Lawn care tips to remember for colder weather

Don’t forget to set your clocks back Sunday morning at 2 a.m.

Oh, the awful annual trade-off: an extra hour’s sleep (before a Monday morning, which is a genuine bonus), but soon we will be going home in darkness by what seems like 4 p.m. in what used to be “the afternoon.” 

But, cheer up — the hours of daylight will start getting longer again right before Christmas.

Should brand-new grass get a pre-winter cut?

Gary in McLean writes: “I have a small front lawn that I recently aerated and reseeded. The new grass has come in really well; it’s probably around 2 inches tall. Now that it’s already November, can I avoid another mowing before next spring? Or, should I give it one more cut?

A truly tricky question.

You want to stay off newly sown grass as much as possible, but you don’t want it to get overly long either. So, get a ruler and keep a close eye on it. If it stays at 2 inches or a little taller, but doesn’t reach past 3 inches, do nothing.

If it reaches 3.5 inches, you can (and probably should) mow off just the very tips — but no more than a 12 inch and use the lightest-weight mower with the absolute sharpest blade available.

Only mow when and if the grass is bone dry. Mowing a freshly planted lawn when it’s wet could ruin everything.

Lawn cutting rules as winter weather looms

We just told Gary not to mow a newly planted lawn unless it gets taller than 3 inches. But what about existing lawns? Many people fear snow mold if their turf is too tall over winter; others worry that too short a cut would expose the root system to excessive winter injury.

The answer? You’re both right.

Keep an eye on your turf and cut it an inch lower with a newly sharpened blade when and if the grass reaches 3.5 inches. But don’t dare cut if the lawn is wet — even with morning dew. It must be bone dry. And the blade must be sharp.

A 2.5-inch tall lawn would be expected to grow another 1inch before going dormant, and that’s the perfect final height for protecting the rhizomes while avoiding issues of mold.

Is there still time to sow grass seed?

Mike in Laurel writes: “I have a timing question about my front yard. I live in a town house with a beautiful tree in the front. The lawn area under the tree is partly shady/partly sunny. (A few hours of sun a day. OK — two hours.) I just bought a wood fiber seed blanket and am ready to turn up the yard, apply seed and top soil, and then put the seed blanket on top. Is this an OK time of year to do this?

No, Mike, it’s not. The ideal window to sow fresh cool season grass seed in the D.C. region is mid-August through the end of September. Because the weather was unusually warm, you might have been able to stretch things into the first week or so of October this year, but it would be a waste of seed now.

Oh, and those “blankets” are somewhere between useless and counterproductive.

Your lawn loves when this plan doesn’t come together

Let’s review Mike’s plan to sow grass seed under a tree on his small front yard that gets about two hours of sun a day: “Turn up the yard, apply seed and top soil, and then put a wood fiber seed blanket on top.”

Don’t do any of that, Mike.

  1. It’s too late in the season to get decent germination; the soil is just getting too cold.
  2. “Turning up” the soil could easily injure the roots of that tree, which is the focal point of the front of your house.
  3. Those “seed blanket” things are worthless.
  4. Two hours of sun isn’t enough to support even the most shade-loving grass.

(Other than that, a good plan!)

Seriously, search “shade-loving ground covers,” choose one that appeals to you and that isn’t invasive, and install it in the spring. You and the tree will be much happier.

Holiday cuttings from live plants in your landscape

Now that Halloween and the worst World Series Game 7 ever are out of the way, homeowners are starting to anxiously eyeball their holly and evergreens, dreaming of some nice homegrown holiday decorations.

But put down those pruners, because it’s way too early — for two reasons:

  • Even freshly cut greens are only going to hold up for around a month, so wait until we reach December to avoid the shame of shabby swags.
  • You do not want your pruning to trigger new growth with days that are still warmish but freezing nights right around the corner. Wait until we’re at least two days into a cold spell with at least two more days of cold weather predicted. And do that pruning just as the sun is going down, to insure that the plants don’t get warmed by a bright sun after a morning cutting.

Mike McGrath was Editor-in-Chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated Public Radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and Garden Editor for WTOP since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at

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