Simplifying Lawn Care

If you’re a homeowner in the U.S., chances are you have some kind of lawn to manage. This guide explains the ins and outs of how to keep it healthy and good-looking as easily and naturally as possible.

Mowing frequently

I’ve had the opportunity to work with some outstanding landscaping contractors in my time as a professional landscape designer. The most important thing I’ve learned about lawn care DIY is that proper mowing is the most important thing you can do.

Cutting turf grass (lawn) encourages new growth. This means that regular mowing is the easiest way to create a thicker lawn, with fewer bare spots and weeds.

Regular mowing also eliminates clumps of long grass from forming, which can give your lawn a “bumpy” appearance and feel. And it prevents thick layers of cut grass and dead leaves from accumulating on top of the lawn, which can block water from reaching the soil.

Plan to mow once a week for sure, and even more frequently during times when the grass is growing rapidly. This timing depends upon where you are located geographically, and whether your lawn is made up of “cool season” or “warm season” grasses.

It seems too simple, but regular, systematic lawn mowing can make a dramatic impact on your lawn’s health and vigor.

Keeping your grass at least 3 inches tall

Mowing your grass too short can damage the crown of the grass plants. But setting your mower blade higher has numerous benefits for your lawn.

Longer grass retains moisture better and requires less water.

Longer grass is also better able to compete with weeds, shading weed seeds from sprouting, and keeping perennial weeds from getting sunlight, resulting in weakening of plants.

Leaving your cut grass clippings on the lawn after you mow

People always want to know about buying organic fertilizers for their lawn. Before you go that route, the best way to add nitrogen to your lawn is by leaving the grass clippings in place while you mow.

A “mulching” mower does this beautifully, chopping the grass clippings into tiny pieces. But you can get almost the same effect with a regular mower simply by mowing weekly, so the clippings remain small and scattered.

Another trick is to mow your lawn twice, so the clippings get chopped up and become more evenly distributed in the lawn. Professional landscaping contractors often do this, mowing the second time in a different direction.

A big benefit of grass clippings is their moisture content, which can help the lawn stay lush.

The same thing holds for fallen autumn leaves. Mow them and leave them in place if you can, especially anywhere near trees, where the tree will recycle the nutrients from the dead and decaying leaves. We never need to rake leaves at our house, because my husband mows them all through the fall.

Getting a professional tune-up and blade sharpening for your mower at least once a year

Using a less-than-efficient mower with dull blades requires more fuel. Make your mowing “greener” and save money by making sure your mower is in tip-top shape.

Dull mower blades cause the cut edges of the grass to become ragged and torn. These edges turn brown, which is not a good look. Plus, as with anything to do with plants, a clean cut is always best for helping the plant to recover better.

I do not recommend DIY blade sharpening or repairs on your mower. It’s worth a small investment to ensure the mower is safe to use and will last a long time to look for a reputable professional service who picks up and delivers. This makes it easy to establish regular maintenance for your mower.

Repairing bare spots in your lawn to prevent weed seeds from settling in

Every spring, we need to do lawn repair at the entry of our driveway and along our front sidewalk. This is due to road salt coming up on the lawn in winter, and from our village sidewalk-clearing equipment rolling over the edge of the lawn along the walkways. Trust me, we are grateful for this snow-clearing service here in upstate New York!

The best way to patch your lawn’s bald spots in my experience is to mix organic lawn seed with organic soil in a bucket and spread it over the affected area. Tamp this mixture down firmly. Then spread a fairly thick layer of straw and water everything carefully.

We get a large bale of straw at a farm supply store for $4 and carry it home in the trunk of the car lined with a plastic tarp.

Keep the area watered until new growth is thick and sturdy. At some point you can just mow over the straw. It acts like mulch for the new grass plants, and eventually disappears.

Using water wisely

There is no need to water lawns where I live. We get tons of rain and snow. But in the case of establishing a new lawn, we do have to pull out the hose.

The trick with lawn watering is to do it in the morning, so the grass blades have time to dry during the day to avoid diseases, and the water has time to soak down into the soil and get absorbed by plant roots before the sun becomes too hot.

It’s better to water deeply and less often. Shallow, frequent watering encourages shallow rooting, which dries out quickly when there is no rain. You want your grass roots to go down deep to look for water.

If you have to use a lot of water to keep your lawn green, you could reduce the size of your lawn and incorporate xeriscape plantings or a large gravel patio space instead.

Dealing with tricky lawn issues

If you go through a whole season of good mowing and watering practices and do not see improvement in your lawn, don’t automatically start thinking about fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and so forth.

It may be the case that growing a lawn in a particular site is not a good idea. Some notoriously difficult places to grown and maintain healthy lawn grass are under trees, on steep slopes, and in high-traffic areas

Maintaining your lawn under large trees

“Dry shade” is a condition where the tree’s roots are soaking up most of the nutrients and water, and the tree canopy is limiting the amount of sunlight that comes through to the grass. There are specific lawn grasses designed to work better in shade, but it might be time to rethink the whole idea and use mulch under your trees with or groundcovers.

Maintaining your lawn on steep slopes

Why struggle with a potentially dangerous situation, when you can skip mowing a slope altogether by planting an erosion-control type of groundcover on a slope instead?

My personal favorite groundcover plant for slopes is fragrant sumac ‘Gro Low.’ It’s a beautifully textured spreading shrub that creeps along to fill in gaps, and it turns bright red in fall. Plus, I have never seen deer eat it, even in my neighborhood, where the deer pressure is extremely high.

I also love creeping junipers (there are many different kinds), the native bearberry, and low-growing forsythia groundcover, which I discovered growing in our village’s central green space.

But you could use any number of groundcovers or spreading shrubs in place of lawn. It takes a bit of doing to get this type of planting established. But after that, you need not touch it except to pull the odd weed here and there.

Maintaining your lawn in high-traffic areas

Yes, it is possible to have a perfect lawn in a high-traffic area. But this grass will be under more stress and will require more work to keep it in good shape.

Alternatively, you could do one of my favorite things and plant a “thyme lawn” with different types of creeping thyme set with informal flagstones to create a natural path area. Thyme can be walked on, and it blooms in spring.

Once again, it takes a bit of doing to establish a no-grass area, but thyme is excellent at providing a thick weed-suppressing mat to crowd out weeds. You’d need to scrub the stones once a year with a straw broom to make sure they don’t get too slippery, but this is truly a low-maintenance lawn grass alternative.

Rethinking the idea of a “perfect” lawn

You can certainly find many strategies and choices for fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. However, my own opinion is that spending time on good mowing practices is going to head off most lawn issues. And of not, perhaps a lawn is simply not the best solution for a given site in the first place.

A lawn is its own ecosystem. It contains millions of organisms connected together. I really don’t want to disturb it too much, preferring nature to take its course and adjust my expectations instead.

This post appeared previously on The Simple Landscape blog.


Elizabeth Douglas is the founder of Pocket Meadows. She holds a degree in landscape architectural studies and is a member of the NY State Nursery & Landscape Association.

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