How to prepare your lawn - or your ‘meadow’ - for the long winter

There are a few things we need to cover as we move into the cool and then cold weather. The leaves are starting to lose their chlorophyll and showing their natural colors. The vegetables are not producing much, and lawns and meadows are not growing any more.

Yes, I said lawns and meadows. Lots of Alaskans are starting to transition their yard’s lawns into meadows. It is a trend that is coming to America as Outside yardeners around the country figure out what we are doing here. I had no idea the depth of lawn hatred out there!

Anyhow, let’s start with fall lawn care, which is really easy. Just mow the lawn. My rule is to mow the lawn low, just as the leaves start to fall. Instead of letting the grass get to 3 inches, mow it down to 1 to 2 inches. Of course, continue to leave the clippings in place just as you have during the spring and summer months.

The tops of the grass plants are going to die back during the winter and turn brown so there is no reason to keep blades long. There is absolutely no way you should be using a chemical fertilizer anytime on a lawn, but especially not in the fall. Why? Between the grass clippings and the leaves you are going to let lie, your lawn’s soil microbes, worms and microarthropods have all they need to feed your lawn plants. This is especially so since we have the occasional volcanic dusting which supplies needed minerals.

OK, but as noted, many of us are now maintaining meadows. These are “lawns gone wild.” In our yard we have been maintaining, by mowing, paths around several large, unmowed patches that are now full of different plants, and grasses, some that have grown two feet high or so. These meadows need different treatment if you are going to continue with them next year.

Listen to the latest “Teaming with Microbes” podcast with Jeff Lowenfels and Jonathan White:

First, you can simply leave things as they are. We have an area around a pond I built and we haven’t mowed it in 20 years. It is great looking, but gets a bit “ratty” in the fall as the grasses get pushed down because they are so tall. We can’t see it unless we are outside, so all is fine in the winter.


The new meadows however, are all outside windows. I am opting to cut them back to six inches or so to avoid the ratty look when there is no snow cover.

One thing about mowing a meadow: You can’t simply run it over with a mower because the plants are too high and you can’t raise the deck enough. A lawn tractor might work. So, the traditional method to maintain a meadow is to use a sickle or a scythe. The sickle is the one with a short handle and the scythe, long-handled, is what the Grim Reaper carries. In these modern times, however, a weed eater does a better job. It also doesn’t need sharpening and unlike a scythe, doesn’t have a learning curve.

I suppose you should consider marking where your meadow beds are so you can keep off them once it snows. Seems like way to much work for me given any potential benefits, but it is up to you.

Back to lawns, looking at the weather projections leads me to believe there is still time to overseed bare spots if you do it right away. If you have a thin lawn for some reason, overseeding should help.

And finally, what to do with leaves on the lawns and meadows? I can summarize it easily: Let them be. Every year I get questions-comments like “But what about the aphids on them?” or “They have borers in them!” And, of course, “Won’t the lawn be smothered?”

Nothing bad is going to happen to your lawn if you don’t rake those leaves off. In fact, do not waste your time raking or blowing them — unless you need to clear the deck, walks and driveway. Just let them fall and decay. Besides, even if you do end up smoothing your lawn, think of the meadow you could then put in!

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar:

Correction: Darn spell check. Those small bulbs mentioned last week are Scilla and Squill.

Alaska Botanical Garden: There are fantastic educational programs all winter long. Join and take advantage of member pricing and early bird notices.

Amaryllis: Let yours go dormant for eight weeks. Dark and cool. No water.

Feed microbes now: Time to feed the microbes in your outdoor soils so there will be plenty of nutrients come spring. Of course you tested, so follow recommendations. If not, you can always add kelp, soybean meal. Do it now before the leaves really start to fall.

Jeff Lowenfels

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He is the author of a series of books on organic gardening available at Amazon and elsewhere. He co-hosts the "Teaming With Microbes" podcast.