Age-Old Wisdom meets Modern Tools
The Basics of Growing a Healthy, Low-Maintenance Lawn
Do you have a healthy lawn? Here are over 10 secrets to lawn care for a more stress-tolerant, vigorous turf. For example, mowing too short actually reduces the vigor of the plants by reducing their ability to manufacture food. The more you let nature do the work for you, the easier it will be to care for your lawn.
The Great Lawn Debate
There is no substitute for grass as a recreational surface; it’s superior to concrete, and plays a positive environmental role by moderating temperatures and purifying air.
That said, there is a “dark side” to lawns, which largely stems from the overuse of synthetic chemicals. The U.S. has applied more synthetic chemical fertilizers on its lawns than India applies on all its food crops, and urban and suburban residents are now subjected to more pesticide exposure than their rural counterparts.
A Healthy Lawn Philosophy
Unsurprisingly, lawns have been around for centuries without the crutch of heavy chemical use. Before World War II, splendid lawns (and gardens) on estates and homes in the United States were common; many of the lawns of Europe do not use chemicals.
When you consider our recommendations below, look for ways to reduce your dependence on the chemical industry. Grass doesn’t need to glow green.
Top 5 Lawn Care Tips:
- Simply cut your lawn without a bag and leave the clippings to feed the lawn. Or better yet, use an up-to-date mulching mower to grind the grass up to usable proportions for your lawns.
- Use ground manure in light and regular amounts, since just leaving the clippings does not provide enough of the major and micro-nutrients to keep a lawn at peak condition. See more below.
- If you use regular fertilizer, be aware that there are always organic options but also look for ways to cut back overall (see tips below). Think of what you put on the lawn as going directly into your drinking water and you will use a lot less chemicals.
- Consider mixing low-growing flowering plants such as red and white clover (which pollinators love) with your grass seed since clover is a nitrogen fixer. See our article on clover.
- Consider if some parts of your lawn could be converted to meadows.
Always pay attention to the soil! Your lawn needs nourishment.
- If you are planting new turf grass, work compost about 2 to 3 inches into the soil. If possible, use manure-based compost. Manure is a natural fertilizer that adds nutrients to the soil. Because lawns are hungry for nitrogen that encourages green growth, manure that’s rich in nitrogen is the best choice for them. Or, top-dress your existing lawn with ¼ inch manure-rich compost.
- In the spring, remove the built up thatch or dead grass with a rake to help moisture and oxygen reach down to the grasses’ roots.
- If you soil is hard and compacted, aerate (poke holes in) the lawn to loosen up soil and allow oxygen, water, and nutrients to flow. You can use aeration shoes, a pitchfork, or a power aeration tool available at rental shops.
- Prepare flower beds. Especially if you have hard-packed soil, a power cultivator like this one from Echo which will loosen the soil in no time. Dig holes for new plants.
Mowing Your Lawn
Mowing your lawn properly makes a big difference in its health. Did you know that there is a direct relationship between cutting height and the amount of roots a grass plant can maintain? Whether you use a push mower, power mower, or powerful new electric lawn mowers, here are 5 tips to avoid mowing mistakes.
- Do NOT mow too short. You may think you are saving time, but you will actually end up with a uglier lawn than if you cut to the proper length. A general rule of thumb is not to remove more than one-third of the total leaf surface when mowing your lawn. Continual scalping reduces turf density and provides opportunities for weeds. Following the one-third rule encourages the maximum turf density.
- Earlier recommendations for a cutting height of 1.5 inches were common. Current standards suggest between 2 and 3.75 inches. Higher-cut lawn grasses are more stress tolerant. This is especially important during the summer heat period. Taller grass plants with higher density have a profound shading effect on the soil surface, which reduces germination of weed seeds, particularly crabgrass. This is an excellent way to reduce herbicide use.
- Mow the lawn when the grass is dry and keep the blades sharp to reduce tearing the grass blades (which also invites disease).
