Get Your House and Yard Ready for Winter
Batten down the hatches for winter with these easy DIY tips.
Trees are starting to resemble madras skirts, as they swap summer greens for autumn finery. Fall is a glorious time of year, and the combination of shorter days and tumbling temperatures remind us to get our outdoor affairs in order before winter comes knocking.
Leaf removal occupies a major chunk of outdoor chore time, and rightly so. Leaves that pile up can harm grass and turn driveways into a slippery mess. Black walnut and oak leaves, when wet, can stain patio and deck surfaces. Kris Holland, owner of Black River Landscape Management in Randolph, New Jersey, spends autumn tackling all kinds of outside tasks.
“So many homeowners don’t know how to properly prepare their homes for the cold winter, especially in snowy regions,” he says. “Taking care of a few simple things in fall can save hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars when winter puts us knee-deep in snow and ice.” Learn what you should be doing now to prepare your home for winter.
Around the House
- Clean out gutters. Keep gutters clear of fall leaves, twigs and acorns. “Do a full clean—or hire someone to do it—before the snow flies,” Holland says. Otherwise, accumulated debris keeps melting snow and ice from flowing freely, which can cause gutters to freeze. “Clogged gutters can lead to a host of costly problems, including water damage to your home and termite nesting,” he adds.
- Turn off outside spigots. Drain outside spigots, turning off water from inside your home. Consider covering exterior faucets with an insulating cover, especially if you don’t have a turn-off valve inside.
- Power wash outside surfaces. Take time to scrub down patios, decks and walkways to remove accumulated dirt from summer.
- Wash windows. Wash both inside and outside surfaces, and inspect seals. Caulk if necessary. Remove screens and stow them for winter.
- Plan snow removal. “Make plans now to hire a snow removal service,” Holland says. “Don’t wait until the first blizzard is in the forecast.”
- Buy ice melt. The time to lay in a supply of ice melt is before there’s ice on the way. Pick up a few bags as soon as you see them in stores. For a pet-friendly ice melt, Holland suggests using magnesium chloride. Magnesium calcium chloride blends are said to be pet friendly, but they aren’t,” he says. He also recommends not using salt blends on concrete and especially not new concrete. Using sand for traction is the safest choice on concrete.
Outdoor Living Areas
In-Ground Hot Tub
The first step in winterizing a spa is deciding if you want to close it down for the season or enjoy sitting in hot water surrounded by snow. If you opt for winter tubbing, review your manual’s instructions for use in freezing weather. Most spas have a freeze protection system. You may also need to set the spa’s auto heat mode to cycle on and off to keep water warm. A tight fitting cover prevents energy loss and keeps the heat where it belongs—in the water. Clean and drain the spa before cold weather arrives so it’s ready for winter use.
- Drain outside water features. This includes hot tubs, fountains, swimming pools and waterfalls. “Hire specialists to ensure your water features are properly drained and treated to prevent freezing in any water lines,” Holland says.
- Deal with ashes. He also recommends emptying wood ashes out of a firepit area before the end of the season. “You don’t want water to collect in a firepit and freeze in combination with remnants from the last fire. That can lead to problems down the road.” If your firepit has a cover, secure it before winter cold arrives.
- Cover outdoor furniture. Clean and cover outdoor furniture, making sure it’s snug and secure for winter. “If possible, put your furniture away in a shed,” Holland says. “Definitely stow your patio umbrella. If it’s stored outdoors, secure it tightly so it won’t disappear on winter winds.”
- Keep grilling. Grill as long as you can. Many homeowners move a grill closer to the house for winter, but choose your location carefully to avoid fire hazards or melted siding. “Outdoor kitchens with plumbing need to be drained and properly closed down for winter,” says Holland.
- Check outdoor lighting. Inspect outdoor lighting, replacing bulbs as needed. This is especially important with lights that require stepladders for bulb changes.
Lawn and Landscape
- Cut grass. Holland recommends mowing lawns in snow-prone areas to at least 4 inches to protect grass from snow. Cut it too short, and winter snow and cold may damage roots and cause sections to die out. Leave it too long, and blades may mat under snow and develop snow mold disease, which might cause bare spots next spring.
- Fertilize the lawn. Apply a winterizer fertilizer to cool season lawns to encourage thicker root growth. Warm-season lawns turn to amber shades after frost. If you want green all winter, overseed with ryegrass.
- Drain irrigation systems. Properly drain and blow out automated irrigation systems to avoid damage from freezing and thawing. “If you’re unsure how to do this, call whoever installed your system,” Holland says. Drain and coil hoses for winter storage. Remove hose nozzles, sprayers and wands. Store these items in a non-freezing spot, like a garage or basement.
- Protect shrubs. Install burlap barriers around cold-sensitive shrubs, especially those near roads. Burlap can help protect plants from salt damage.
- Apply oil spray. Treat shrubs and trees with a dormant horticultural oil spray to help control certain pests, including aphids, scale, and tent caterpillars. Dormant oil needs specific conditions for application. Read the label thoroughly to ensure you’re spraying within the right temperature window.
- Deal with deer. Treat plants with your favorite deer repellant to protect your landscape as food sources become scarce. Holland suggests using a spray that contains egg yolks because deer dislike protein. Cover plants you simply can’t afford to lose with bird netting held to twigs with clothespins.
- Let grasses stand. Don’t prune ornamental grasses until spring. “This is vital to protect the crown of the plant,” Holland says. “If you don’t cut it, the stems may mat over winter, but that matting helps protect the crown from cold and ice. If you cut it back in fall, snow and ice or freezing and thawing may damage the crown.”
- Recycle leaves. Mow over leaves and let them decompose in place. Or bag chopped leaves with your mower and use them as mulch or add to your compost pile.
- Consider the birds. Drain and store unheated birdbaths. Consider adding a heater to your bath or swapping it for a heated model to provide birds with fresh water all winter. Fill and hang birdfeeders to invite living color to your winter landscape.