Tips for first fall/winter in new home
October 2, 2014 10:17 AM   Subscribe

It's getting to be fall and winter's not far behind. This is our first fall/winter in our first home. What are the practical/DIY/gardening-y things we need to do to be ready for the change in seasons?

I've never owned or lived in a house before, and I don't know what you're supposed to do with the changing of the seasons. The list below is all I know about getting ready for the winter:

1. Get sprinklers blown out so they don't freeze
2. Rake fallen leaves (some of which will be "browns" for my kitchen compost, and I'll either get a separate yard compost or take to the dump for composting)
3. Prepare for snow by getting some quantity of ice/snow melt and a shovel. I think I also need to get a "roof rake" to prevent "ice dams" and "horribleness."
4. Have some quantity of food and emergency supplies on hand in case of a big blizzard.
5. Wrap some of the trees/bushes in burlap (we have a gardener who can help identify which).
6. Get furnace serviced, and chimney swept.

Beyond that, I don't know what, if anything I should be doing. We have gas heat, so I don't need to arrange for an oil delivery.

Is there anything else? Anything that gets planted or fertilized now for spring? Is there anything I should be doing with the lawn? When do I stop mowing and/or watering the lawn? Is there anything special to do with the gutters (other than get the leaves cleaned out)?

I'm looking more for the things I need to do to preserve and maintain the house and yard, the things I should buy to avoid a rush (and to have on hand when needed!), and to prepare for next year, than I am for things like "can your late-season harvest." Thanks!
posted by Admiral Haddock to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Actually, with #2, can I just mow my fallen leaves and leave them to mulch, as I do with my grass clippings? I just use a push reel mower, so everything just ends up on the lawn (which I'm fine with!).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:20 AM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

1. Turn off the water supply for the hose spigots, and detach the hoses.
2. Depending on how much snow you can reasonably expect, you may find yourself yearning for a snow plow guy.
3. My gardener stops mowing the lawn around the end of October.
4. Fallen leaves won't turn into nice mulch, so you'll need to get rid of them.
5. Clean out the gutters/downspouts.
6. Small animals/insects may start invading about this time, so be prepared for pest removal.
7. Trim back any overhanging/dead branches.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:23 AM on October 2, 2014

About the only thing I can think of is moving stuff in our too small garage. We shift Lawn mowing/gardening stuff to the back and make our shovels/sleds/snow blower very accessible.

Oh, and one other thing- depending on where you live. We all use the tall reflector things so the plow can see where the road is (versus our lawn). Otherwise, he just tears up your yard with the plow because he can't tell where the road edge is and our lawn begins.

And depending on how large your driveway is shop for a used snow blower before snow falls. Plowing can be incredibly expensive. A snow blower can pay for itself easily in just one season.
posted by beccaj at 10:26 AM on October 2, 2014

How are you on weatherization? Have you had an energy audit? You can do a lot of the same things they would do in one with a $15 infrared thermometer and visually looking for cracks, and then follow up with weather stripping around doors and caulking around the outside of any leaky windows.

thank you for the reminder about the sprinklers, it's our first year in a real house, too
posted by deludingmyself at 10:28 AM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

A note about stocking food for a blizzard -

I just checked where you are, which isn't too far off from where I grew up. And blizzards were actually dealable. Messy, yeah, but dealable; the streets cleared pretty quickly. (My friends in New York City are actually getting sick of hearing me grumble every year about how "there was a blizzard when I was six where the drifts were taller than my father's head and I STILL had to go to school the next day because the plows were so on top of it".)

I mean, get a few extra cans of soup or Manwich stuff if you want, but it's not like you have to stock a storm cellar and prepare for a power outage as a routine expectation or anything.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:28 AM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you have storm windows, be sure to get them in place before the weather turns bad. You may also want to look into shrink film window insulation if your windows are drafty.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:29 AM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I collect all my leaves with a mower. For the early fall leaves I just mow them into the lawn. As fall progressess and the leaves start falling enough to cover the lawn I collect them (again usign the mower to mulch and 'vacuum' them off the lawn) and dump into a pile and/or use as mulch on the garden for overwintering. I personally rake them onto the sidewalk and street to get a nice thick amount of leaves than 'mow' the sidewalk with with mower set really low (usually as low as the mower will go). This shreds them very fine and I find they decompose to compost much faster and take up much less space as well. I HATE racking and bagging leaves the conventional way. I have a 1/4 acre lot with mature sweet gums and big leaf maples. What used to be a huge chore is now a couple of hours every 3-4 days for about two weeks to get it all cleaned up.

