The Ultimate Guide to Winter Lawn Care

 

Many gardeners view winter as a time to hang up their gloves and wait for the more fertile months of spring before tending to their lawns again - a period of rest, if you will, that leaves additional time for festive preparations within the home or larger, structural, projects around the garden.

 

There’s actually quite a lot of lawn work to be done in the winter months though, particularly if you want to enjoy a lush and verdant lawn come April. While it’s true that grass grows much slower in cold conditions, and generally requires less hands-on maintenance, there is plenty of evidence to show that the occasional trim can really improve the overall health and resilience of most grasses, and there’s also tasks like clearing, feeding and aerating your lawn to consider too - particularly if your lawn contains a lot of cold-season grasses, or has been left to its own devices over the summer.

 

To maximise your lawn’s growing potential come spring, we’d recommend thinking about the following tasks before the frosts set in:

Clearing Your Lawn

 

Dead leaves, moss and thatch can all build up over winter, preventing sunlight from reaching your grass, and trapping moisture that would normally burn off in the daytime. This creates an environment that’s perfect for encouraging diseases, algaes and other unwanted invaders to flourish. It also prevents sunlight from reaching the stems of your grass, and ensures that your lawn is generally more prone to malnourishment.

 

Fortunately, removing thatch, moss and dead leaves is relatively easy. To start, we would definitely recommend spraying any mossy areas with a good (iron sulphate) moss killer. This will take somewhere between 1 and 2 weeks to work, depending on the brand, and will leave all traces of moss black once it has taken effect. You will then be able to rake up any dead moss, leaves and debris with a sturdy spring-tine rake.

 

If you have a lot of moss to remove, you might also want to consider doing your first pass with a specialised moss removal rake. These tools generally have hooked tines that swing so that they can glide over a lawn when pushed, and bite down into dead moss when pulled back towards you, gathering loose strands and generally improving the efficiency with which large amounts can be gathered.

 

In terms of technique, there are a few important things to remember; firstly, always apply moss killer evenly across the whole lawn. This is because moss killers are generally acidic and will slightly alter the pH of your soil. Applied unevenly, they can alter the speed at which bits of your lawn grow, and leave you with patchy grass.

 

When it comes to actually raking up debris, we’d recommend that you divide your lawn up into sections and attack each one separately. This will allow you to stay focused, and will also mean that you create several small piles of leaves/debris, rather than one very large pile that you struggle to move off the lawn. Breaking your lawn up into several equally sized segments will also ensure that you can take regular breaks without a stray gust of wind eliminating your progress, due to the fact that you’ll have cleared a distinct area in a relatively short space of time.

 

It is also very important that you swap hands regularly when raking, and maintain an upright posture throughout. If you have a small lawn raking it clear may take a matter of minutes but clearing larger lawns can often be an arduous task and, over time, can put strain on your muscles. Ensuring that you stand properly means that you’ll be able to work for longer without fighting against fatigue and pain.

 

If you have a very large space to tackle, you might want to consider a powered scarifier, or a towed dethatcher attachment for a lawn tractor. These handy tools use metal tines to tease thatch out from between grass blades as they travel over the surface of your lawn - without putting undue strain on your back. Although will put more strain on your lawn, they do make the job of raking up dead moss and thatch much easier, and can vastly reduce labour times on a big lawn.

 

Leaf blowers are another option too. Although they won’t help you to remove moss or thatch, good leaf blowers will make short work of any loose debris - allowing you to quickly clear your lawn without any real effort. Do take care to ensure that you rake up any leftover thatch though , as leaving moisture-trapping detritus behind does defeat the purpose of clearing your lawn.

 

Note: Try to spray and rake as early in the season as you possibly can - you don’t want to put unnecessary wear on your lawn when it is at its most vulnerable, as damage is much harder to repair in the winter months. A great many experts recommend that you aim to have cleared your lawn before the onset of December’s frosts.

Feeding Your Lawn

 

It might seem counter-intuitive to feed your lawn before a period of delayed growth, but applying a carefully formulated winter feed in the late autumn/early winter period can work absolute wonders. Unlike normal fertilisers, winter feeds tend to include reduced amounts of nitrogen - which is mainly used to fuel soft top-growth - but enhanced levels of both potassium and phosphate - chemicals that play an important part in helping your grass to build healthy roots, and resist a variety of common diseases.

