The Ultimate Guide to Fall Landscaping

It’s that special time of year again. The new season means pumpkin spice, apple orchards, colorful leaves, college football, and back-to-school shopping. What many don’t realize is it’s also the best time to install new plants and prepare grass to flourish the following spring.

Why fall is a great time to plant

Plants, grass, and let’s be honest, most people prefer the moderate autumn temperatures for many reasons. Fall is the only season when air temperatures are cool, and the soil is still warm from the heat of the summer. It’s an ideal environment for establishing strong roots for a vibrant spring.

Cooler temperatures mean less insects and pesky pests eating away at plants. It’s also easier to keep plants watered appropriately, as the soil will be able to maintain adequate moisture. Plants and grass will have ample time and the best conditions to prepare their roots for the dry summer if they are placed in the fall. Not to mention the fact that most nurseries often have discounts on plants and landscaping materials as they look to clear out inventory before the winter.

What to plant in the fall

Late September into early November is prime planting time. It’s a good idea to plan for some perennial plants that bloom in the fall to provide an attractive seasonal color. Shrubs like Oakleaf Hydrangeas have beautiful white leaves in the summer that change to red and orange during the fall. Some other beautiful fall plants to consider are:

American Beautyberry
Black-Eyed Susan
American Witch Hazel
Winterthur Viburnum
Ornamental Pepper
Anise Hyssop
Coral Bells
Virginia Sweetspire
Burning Bush
Red Twig Dogwood
Spirea Renaissance
Mock Orange
Pink Mulhy Grass

If you’re in search of cooler weather vegetables that can mature in under two months, you’re in luck! Consider planting greens such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, and mâché, as they thrive in cooler soil conditions and have a rapid maturation period. Additionally, vegetables like radishes, turnips, winter squash, carrots, potatoes, and beets are excellent choices for a fall harvest. And for a truly autumn-inspired vegetable, why not try growing pumpkins?

While focusing on fall beautification, don’t forget to plan ahead for spring blooms. Spring-flowering plants like tulips, hyacinths, and alliums require planting before winter sets in to ensure they grace your garden with vibrant colors come springtime. Pansies and violas, when planted in the fall, will reward you with blooms both in the spring and the fall. Furthermore, consider planting vegetables like onions or garlic cloves in the fall to allow them the necessary time to develop and produce a bountiful spring harvest.

Be sure to cover plants with a layer of mulch or compost once the soil freezes in order to insulate them.

Grass maintenance

Are you setting your lawn up for success? It all starts in the fall!

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-Core Aerating

This process involves removing small plugs of soil and thatch from the surface of the lawn. Core aerating improves air and water nutrients and breaks down the layer of organic material at the surface, reducing thatch accumulation and encouraging beneficial microorganisms to decompose it. Simply put, breaking up the soil will promote strong roots for grass to flourish.

If aerating is done in the spring, weeds will love the holes. Weed seeds are minimal in the fall, making it the perfect time for core aerating. A garden fork will do the trick for smaller yards, but a walk behind aerator may be necessary for larger yards.


Spreading new grass seed over an existing lawn can help fill in bare spots, thicken the grass coverage, and improve the overall resilience of the turf. Overseeding during the fall can help to crowd out weeds that might have otherwise come in the spring as well.


Dethatching, also known as power raking, is a lawn care practice aimed at removing excess thatch, a layer of dead grass, leaves, and organic debris that accumulates on the soil surface beneath the grass. Thatch is beneficial in moderation, as it can provide insulation and moisture retention. However, when it becomes too thick (typically over half an inch), it can pose problems.

If you notice signs of excessive thatch, such as a spongy feel when walking on the lawn, poor water infiltration, reduced nutrient absorption, or increased susceptibility to pests and diseases, it’s probably time for some dethatching maintenance.


The cooler temperatures of fall are conducive to root growth. As a general rule, grass roots keep growing until the ground is about 40 degrees. Stronger roots mean a greater ability to withstand the cold winter, and grass that is ready to fight off weeds for an early spring entrance.

Fall checklist

Before the fall landscaping season comes to a close, be sure to check these items off your list!

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-Trim & water any dead limbs on shrubs and trees.

Trimming and watering dead limbs on shrubs and trees is essential to maintain the overall health and appearance of the plant. Dead branches can pose safety hazards, serve as entry points for diseases, and divert valuable nutrients and water away from the living parts of the plant.

-Cut back perennials

Remove dead leaves, tops, and damaged stalks. Shrubs that flower in spring, such as forsythia, azaleas, and lilacs, should be pruned immediately after they stop flowering, but everything else can be cut in the fall to promote new growth, maintain the plant’s shape, and prevent disease or pest issues

-Final mowing and fertilizer application

When performing the final mow of the season, cut the grass a little shorter (3 – 3 ¼ inches in height). Shorter grass is less likely to become diseased. Empty the gas tank of your lawn mower as well. Old gas can ruin the carburetor. It’s a good idea to drain the oil, replace the air filter, sharpen the blade, and give it a good fall cleaning.

-Clean the leaves

Remove leaves, dead plants, and weeds. Leaves can suffocate grass, compromise airflow, and be a breeding ground for pests. Snow mold can also create ugly dead grass. If you are keeping the leaves as compost, keep it alive by turning it weekly throughout the winter.

Clear out the garden

Decaying plants can harbor diseases and make a good home for pests. In addition, weeds and disease are less likely to find a home if the soil is given a proper cleansing. Once the garden is cleared, adding compost or organic matter will pave the way for planting a fresh garden.

-Empty all outdoor watering systems

Whether it’s the garden hose or a sprinkler system, water left inside will freeze and can cause significant damage. It can also lead to mold and algae growth potentially clogging the system.

Fall is truly the season of transformation in the world of landscaping. As we bid farewell to the vibrant summer blooms, we usher in a time of preparation and renewal. The moderate temperatures, warm soil, and reduced pest activity make autumn the perfect window of opportunity to plant and rejuvenate our outdoor spaces.

In the Chicago area, where the seasons shift dramatically, taking advantage of the fall season is even more critical. A well-prepared landscape in the fall is more likely to endure the harsh winter conditions, leading to a healthier, greener, and more resilient lawn and garden come spring.

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