Also-be careful with the snow melt. Regular salt will crumble and destroy concrete pretty quickly (a couple of bad winters can do it) and it isn't any good for the surrounding lawns/gardens or the storm drain system it all drains into. Use Sparingly and try to shovel the snow before it turns to ice to avoid having to use lots of salt.
posted by bartonlong at 10:31 AM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Depending on the size of your driveway you might want to look into getting a snowblower. New England snow can be very, very heavy. Unless you have a very small driveway, If your driveway is wide enough where you can't easy toss shoveled snow from the middle of it, you want seriously want to think about a snowblower.

If you have hot air ducts, change the filters. This is usually pretty easy depending on what you have.

We shut off all sillcocks from the inside. Do that, if you have shutoffs for them.

Find out what your town does about leaf pickup. Some towns let you rake it to the front and they come by with a big vacuum truck and pick it up. Other towns will pick up the brown bags during certain weeks of the spring and fall. Other towns don't do anything and you have to take it somewhere.

Get a good, big rake. Don't mess around with crappy rakes. Wear gloves. Bike or kayak gloves work well because they're padded between the thumb and the forefinger, where the blisters happen.

I follow Dave Epstein on Twitter. He's a local meteorologist and he also posts a lot about planting and when to do what with local plants.

Blizzard prep: A little bit of extra food in the pantry and a way to cook it if you lose power. Honestly in all but the biggest storms the stores are usually open by the next day. Have plenty of flashlights. Get LED ones that use 3AAA batteries because they're light, bright, inexpensive, and last a while.

Yes, get your chimney swept, especially if you're in a new house and you're unsure how long it's been.

Take screens down, if you have the sort of windows where you need to do this.

Get snow/ice melt as soon as it shows up at the store. It can be very hard to find it mid-winter.

We have a sort of big, odd-shaped driveway so before the ground freezes we put in tall stakes to mark out the boundaries. That way we know where it ends when it's covered in snow and we don't accidentally run the snowblower over the lawn.

Ditto getting an energy audit. It's one of those things that seem to good to be true in that it doesn't cost anything and they give you free (or cheap) weatherstripping and things.

Weatherize. If you don't have decent windows (and maybe even if you do), put in that clay weatherstripping in the gaps and/or use the heatshrink plastic over it.

Get plenty of birdseed if you have feeders.

If you burn wood in your fireplace, stock up, stack and split it. Get plenty of fatwood for starters.

Clean the gutters.

If you have one of those basketball hoops that has a big base filled with water, drain some of the water out so it doesn't crack when it expands.

Buy good boots, gloves, and a winter coat, if this is your first New England winter.

If you wish to go on a ski weekend, book now.

Get a small snow shovel to keep in your car. I once spent about three hours helping dig people out of the lot at Riverside after a daytime storm. Nobody could get out and they hadn't plowed it.
posted by bondcliff at 10:36 AM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I lived in Iowa for five years.
Don't worry about your lawn.
You can skip raking leaves if you want, the wind will blow them away soon -this might make your neighbors grumpy.
Check the weatherstripping on your doors - summer heat might have made it decompose.
Buy a metal bladed snow shovel - the plastic ones are crap.

My best protip though; buy a grill and outdoor furniture - they are really cheap this time of year.
posted by vapidave at 10:41 AM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Excellent advice. The only additional item I would add is that if you want to plant bulbs, now is the season. I usually plant a few daffodils, crocuses, tulips, hyacinths, lily of the valley and snow drops at this time of the year. It's a bit of a chore, but well worth it in the spring.
posted by valoius at 10:48 AM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Clean gutters, ideally after most of the leaves have fallen, and before any persistent rain/snow turns them into nasty sludge. Dry crunchy leaves are much easier to scoop out. Check the downspouts for any blockages by spraying water down them.

Detach garden hoses. Get a couple of the cheap polystyrene pot things that cover any outside water taps. Most hose trigger spouts/sprayers will die if they're left out in the cold, so unscrew them and bring them in.

If your power company offers free/cheap energy audits, and there's not a long waiting list, then it's worth getting one.

