How do you keep your lawn healthy? See our beginner’s guide to lawn care, focusing on the lawn care basics—like fertilizing, weed control, seeding, watering, mowing. Plus, find our secret to keeping a well-nourished lawn. Here’s a tip: The more you let nature do the work for you, the easier it will be to care for your lawn. Let’s get started!
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.
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. Plus, 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!
General Lawn Care Tips
- Mow 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 into usable portions for your lawn.
- 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 (and is often added to grass seed for this reason). 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. See our article on clover.
- Consider if some parts of your lawn could be converted to meadows. A slightly wild lawn or meadow lets volunteer grasses, dandelions, wildflowers, herbs, and even wild strawberries grow, adding color and variety to your landscape.
- If trees and shrubs start to shade the lawn, you can let in more sun by thinning and removing lower branches. Then seed in shady areas with 5 lbs./1000 sq. ft. of red fescue.
1. Feeding the Soil
We’ll start with our “secret” to a healthy lawn—which we rarely see in any lawn service brochure. Nourish your soil! Fertilizer does not feed soil. It feeds plants. Organic matter feeds the soil, providing food for the microorganisms (bacteria, insects and earthworms), which convert chemicals in the soil to a form that plants can use as nutrients. Plus, organic matter suppresses weeds and deters plant disease.
- 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.
- For existing lawns, we recommend top-dress 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.
Just by adding this first step—nourishing your soil—you’ll have a healthier lawn with less weeds. Each year, continue to top-dress with ¼-inch compost and build the soil.
Is it springtime? See our tips on Spring Lawn Care: 5 Steps to Preparing Your Lawn.
2. Fertilizing Your Lawn
- In spring, you’ll need to apply a well-balanced complete fertilizer (organic or synthetic). There is a debate about when to apply fertilize. Some experts start with a quick-release fertilize in early spring (late March/April) to give a boost to the turfgrass and stimulate recovery after a long winter. Other experts advise waiting until late spring (May/June) and apply a slow-release fertilizer to restore the carbohydrate reserves in the roots, which may be running low. Either way, your lawn will appreciate a light application in springtime. Just don’t overdo it!
- Late summer is a good time to lightly fertilize with a slow-release nitrogen. It’s just there to get your grasses through summer and into fall when you will give them a substantial feeding.
- In late spring, you may need to dethatch your lawn if your thatch is thick and keeping grass roots from getting air and water. One indication of too much thatch is a spongy lawn. Or, if you poke your finger into the soil, the soil will be to hard to penetrate. Wait until late spring because dethatching is very rough on tender young grass shoots. Learn more about dethatching.
- Autumn (October/November) is the best time to fertilize substantially before the ground freezes. Apply complete seasonal fertilizer which will help develop your root system for the winter. It also helps prevent disease and injury over the winter.
3. Weeding Your Lawn
- Weeds are all about prevention! As with fertilizers, keep in mind that there are many weed control products that can be considered organic and natural versus chemical.
- In the spring, the top goal is to prevent annual crabgrass with pre-emergent crabgrass control. There is a narrow window for controlling crabgrass—not too early, not too late. Soil temperatures need to be at 55°F for three days straight. Once temperatures reach 65 to 70°F, crabgrass will spread rapidly. Spring is also the time to apply broadleaf weed control to prevent challenging perennial weeds from emerging.
- Once weeds emerge, we would not apply broad weed treatments in the lawn. Check your lawn often for weedy perennial grasses such as coarse fescue and bentgrass and dig them out or spot treat with broadleaf weed control.
- Adding mulch also helps with weed control.
4. Overseeding Your Lawn
- After you thatch in late spring, it’s a good time to overseed, planting new grass seed in bare or dead areas. Don’t seed in early spring if you’re applying non-selective weed control, as you’ll be killing the grass seeds as well.
- In general, 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.
5. 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 a cordless lawn mower, here are 5 tips to avoid mowing mistakes.
- Before you mow, always pick up sticks, acorns, or debris on the lawn to avoid causing nicks to your mower blade.
- Mow regularly, but do NOT mow too short. You may think you are saving time, but you will actually end up with an uglier lawn than if you cut to the proper length. Avoid taking more than one-third of grass blades at one mowing. Continual scalping reduces turf density and provides opportunities for weeds.
- Earlier recommendations for a cutting height of 1.5 inches were common. Today, we recommend maintaining a height between 2 ½” and 3 ½” for cool-season grasses and 1 ½” and 2 ½” for warm-season grasses (southern locations). 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.
- Keep the blades sharp to reduce tearing the grass blades (which also invites disease).
- Lawn clippings return needed nutrients to the soil, therefore avoid removing after every mowing. Clippings are all the fertilizer healthy 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.
- Spade the edging between the lawn and beds where needed; remulch planting beds and tree rings, especially the trees to protect them from lawn mower nicks.
- 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!
6. Watering Your Lawn
- Maintain ½” to 1” of water per week throughout growing season.
- When watering, water heavily and do it in the morning. 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 water amounts.
- 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.
Extra: Aerating Your Lawn
If you continue to have issues with heavy thatch layer on your lawn and hard, compacted soil, consider aerating your lawn. Aeration is the process of mechanically removing small plugs of thatch and soil from the lawn so that air, water, and nutrients can reach the roots. Root growth is essential for a healthy lawn.
In many home lawns, the natural soil was seriously disturbed by the building process and often fertile topsoil was removed, leaving subsoil that is more compact, higher in clay content and less desirable for healthy lawn growth. Even when topsoil is added before lawns are planted, it is generally too thin to support proper turfgrass rooting, which will reach 8” below the surface. Walking on the lawn and irrigation further compacts the soil.
Aeration can be done by renting an aerator from your local improvement stores or by hiring a lawn service to handle it. Aeration is best done in the fall. It will not only speed up thatch breakdown and allow oxygen and water to reach the roots, but it will also enhance fertilizer uptake.
Do you have any other lawn care tips? Leave them in the comments below!