the ground for sowing as if you were laying sod rolls, that is to say covering it with a good layer of quality soil that you level with a rake. 

Now spread the seeds with a lawn seed spreader (usually the seed seller will lend you one free of charge upon request) or, for small surfaces, broadcast by hand, then rake lightly so the seeds penetrate somewhat. Then water.

And repeat! You’ll need to keep the soil moist, even if that means watering every two or three days if necessary, for about 3 weeks, while the seeds germinate. 

Maintenance Is Simple

Maintaining a new lawn is easy. It’s mostly a matter of regular mowing and watering in case of drought, plus applying an occasional bit of organic fertilizer. 

So, look upon this article as a reminder. If you need to redo your lawn, entirely or in part, fall is the best season to do it. If you don’t have time this year, put it on next year’s agenda. And free up your spring agenda for other gardenly practices!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

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  9. I love this article. Before reading this article I always thought spring was the best season to maintain lawns. Thanks for sharing!

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