Follow this simple, sensible guide for a lush lawn that’s the envy of your neighborhood.
Say goodbye to your yard’s bare spots, unsightly brown patches, dandelions, and creeping Charlie. With the right grass, proper preparation, and timely mowing and watering, you can welcome a beautiful green lawn.
Choose Your Grasses
Whether you’re starting a new lawn or reviving an existing one, approach grass the way you would any other plant. A lawn is made up of as many as 850 grass plants per square foot. Grasses might look more or less the same, but different types
have different levels of insect and disease resistance; tolerance for drought, shade, and foot traffic; and temperature hardiness.
Lawns usually contain combinations of grass types. Picking the right mixture for the conditions in your yard is essential. Just as a plant that thrives in dry soil will probably die in a boggy spot, an out-of-place grass will grow poorly or not at all. For example, cool-season grasses prefer a temperature range of 60-75 degrees and generally require less water, but summer heat can stress them. Warm-season grasses thrive in higher temperatures (80-95 degrees), but they lose their color when the mercury drops. However, warm-season grasses typically have deep roots and can tolerate close mowing and heavy foot traffic.
After you’ve picked an appropriate grass, consider how to plant it. As with other annuals and perennials, you can start grass from seed or put live plants in the ground. With grass, that means sod. Sod is the quickest, easiest way to start a new lawn — but usually the most expensive. Sod yields a usable lawn in a few weeks. You might want to lay a section of sod yourself, but large jobs probably demand professional installation. Grass seed is generally much cheaper than sod and can be sown by a do-it-yourselfer. How
ever, it requires extensive preparation, the right timing, and careful follow-up care.
You’ll need patience, too, because seeded lawns can take months to establish. Plus, some grasses just don’t start well from seed, leaving sod or plugs — small chunks of sod “plugged” into the ground — as your only options.
Solve Soil Deficiencies
Whether you sod or seed, your soil must be grass-friendly: deep, friable (crumbly), fertile, and well-draining. If your soil is seriously lacking in any of these requirements, fix the problems first. Build up shallow soil with a few inches of weed-free topsoil. Improve friability and fertility by working in compost, manure, or other organic matter. Solve drainage problems by changing the grade of your yard or installing a subsurface drainage system.
Less-expensive drainage solutions include simple swales, baffles, and contours. Swales are narrow, shallow depressions that divert runoff. Baffles are small pieces of edging partly buried to slow runoff and let water soak in. Contours are ripples or bumps in the ground that intercept water and divert it through perforated pipe laid just under the surface.
Lawns love water, but beware of overwatering them. New lawns require more water than established ones, but too much is hazardous to any lawn’s health. Overwatering keeps the top layer of soil wet, encouraging grass to develop weak, shallow roots — the kind that lead to quick injury in hot, dry weather. Infrequent but deep watering provides the best results.
Feed and Weed
Lawns need to be fed, as well as watered, but overfertilizing can be as harmful as overwatering. Too much fertilizer leaves plants weak and top - heavy, making them perfect targets for disease and insects. Fertilize only if a soil test reveals a deficiency. Otherwise, if you must give your lawn a snack, fertilize only during growth spurts in the spring and fall.
The type of fertilizer you choose and when to apply it depend on the type of grass. Most commercial fertilizers are a combination of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Of these ingredients, the most important for grass is nitrogen, which promotes leaf growth and good color. You already have an excellent source of nitrogen — grass clippings. Leaving clippings on the lawn is a cheap, easy way to fertilize.
Despite your best efforts to keep your lawn well-fed and healthy, it still could fall victim to weeds. You can remove a weed by hand, but if you don’t get the entire plant, you’ll find yourself bending and pulling again and again. Weeds over a large area may demand a chemical solution.
If you had a weed problem last year, apply an herbicide in early spring. A preemergent control can wipe out crabgrass by killing the young plants as they sprout. Another application in late spring can help control dandelions and other broadleaf (nongrass) weeds. To save time, weed and feed simultaneously by applying a
combination herbicide and fertilizer. If you’re cautious about chemicals, soap herbicides are less-toxic alternatives. Don’t broadly apply any herbicide in summer, when your lawn is stressed by heat.
If all this feeding and weeding sounds a little daunting, consider hiring a lawn service. Call around and price services, then compare what you would pay for lawn products applied yourself. You may find that the costs are similar.
If your grass is growing, you’ll be mowing. Each grass type looks best and stays healthiest at a certain height. Use your mower to maintain that height as closely as possible. Cutting your lawn too short can be just as damaging as letting it grow too tall. The basic rule of mowing is to never cut more than one-third of the leaf blade. Generally, this means mowing about once a week.
However, weather and growth spurts might require mowing twice a week.
In cool spring and fall weather, cut grasses to 21/2 inches. When temperatures top 80 degrees, let the grass get taller — as high as 31/2 inches for bluegrass. It may not have the perfect appearance of a lawn cut shorter, but the grass will be healthier. Tall blades shade the ground, conserving moisture and preventing weed seeds from germinating.
The right grass, good soil, and timely care should have you well on the way to a champion lawn. Be patient — a lawn, like the other living parts of your landscape, takes several seasons to mature and fill in completely. When it does, don’t be surprised to catch a few neighbors admiring your lawn and wondering what your secret is.