Perhaps have a few compressed-woodchip/sawdust logs on hand for emergency fire-boosting if your firewood isn't playing nice. If you're going to be making a lot of use of the fireplace, now's the time to gather up kindling and tinder and bag it somewhere dry, though probably not inside the house. If you have stacked logs on hand, split a few into batons.

Get plenty of birdseed if you have feeders.

Bear-proof your birdseed and feeders (and trash) if you have local bears.
posted by holgate at 10:51 AM on October 2, 2014

I wanna chime in on blizzard prep here: yup, most of them are no big deal with stores open soon after. However, I ended up without power for nearly a week (and I live in a decent sized city) because of so many downed trees on power lines after Snowtober. The street right over from me had power and I didn't. My hot water heater is gas powered, thank the gods, and the temperature did warm up during the day, but make sure you have the right stuff for staying warm if you lose power (blankets and things for layering) and if you have an electric stove, an alternative cooking option, like a camp stove.
posted by carrioncomfort at 10:54 AM on October 2, 2014

- bring in lawn furniture and anything else that would become a projectile in high winds
- pull down storm windows if you have them, change out screens for storms on screen doors
- look into drafts-under-doors and get some of those snakes if you need them
- take a peek at sketchy looking branches particularly ones that hang over your house, your car or the neighbors house or car
- flashlights where you will find them, extra batteries
- know if there is a thing you need to know at your house after power outages (my house you have to manually reset the water pump, for example)
- get furnace serviced, change air filters
- real snow shovel, somewhere where you can get to it if there's suddenly a foot of snow (same with roof rake) for any door you might want to shovel out and trash cans, etc
- cut rose bushes waaaay the hell back if you have any
- if you have rooms you don't use, close the heat registers to them unless they have water in them
- consider some sand in addition to snow-melt - snow melt is often chemical-y and salt-y and sometimes not that awesome for lawns/plants and sometimes you just need/want traction and not necessarily melting
- make sure birdseed is locked up tight, keep an eye peeled for places critters might get in and try to stay
- agree, making sure people can find driveway edges and maybe mailbox are good things to do
- make a findable list of power company and oil/fuel company's phone numbers and websites and your account numbers. I went apoplectic once when I went to report a power outage and the fucking web form wanted to know my account number and I had to dig up an old bill in the dark
- and yeah get some winter stuff for your car: mini-shovel, blanket just-in-case, scraper, brush thing to get snow off the top of it, top off windshield fluid, power bar in the glove compartment

Generally, this is a great opportunity for know-your-neighbor sorts of interactions. See if they know a plow guy or a gutter-cleaner. See if your neighborhood is likely to have power outages or not.
posted by jessamyn at 11:09 AM on October 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Get a tarp or universal cover for your outside air conditioning compressor, if you have one.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:32 AM on October 2, 2014

Put all of the leaves together. They'll rot down to leaf mould. Just mound them into a pile somewhere out of the way and leave them alone for a year. Leaving them on your lawn will work, but it will take longer as you'll be relying on worms and such to deal with them. It's better to gather them into a pile, really.

With regards to your gutters, you can buy mesh "balls" that sit at the top of the downspout and prevent any leaves from going down the pipe. They're a fit and forget kind of jobbie. Visually inspect for cracks or leaky joints, and also check that the fittings are holding them secure to the wall. There are several gutter sealant products available that you can use to make good, rather than replacing an entire run of gutter. Check them again in Spring. Use a pair of binoculars to have a good close look. While you're looking, check any flashing or joints to make sure they're secure. Also check any vents to make sure that animals don't try to get into your nice cosy house to nest over the cold weather.

Check your drains and soakaways too. If you get a sudden thaw, they'll have to cope with a lot of water in one go. Make sure they're clear of debris.

Get a few bags of sharp sand. Keep one in each car and one to handle your driveway (amounts may vary). Using salt is bad for plants, concrete & metals, ie, your car's underbody. Sand won't help melt the ice, but it will help your wheels grip and you can put it down anywhere without worrying you're going to kill things off.

Get your windows and doors draughtproofed. Windows can generally have a little bit of caulk applied around the edges. Doors will benefit from foam draught excluder. Go round at night with a bright torch and shine round any frames. If you can see light coming through, you really need to plug that hole. I heard somewhere that if you can put a piece of paper in a join, such as where the door closes against the jamb, and pull it out when the door is closed, the seal isn't tight enough. Other ways to check are a lit candle (it will flicker), an incense stick (the smoke will drift) or a wet hand (will feel cold as the air moves over it).

