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A Tale of Winter Woe

A Tale of Winter Woe

Why you need to get your yard in shape as the summer wanes

With the fall season around the corner, it’s easy to spend the remaining days of summer playing in the sun and stargazing on warm evenings. A healthy dose of fun should be a part of everyone’s end of summer plans. But the end of summer means there’s work to do if you are going to have an enjoyable, stress-free winter. I’ll tell you a little story about how I learned this lesson the hard way, and then we’ll get into a few steps you can take to avoid my fate.

Two years ago we lived on a steep hillside in the Oregon Cascades. A couple weeks after we moved in, my wife saw a small coyote working his way through our grassy backyard into the dense Douglas fir trees. As I mowed the lawn that early summer –– before the sun stripped the green from the blades of grass and left them brittle and brown –– I would look over my shoulder while I made my passes along the treeline. I wanted to see the coyote. I just didn’t want to be surprised by him while the noise of the lawnmower drowned out all other sounds.

In the fall, my wife got pregnant and I got a full time job. At the same time, the leaves on the birch trees in our front yard and two large oaks out back went a stark shade of marigold, slouching toward sunflower. Large yellow leaves fell thickly on the burned out lawn. When the fall rains began, the blades of grass got their green flicker back. They grew in patches in the gaps between the leaves. My wife didn’t have the heart to ask her exhausted husband to rake, and she couldn’t do the work herself. I told her I’d get to it soon. I wanted to get the yard cleaned up before the first snows.

In early November I was outside with the rake and a large, holey tarp. I kept thinking I heard the coyote. There was a rustling up the hill above me where the grass disappeared into the woods. Rain began to fall. The leaves were already wet, so I pushed on.

I had dozens of small, heavy, wet piles around the yard when my wife pulled the back door open. “Can you come in here, quickly?” My face went red and I dropped the rake. I was running, but I didn’t know it. “It’s not me,” she said, as if she could read my mind. “The toilet is flooding into the tub!”

There is little more challenging than finding a plumber on a rainy Sunday afternoon in rural Oregon. I had to try. Hours went by while we waited to pay double for a weekend visit. When he finally finished digging up the buried septic tank cap, the news was as bad as we had feared.


The next day it snowed. Those tiny piles of leaves were blown around the yard as the wispy first flakes landed. I was at work. The lawn would have to wait, even if it couldn’t.

Winter Fall

I didn’t get to the yard after the first snow, or after the second. In the late winter our baby arrived. Small lumps of leaves still loosely piled lifted the blanket of snow into tiny mounds. Underneath the snow, the leaves rotted and killed the grass below them. The organic matter attracted grubs and bugs that in turn enticed moles from the riverbed a half mile down the hillside. By the time the snow melted, a maze of mole tunnels crisscrossed the yard. The leaves were soggy, heavy, black, brown.

I did get what was rakable off the ground by early April, but it was too late. The lawn was trashed with vermin, rotting leaves, and large muddy patches of nothing. At the end of April my wife was home alone when a bear lumbered through the backyard. The snow had pushed him down from the high country. The dog barked loudly against the glass of the sliding back door while the bear stopped on our patio to look over the yard. “Did it scare you?” I asked my wife that night. “I think our yard scared him,” she said.


It happens to all of us. Life’s little to-do lists pile up, and something has to give. Here are a couple ideas to get you out there and organized before this coming winter gets on top of you.


Start Early

This year, we’re in a different house, but you can bet I spent last weekend trimming the trees and cutting the lawn down to make it easier to rake. When the leaves do fall, I’ll be ready. I’ve put a large red X on the first two weekends in October. I’ll do anything I can to get the yard in shape over those four days.


Stay Ahead

Finish anything you start. Unless your septic tank breaks, don’t let anything pull you away from raking, hauling brush, and yard debris removal, until the job is complete. It will get you ahead, and then when the snow does fall, you can expend your energy keeping the driveway clear.


Help a Neighbor

Team up to help your neighborhood stay ahead of the seasons. Maybe you could cut your neighbor’s lawn and your lawn in exchange for them taking care of the fall leaves. Or try agreeing to shovel a neighbor’s driveway all winter if they will lay the weed repellent and grass seed in the spring.


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