 

As such, careful application of a winter feed can really help your lawn to endure the winter by encouraging the development of better rootstock, and facilitating better nutrient uptake. This is particularly true if your lawn contains a lot of warm-season grasses, or grasses like Zoysia, that prefer arid conditions, as these varieties will often struggle to develop without additional help in the colder months.

 

Using a winter feed to enhance potassium and phosphate also has the added advantage of making your grass develop hardier stems, which can keep your lawn looking green throughout the winter.

 

When it comes to choosing a winter feed, we would recommend that you look for a slow release variety, as the higher than average levels of rainfall common to winter months can often wash fast-release fertilisers through your soil before they have a chance to interact with your lawn. We’d also recommend that you look for a low iron variety, as high iron content can scorch and blacken grass stems if it’s left

 

Always try to fertilise before rain is due, particularly if you opt for a granular treatment, and make sure that conditions are cool and moist before you spread your chosen preparation. This will ensure that the granules can settle, and begin to break down, but it also ensures that they will actually be washed down into the soil.

 

If you fertilise your lawn with a granular mix and then, for whatever reason, experience a freak dry-spell without any rain, it is recommended that you water the preparation in, just to avoid any complications caused by leaving fertiliser granules sitting on the surface.

 

When it comes to actually applying your lawn feed, we would also recommend that you use a garden spreader of some kind. Although it is possible to spread fertiliser by hand, doing so can create a patchy or uneven lawn, and using a spreader means that you're guaranteed to get an even coating across all areas of your lawn. Pushed and towed garden spreaders are both fairly common nowadays, and both will work perfectly well when it comes to spreading winter feed. We’d personally recommend a pushed spreader though, just because it’ll put less wear on your lawn than driving a large garden tractor up and down, and, although slightly slower to use, will do a better job of encouraging the healthy development of your grass over winter.

Cutting Your Lawn

 

A great many people think that grass stops growing completely over winter - because of the cold, or because there isn’t enough sunshine to stimulate healthy development. Unfortunately, this is actually just a particularly persistent gardening myth.

 

In reality, grass can grow 2-3 inches over the winter months, and will continue to use energy for growth anytime that the external air temperature rises to about 5 degrees celsius. If left unchecked, this can waste precious resources, and significantly weaken the structural integrity of root systems. It can also expose fresh new growth to frost damage, and block light from reaching stems already weakened by the cold.

 

As such, it’s very important that you cut your lawn during the winter months, even if it doesn't look like it’s getting unruly or out of hand. Doing so will let a greater amount of natural light into the most vulnerable parts of your lawn, which is really important from a nutritional point of view, and will also help to keep your grass strong and healthy. Furthermore, it will encourage the development of hardier stems by continually forcing them to repair the damage done by mower blades , and it’ll also make sure that resources aren’t wasted on lengthy growth that serves no real purpose.

 

Exercise caution though - mowing in winter needs to be carried out with great care, as excessive wear can cause irreparable damage to weakened grasses. You’ll certainly want to limit the frequency of your mowing to once a month/once a fortnight to minimise the stress placed on your grass, and we’d also recommend that you use a high cut setting, as shearing stems too aggressively can cause dieback and inhibit recovery.

 

In terms ot the type of mower that you should use for winter lawn care, we’d recommend sticking to a smaller machine, whether petrol, battery operated or push-driven, as large lawn tractors can place a lot of stress on struggling lawns. We’d also recommend that you use a cylinder mower if at all possible, as rotary varieties tend to pulverize grass stems as they cut which damages the integrity of most grasses, and allows rost-damage to wreak havoc on their stems.

 

Otherwise, the usual methods and practices still apply - try to mow in a sequence of slightly overlapping lines to ensure that no lawn is missed, take great care over soft, muddy ground and go slowly over hollows or dips to avoid scalping. Check your owner’s handbook when doing things like changing cut heights to make sure that your mower is set up correctly, and always remember - safety first, even if you are desperate to finish up and get out of the cold.

Aerating Your Lawn

 

Winter is generally a quieter time for your lawn - there’s less reason to use outdoor spaces in general and traffic levels definitely tend to nosedive once the frosts set in. As such, the winter months are an ideal time to reduce or undo some of the compaction that’s occurred over the course of the year.