Check your attic/loft. Make sure the access hatch is draughtproofed too, or heat will rise through the cracks. Make sure that any oil paintings or such that you have up there that are sensitive to temperature changes are well protected. Make sure you don't impede the airflow, or you'll get damp.

Ensure any pipes are either lagged or otherwise protected from cold. You won't know they've burst until they're spewing water everywhere, most likely. On that note, check where your mains inlet tap is and that it's operational. You only need to do this once, but it's useful to know locations and operations if you ever have an incident. An afternoon lagging pipes well is a LOT cheaper than getting a plumber in, and then a plasterer to repair the water damage.

If you have a water feature in your garden, drain it then cover it so rain and snow can't get in.

Check your outbuildings for anything that might be affected by cold temperatures. Things like paint can sometimes go a little weird if it gets cold enough - check the label. Check the gutters/roofs on these too.

Buy a snow shovel now. Most folk don't think about them until they can't get their car off the driveway, and the price will skyrocket when that happens. Also buy yourself a nice big coir rug for outside of your door. It'll save you walking sand in and can be picked up and shaken to clear it. Maybe have a cheap rug for inside, too, to help catch the walked in stuff. A hand brush kept by the door also comes in useful for removing snow from shoes.

Buy in supplies of cold/flu medicine, and any prescriptions you might need. If you've got the flu, going outside in the cold is going to feel like hell. If you're snowed in, having prescriptions on hand will be useful too. Make sure to rotate your supply normally.

Check your smoke and CO alarms. Make sure you have fresh batteries for them.

Bleed your radiators, assuming they're the kind that need it. Trapped air means less heat and possibly more corrosion. Check that your central heating system is working now, rather than waiting for it to get really cold and relying on it to keep you warm. Perhaps get it serviced too, if it hasn't been done in a while.

When the cold weather is actually here, have a walk round your house with a thermometer and see which rooms get the coldest, pointing to a need to insulate or check windows. If you can, create a porch to help prevent heat being lost every time you open a door. Get some thick curtains and hang them close to the wall - I was in a house once where they had thick curtains but they were on a pole several inches away from the wall. There was a lovely draught coming through, just from the fact it was colder outside than in. Depending on the curtains you have, you may be able to add liners to existing ones.

Any plants in pots are going to be much more susceptible to frost and cold than those in the ground. Move them to a sheltered corner. This is also a good time of year to plant winter flowering pansies for a splash of colour. If the pots are terracotta, be sure that they're frost-proof. If not, bring them indoors or they'll shatter in the cold.

Check if wooden furniture or fencing needs treating before the cold sets in. Having it be moist all Winter won't do it any good. Any decking should be swept clean of moss and leaves regularly

Set your ceiling fans to recirculate heat downwards from the ceiling. Also, check the humidity in the house. Central heating can sometimes lead to dry air, which can dry out your mucous membranes a little. If your eyes are scratchy or your throat is dry, a damp flannel on a rad can help a little.

Look into rebate schemes for any winterising work you do, especially if you're on a reduced income. You might be able to get a grant for loft insulation, or something.

Check your outside lighting. As the nights draw in, you'll need it more, especially if there's snow or frost on the ground. Solar lights are pretty inexpensive and don't require laying cables.

Ask your chimney sweep to check that the damper is working. It's the flap inside the chimney that you can open and close. If you're not going to use the chimney, you can buy a thing called a chimney balloon that will seal it up temporarily.

Get some draught excluders to go under your internal doors. I like the kind that attach to the door, rather than the sort you have to keep putting back into place, because I'm lazy like that.

Autumn is a great time to care for your lawn. Remove thatch (dry dead grass) with a spring-tined rake or a scarifier, then apply an autumn lawn feed (a spring one will encourage the grass to send up leaves). If you have any bare patches, reseed or resod. It's also a great time to plant spring-flowering bulbs. Head to a garden centre too, to have a look at what looks nice right now. There are lots of evergreens that will give you colour during the winter.

