Skip to main content
Good Growing

Dealing with Fall Drought: Get your plants ready for winter

dry soil in the fall

Small farms and local foods educator and fellow contributor to the Good Growing column, Katie Parker, was kind enough to let me borrow her hollow-core aerator, to give my compacted lawn some much needed relief.

As Katie wrote in a previous column this year, core aerating your lawn is a great practice to help relieve soil compaction and introduce air and water deeper into the soil. It can even help to reduce thatch issues.

One important lesson is you need adequate soil moisture for the aerator tines to penetrate into the ground. Otherwise, the aerator will just bounce on top of the soil. And where I am at in Macomb the soil is very dry. Also after conversation with others, it is pretty dry throughout West-central Illinois.

Knowing I needed to introduce more moisture to my soil to get the aerator to, well aerate, I spent a few days watering my lawn. I only have one sprinkler, so I moved from spot to spot. Allowing it to water the area for about an hour. Sometimes longer if I lost track of time. After two days of moving a sprinkler around my yard, I thought it time to try the aerator. Looking at the ground I immediate saw a problem. The soil was still cracked and dry. I could only slide a screwdriver a few inches into the ground (with great effort I might add). You can easily insert a probe or screwdriver in my case into soil with high moisture. You know you hit drier soil when the probe gets harder to insert or stops altogether.

With a grim foretelling of failure, I still thought it was worth a try to run the aerator. I hooked it up to back of the mower and added about 200 pounds of concrete block to the top of the device. I then made a test pass. Just as I thought, it barely made any purchase on the soil. I got about a half-inch deep core in the low spots of my yard. Maybe I needed more weight? I looked around at my three boys who were enjoying watching this new contraption. Do I dare sit them on top of the aerator for more weight? Thoughts of an emergency room visit quickly swept that idea from my mind. Plus, no matter of weight was going to help. The ground is just too darn dry.

In Central Illinois, fall typically brings reliable rainfall. It helps give our cool-season lawns a boost after a hot, dry summer. And it offers the moisture necessary for trees, both deciduous and evergreen, to go into winter and emerge in spring with ample water resources.

Following are some tips when dealing with fall drought:

  • Water newly planted trees, shrubs, and perennials. Trees especially take a long time to become established, which can be upwards of two years depending on the species and site conditions. A plant without an established root system is highly susceptible to drought stress.
  • Evergreens both newly planted and established require irrigation during a fall drought. Leave a dripping hose at the base of the evergreen for several hours at least once a week.
  • For those desiring a high-quality turf, irrigating in the fall will provide the necessary moisture to keep the lawn green and actively growing. Apply about an inch of water per week.
  • Mulch is a great technique for insulating the soil from temperature extremes and conserves moisture. Two to four inches of wood chips are adequate. (Aside: Mulch should NEVER touch the trunk of a tree or shrub.)
  • Irrigate fall blooming plants. Drought reduces the flowering of fall blooming plants and pollinators need that critical nectar source this time of year.

As for my chore of aerating the lawn, hopefully, we can some rain soon. I don’t know how long Katie will let me borrow this aerator!