 

Compaction, while inevitable, has serious consequences if left untended. For starters, compacted soil stops being able to , which means that dead matter won’t break down, and you’ll end up with large amounts of thatch lining your lawn. Compaction also stops water and nutrients from infiltrating the soil, which can cause dead patches, dry your grass out, and even encourage certain diseases to flourish - ensuring that your lawn won’t be able to flourish at all come spring.

 

Luckily, it’s fairly easy to reduce compaction via aeration, which is the process of perforating the soil’s surface to allow air, nutrients and water into the ground. Aerating your garden in winter has the added advantage of  preventing heavy wear from sealing the surface of your soil - effectively preventing any water from penetrating down to the root zone due to the trampling effect of boots and heavy machinery.

 

To aerate, simply take a gardening fork or a powered aerator, and start moving up and down your lawn making regular perforations in the soils surface - preferably about 125mm deep to ensure that you’ve got right down into the root-zone, where air and nutrients are needed most.  

 

We’d recommend using a petrol driven aerator to ensure even and regular holes are made. This reduces the chances of a patchy lawn developing, and also takes a little bit of the hard work off your hands. For winter aeration, avoid hollow tines and stick to spike aeration as you are literally just trying to ease compaction and allow nutrients into the soil.

 

If you have a very large lawn, you can also use a towed lawn aerator, which is designed to be attached to the back of a lawn tractor. As mentioned above though, we’d recommend limiting the use of these machines as much as possible in the winter months as they can cause a lot of damage to your lawn.

 

Once you’ve aerated your lawn, you can fertilise as normal, or even spread a new layer of loam. We’d generally advise against excessive work in the winter months though, as overly stressing your soil and lawn will prevent healthy regrowth in the spring.

 

Note: You should probably only aerate your lawn once per winter to avoid unnecessary damage. You should also take care to ensure that you only aerate a lawn once it has been dethatched, and cut down to a reasonable level so as to ensure that you get the best possible results.

Laying Stepping Stones

 

As mentioned above, one of the key components of any good winter lawn care routine is the minimisation of wear. In summer, grass can quickly bounce back from damage caused by excessive travel and there is little or no risk of permanent damage from everyday tasks like driving a lawn tractor up and down the garden. In winter, when resources are scarce and the grass is stressed by adverse weather conditions, even things like walking too and from your shed can start to damage a lawn, and this problem is only exacerbated if dogs, children or other garden visitors

 

To minimise wear related problems, we’d recommend laying small stepping stones in areas that are frequently travelled - including routes to and from sheds, or popular . This will keep people’s feet off the grass, and stop muddy tracks from appearing in late winter.

 

If you do decided to lay stepping stones, we’d recommend selecting small, natural stones no more than half a foot across. This will minimise the amount of light damage done to your grass while providing an adequate and safe platform for your feet.

 

We’d recommend that you refrain from moving them about too often too - it’s often held that winter stepping stones should be moved fairly frequently, so as to reduce the damage done to a single patch of your garden, but the truth is that it’s far easier to re-seed a few small patch of dead grass than it is to try and reinvigorate a lawn studded with light-deprived bald spots.

Miscellaneous Tasks

 

Although it’s substantially less important than all of the points mentioned above, winter is still a good time to look at reseeding any bare patches with hardy winter grasses, like creeping red fescue and Chewing’s fescue, which are at home in cold, wet conditions.

 

Although seeding in winter flies in the face of convention, it’s important to remember that most hardy grasses will germinate in soil temperatures of about 6 degrees celsius, and are normally resilient enough to weather the occasional freeze. There is some risk of losing them, but there’s no harm in trying, and early seedling means that your grass will have a head start come spring - perfect for making sure that invasive weeds don’t take advantage of any bald spots once the weather starts to warm up.

 

To sow, simply rake over the bald patch to a depth of 10-15 metres and sprinkle in your seeds. There should be enough water in the soil to ensure germination at this time of year, and there will also be less pests, which increases the chances of your seed surviving.

 

Winter’s also a great time to engage in some lawn mower maintenance, as your equipment is much less in-demand once the frosts set in. It’s always a good idea to make sure that you’ve taken care of any wear related problems before the busy spring/summer months set in, and taking the time to do routine tasks like changing blades and spark plugs can really help to ease the transition back into the main gardening season come April.