Many homeowners strive for the perfect, emerald green lawn, but it takes more than regular mowing.
Lawn care requires a dedicated effort consisting of fertilization, regular maintenance and the ability to troubleshoot problems as they arise.
Mowing your lawn is essential if you want a great-looking lawn, but it also improves the quality of the grass.
Related: How to Tune Up your Lawn Mower
Although it might seem natural to keep the lawn as short as possible, experts recommend letting it grow longer and mowing it more frequently.
Eileen Michaels, owner of highly rated A Yard and a Half Landscaping in Waltham, Mass recommends setting the mower blades to at least 3 inches tall as “taller grass will shade out weed seeds.”
Cutting a lawn short puts stress on the grass and reduces its ability to resist weeds and pest infestation. Cutting a blade of grass too short reduces the amount of chlorophyll which the grass can use for energy, and decreases its vigor. It also puts considerable strain on the roots, and makes grass more susceptible to drying out and turning brown in warmer weather.
When cutting overgrown grass, follow the 1/3 rule: don't cut more than 1/3 of the overall height at once. If you have extremely tall grass, cut it at a higher setting. After a couple of days, lower the setting and cut it again.
Michaels recommends using a mulching mower because it leaves grass clippings on the lawn which she says provides an extra source of nitrogen, one of the key nutrients for grass. To make your lawn look its best, never mow it when it's wet, which causes grass clumps, tire tracks and an uneven appearance, and alternate the pattern in which you mow, which encourages grass to grow straight.
A good option for people who don’t like to mow their lawns is to hire a professional lawn care service.
Organic and synthetic lawn fertilizers are a good tool for maintaining a healthy lawn. Fertilizer promotes a lush growth, strengthens roots and helps to prevent invasive weeds and pests.
There are many varieties of lawn fertilizer available, but most consist of three key nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen is the most important for growth, but too much can lead to excessive growth, yard burn and discoloration. Each fertilizer blend is represented by a three-number ratio that lists the percentage by weight of the three main nutrients. For example, a 100 pound bag of fertilizer with the number 15-5-10 contains 15 pounds of nitrogen, 5 pounds of phosphorus and 10 pounds of potassium with a ratio of 3-1-2.
The most popular types of lawn fertilizer are granule and liquid, and they come in synthetic and organic forms. You can also choose between fast and slow-release fertilizer, or blends that contain pre-emergent controls for fighting crabgrass, weeds and other invasive plants.
Granule fertilizer should be applied with a broadcast spreader, a device that can be pushed or pulled around the yard and evenly distributes the fertilizer. A spreader is necessary because large concentrations of fertilizer in a small area can kill the grass.
“A balanced fertilization with a pre-emergent for control of annual grasses, (e.g. crabgrass), should be applied during the month of April, since crabgrass begins to emerge in May,” says Michael Van de Bossche, owner of Earth-Wood Arts in Indianapolis. “The Nitrogen should be a 50/50 split of fast and slow release forms.”
His advice applies to lawns in the Midwestern region of the United States. For additional fertilizer information, check your local university extension.
Van de Bossche says too much quick release fertilizer combined with spring rains can create too lush of a growth, which increases turf and fungus problems.
“Most of the fertilizers with pre-emergent combinations utilize an amount and type of pre-emergent that has a chemical half-life of only 60 days," he says. "To best avoid crabgrass and foxtail infestations, you should apply a half-rate of that same fertilizer/pre-emergent combo 60 days after the initial application.”
Is there a green option?
Organic lawn fertilizer is a popular option for homeowners with a green thumb. It’s made up of living organisms like plant and animal matter, and releases nutrients at a slower pace and over a longer period of time than synthetic fertilizers.
Michaels says the organic approach doesn’t provide immediate results like a synthetic fertilizer, but overtime, it improves the overall quality of the lawn, reducing the amount of future applications.
“Synthetic fertilizers throw quick-release nutrients at the grass, but whatever they can't use up quickly runs off and can potentially pollute water sources,” she says. “Slow-release nutrients found in organic sources like corn gluten, alfalfa meal, fish emulsion, and compost become available gradually as the plants need them. Think of it like living off vitamin pills or energy bars versus eating a variety of healthy foods.”
Lawn maintenance and repair
Some of the most common lawn problems include bare spots, dead patches and areas that have been infested by dandelions and weeds.
Bare spots are the most noticeable lawn problem, but they can be repaired with a little patience and persistence.
Michaels says sod is an option for large patches but it can be hard to blend with the rest of the lawn.
“If you have full sun for six or more hours in the area, sod can be an instant-gratification fix," she says. "Depending on the overall quality of the lawn, however, it can give a patchwork appearance.”
For smaller patches or areas that receive less sun, Michaels recommends seed.
“Rough up the soil, premix seed with a little compost, and throw down the mixture," she says. "Run the back of a rake over it to get seed in contact with the soil, and keep it evenly moist.”
For bare spots around flower beds or in areas that receive little sun, she says one option is to expand an existing bed or create a new one altogether. It fixes the problem and adds new landscaping to the yard.
Dead spots form from too much sunlight, a lack of water, concentrations of pet urine or the overuse of fertilizer. To repair these unsightly brown spots, remove the dead grass down to the bare soil and apply grass seed. If granule fertilizer was the culprit, you will be able to see collections of the small pellets. Remove the remaining fertilizer before applying new seed.
Invasive weeds and dandelions are another problem you may have to combat.
Dandelions are a perennial weed, which means they have deep roots that survive the winter and come back the following spring. The best way to keep them out of your yard is to attack them as soon as they appear.
“The most effective though time consuming thing is to dig out the whole root,” Michaels says.
You can also use a lawn and garden sprayer with an organic or synthetic herbicide to spray dandelions and weeds as they appear. It’s important to limit the use of these products because they can cause harm to the body and runoff can enter waterways and streams.