Have the contact numbers for your electricity, water and gas companies written down somewhere. Don't rely on internet access to be available. Also have an old fashioned telephone that doesn't require mains power to work or a charged up mobile phone.
posted by Solomon at 11:52 AM on October 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

Excellent advice, above. The only things I would add are (1) be sure you have a way to add humidity to the air if you don't have a humidifier in your home heating system (we have hot water radiators, so dry winter air gets really dry. Most forced-air heating systems include a humidifier.), and (2) if you have interior water/radiator pipes in an unfinished basement and/or crawlspace, use something like a wireless indoor-outdoor thermometer and set one of the sensors in the unfinished space. It is a handy way to see if anything is near freezing. The prior owners for our house had hidden open holes in our foundation with drywall in our partially finished basement, resulting in our basement temps plummeting to below freezing our first winter. Needless to say we had to buy emergency space heaters until we could get the holes repaired.
posted by apennington at 12:03 PM on October 2, 2014

In addition to shutting off hose spigots... close the inside valve and open outside valve to drain water and allow for expansion.
posted by release the hardwoods! at 12:52 PM on October 2, 2014

Get and plant bulbs. They're some of the easiest gardening you can do. If you have deer that eat your plants, avoid tulips and most crocus. Narcissus (aka daffodils) are pretty much pest-resistant. Planted once, they'll keep coming up for years. Tulips are fun but are less perennial.

I've liked Van Engelen for bulbs - they ride the line between wholesale and retail while maintaining good quality. If you want to get smaller quantity, they have a fully retail catalog called John Scheepers. Plant at the depth suggested by the people who sell you the bulbs. Then just wait for spring. If you want , don't tell anyone you're planting them and they'll be a lovely surprise.

Avoid planting things in lines - they end up looking goofy. Go for organic shapes, like drifts.
posted by sciencegeek at 1:24 PM on October 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not just flower bulbs. Now is the time for garlic too.
posted by bonehead at 1:46 PM on October 2, 2014

Costco is a good source for reasonably priced bulbs. Planting bulbs is a breeze with a bulb auger. I have two - one for the big bulbs of tulips, narcissus, and lilies, and one for the little bulbs like crocus, dutch iris, squill, and snowdrops, which are the earliest to appear int the spring.

I always bring my recycling bin and trash can onto the covered back porch in winter so I don't have to walk through the snow to get to them, and place a snow shovel near the door on both the front and back porches.
posted by caryatid at 1:47 PM on October 2, 2014

I'm a novice homeowner myself, but one thing this thread reminded me to do is buy a cheap outdoor rug to go right inside my front door. No mud room, no front porch leads to a very salty muddy puddles of water all winter long.

A plastic rug and boot tray are my solutions for those. Also a few old bath towels in easy reach. Double if you have dogs.
posted by fontophilic at 4:23 PM on October 2, 2014

However, I ended up without power for nearly a week (and I live in a decent sized city) because of so many downed trees on power lines after Snowtober. The street right over from me had power and I didn't. My hot water heater is gas powered, thank the gods, and the temperature did warm up during the day, but make sure you have the right stuff for staying warm if you lose power (blankets and things for layering) and if you have an electric stove, an alternative cooking option, like a camp stove.

Generally a good point to be prepared for loss of power no matter what. But Snowtober was kind of a freak circumstance - the biggest reason branches were coming down was because most of the leaves were still on the trees, and the weight of leaves PLUS snow was an unusually heavy load.

I mean, it could happen again, but it's not typical of Things That Happen In Winter. But yeah, preparing for a power outage is a good idea just generally in life.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:15 PM on October 2, 2014

Every year I like to do all the prep-work on the next years garden/flower bed in the fall, so come spring, it's started already. I am also very ambitious.
(I spent three years as a professional construction landscaper working on huge projects. Admittedly, my answer here will be shorter than the information that is in my head, so I urge you, if you are interested, to do some research. The info is out there.)

Most people don't think about tree planting. After a tree goes dormant, that is the best time to plant them. At that time you have the highest likelihood that they survive. There is little to no shock. Each tree planted typically raises the home value by $500.00. In the fall/winter many nursery's will have great deals on potted trees. Yes potted trees. They come in many sizes. examples. 10g, 25g, 50g. pots. They tend not to have as good a deals on sacked trees, especially sacked trees burrowed. But it never hurts to look. I've gotten trees for as little as 60 dollars each.

I also plant my Perennial plants. My favorites are Lamb's Ear, Sedums, and many flower bushes. Starts of course.

(With any planting: Water (soakingly) everday for the first 7 days. Then soak twice a week for six weeks. Unless freezing weather. )

Plantings can be done every year at about this time, so think long term/big picture. If you are willing to do the work yourself, you can do huge things on the very very very cheap.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 5:22 PM on October 2, 2014

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