- Cut your lawn without a bag and leave the clippings to feed the lawn (or, use a mulching mower). Clippings are all the fertilizer some lawns need (along with manure dressing). Allow clippings to stay on the lawn to filter down to the soil, decompose, and recycle nutrients back to the roots. The shorter the clippings, the more quickly they will decompose into the soil.
- If you have flower beds or areas that the mower can’t reach, use a grass trimmer but be very careful. Don’t use a trimmer to cut grass against tree trunks. It could slice into the bark, which could expose the tree to disease and pests. Also, it’s very easy to accidentally trim off your garden flowers!
Fertilizing Your Lawn
- Top-dress your existing lawn with ¼ inch manure-rich compost about once a month during the growing season. Manure can help keep your lawn healthy with its high nitrogen and phosphorus content. This will make your soil more porous, drain better, and prevent root rot.
- If manure is not available, then use minimally processed sewage, another natural form of fertilizer (in most cases there is no other use for the substance and there is a lot of it produced naturally on a regular basis!).
- If you use a regular chemical fertilizer or an organic fertilizer, regularly apply a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer with a lawn spreader. However, the best time to fertilize substantially is actually in the late fall before the ground freezes. Many studies show that spring feedings, as promoted by fertilizer manufacturers, aren’t really that helpful if you’ve fertilized in the fall. A slow-release fertilizer allows the grass to store carbohydrates to provide energy for root and shoot growth the following spring. It also helps prevent disease and injury over the winter.
- If you’re going to fertilize in spring, wait until late spring to restore the carbohydrate reserves in the roots which may be running low. Apply lightly.
- Late summer is a good time to apply a second application. Make sure it is light! It’s just there to get your grasses to fall when you will give them a substantial feeding.
Overseeding Your Lawn
- If you have bare patches, it’s best to overseed in late fall. Use a mix of seed that includes slow-growing or low-growing grasses.
- Fine-leaf fescue grasses have low water and fertility requirements and grow well in places with a mild summer climate. Combine the fescues with a low-maintenance Kentucky bluegrass like ‘Park’, ‘Kenblue’, or ‘South Dakota Common’. Contact your local cooperative extension to see which type of lawn grows best in your area.
Watering Your Lawn
- Water your lawn early in the morning or in the evening.
- Water long enough to allow the water to soak in below the root zone. Shallow watering encourages shallow root growth (and thus, weak grass) and weeds. It will take about an inch of water to penetrate 6 to 8 inches into the soil. Set out shallow cans in the sprinkler area to measure.
- Don’t overwater. Make the lawn seek its own source of water, building longer, sturdier roots. Cut back on water especially in midsummer to let the lawn go dormant, strengthening it for fall and winter.
- Excess water leaches away nutrients and encourages insects. Deep waterings are better for the lawn than light waterings.
- During a drought, let the grass grow longer between mowings, and reduce fertilizer use.
Weeding Your Lawn
- As with fertilizing, keep in mind that there are many weed products that can be considered organic and natural.
- With weeds, you truly want to take preventative action rather than wait until they appear in your lawn. Stop weeds from gaining a root hold in your lawn before they even germinate by applying a pre-emergent herbicide in the late fall. This method prevents weed seeds (especially crabgrass) from even germinating.
- If the weeds are just unbearable in the spring, you can apply a post-emergent lawn weed preventer that covers both grassy weeds (e.g., crabgrass) and broadleaf weeds (e.g., dandelions).
- Still, we prefer that you learn to live with a not-so-perfectly-perfect lawn. A slightly wild lawn lets volunteer grasses, wildflowers, herbs, and even wild strawberries grow, adding color and variety to your landscape. Clover grows low to the ground and smells lovely after it’s been cut, and it often stays green after the rest of lawn has turned brown; dandelion greens taste great in a salad (if you’re not applying chemical fertilizers!).
- Adding mulch helps with weed control.
Do you have any other lawn care tips? Leave them in the comments below!