All About Lawns
We lined up the experts to help you choose the right turf and the best way get the greenest lawn in the neighborhood
Anatomy of grass
Each 1,000 square feet of healthy lawn contains about a million plants.
Makes food from sunlight. Cut off no more than one-third at a time.
Protects and supports the base of the blade.
Gather nutrients and water from the soil. Help them grow deeper by leaving the blades at least 3 inches long.
Why do we love our lawns? Perhaps the reason is rooted in childhood memories of running barefoot through freshly cut grass, feeling the tickle of cool blades, and inhaling the clean chlorophyll scent. Or maybe it's the way well-tended turf sets off a house, like a tailored tux highlights any man. (Realtors report that a nice lawn can bump up a house's value by nearly 20 percent.)
Whatever the reason, we lavish affection on our lawns—to the tune of $40 billion a year—in the form of fertilizer, weed and pest controls, and yard-care equipment. But buying stuff in hopes of having a lush lawn isn't the same as actually knowing how to grow one. Most of us pick up our yard-care habits in bits and pieces—by watching Dad, imitating our neighbors, or talking to garden-aisle clerks at the home center. And if that doesn't work, well, let a lawn service take care of it.
Here's a less expensive suggestion: Follow the advice in this grass-growing guide and become your own lawn-care expert. We've tapped authorities such as This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook; Dr. Bruce Augustin, chief agronomist at Scotts; Kevin Morris at the National Turfgrass Federation; and organic lawn advocate Paul Tukey. From them you'll learn the fundamentals: which grass is best for your area, how to plant it, when to mow it, how much to water it, and what you need to do at each stage of the growing season. Who knows—in a year or two you could be strolling barefoot through your own thick carpet of turf, feeling that old familiar tickle on your toes.
Cost to install
Seed: Sow for $10.50 per 1,000 square feet.
Hydroseeding: Hire a pro to spray seed, fertilizer, and mulch for $80 to $100.
Plugs: Plant chunks of warm-climate grasses for $100 to $150.
Sod: Lay for $300 to $500.
Cost to maintain
Lawn service: A pro fertilizes, controls weeds and pests for $400 to $600 per 1,000 square feet a season.
DIY: Two to three hours of labor a season plus $150 to $200 in supplies.
How much water?
Figure about 1 inch a week, ½ to ⅓ inch at a time. Some grasses need more, some less.
How much sun?
Lawns do best with at least four hours of direct sun a day. Plant groundcover in areas that receive less than two hours.
When to mow
Wait until grass is at least 3½ inches high. Tall turf needs less water, discourages weeds, and develops deep, drought-resistant roots.
Sow, spray, lay, or plug?
The answer depends on your patience, your budget, and the grass you want.
Benefits: Inexpensive—about 2 cents per square foot—and requires only a rake, spreader, and shovel. A wide variety of grasses to choose from.
Drawbacks: Unpredictable germination, greater chance of weeds and erosion, limited planting times in spring and fall.
Wait time: Four to six weeks before you can walk on it. Mow when 3 inches tall.
Benefits: Mixture of seeds, water, pulp mulch, and fertilizer sprays on bare ground in less time than traditional seeding. Mulch limits erosion, smothers weeds, and ensures high germination rate. Application by a pro: about 10 cents per square foot.
Drawbacks: Need to book well in advance of busy fall or spring seeding seasons.
Wait time: Four to six weeks before you can walk on it. Mow when 3 inches tall.
Benefits: A green lawn, instantly, at any time during the growing season. Useful for covering bare patches or slopes.
Drawbacks: Costly; about 50 cents per square foot. Fewer types of grass to choose from. Perishable; must be planted the same day it's delivered.
Wait time: None. Start mowing in two weeks.
Benefits: Cheaper than sod. Chunks of potted grass are the preferred (or only) way to install some Southern grasses. Planted 6 to 12 inches apart, they colonize the space in between. Cost: 10 to 15 cents per square foot.
Drawbacks: Takes two to five months to fill in completely.
Wait time: Avoid walking on them until ready to mow, in four to eight weeks.
Is Your grass getting the nutrients it needs?
When soil lacks the essential elements for growth, grass becomes more vulnerable to disease, weeds, and pests. For about $20, you can get a soil test from your state's cooperative extension service, like the one at left. Some services will also explain how to correct deficiencies. Repeat the test every three years to keep up with any changes to the soil. Here are the most important categories the test covers.
Determines whether roots can absorb minerals in soil. Ideal range for most grasses: 6–7. Add lime to raise soil pH; add sulfur to lower it.
Encourages blade growth. Most turf requires 3 to 4 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet each year but no more than 1 pound at a time.
Helps grass develop strong roots. Ideal range: 60–90 ppm. If low, add bone meal, dried seaweed, or fish emulsion.
Promotes growth and improves resistance to disease and drought. Ideal range: 70–100 ppm. If low, add granite dust or dried seaweed.
Builds strong cell walls and suppresses the growth of many weeds. Ideal level: 1,500 ppm. If low, add agricultural lime (not masonry lime) and wood ash, which also raises soil pH.
Aids in chlorophyll production. Ideal level: 150 ppm. If low, add dolomitic lime.
Pro advice: Roger Cook, This Old House Landscape Contractor says, "When I seed a lawn I usually spread it at a slightly heavier dose, about one-third more than the bag suggests, to ensure I get a good stand of new grass.”
Secrets for Success
How to get your lawn off to a strong start
How much to buy: One pound covers 200 square feet.
Prep work: Loosen the top couple of inches of soil with an iron rake and work in a starter fertilizer or slow-release organic fertilizer.
Planting day: Spread the seed, cover with a thin layer of soil or compost, and pull a drum roller one-third full of water over the area to ensure good seed-soil contact. (Don't cover Zoysia; its seeds need light to sprout.) A layer of straw mulch two to three straws thick prevents the seeds from drying out.
Keep it moist: Unless it rains, mist daily—morning and evening, at least—so that the soil stays moist. Seeds should sprout in about three weeks. Once each sprout develops two to three blades and has been mowed a few times, cut back watering to every other day for two to three months, then follow the 1-inch-a-week rule.
How much to order: Add about 5 percent to the square footage of the area you wish to cover. Almost none of it will go to waste.
Prep work: Before the sod is delivered, rototill the soil 6 inches deep and rake smooth. Omit fertilizer.
Planting day: Install ASAP; if left rolled up, grass will die quickly. Wet the soil first. Stagger the end joints and butt all the edges tightly together. Pull a drum roller one-third full of water over the sod to ensure that the roots are in firm contact with the soil. Apply starter fertilizer.
Keep it moist: Drench daily for two to four weeks to establish roots; a gentle tug will tell you. Cut back to every other day or so for two more weeks, then follow the 1-inch-a-week rule.
The Competition: Artificial Turf
Synthetic lawns are the antidote to lawn-care headaches: no seeding, fertilizing, mowing, or watering required, although occasionally a weed may sprout. The latest products, such as those made by FieldTurf and Smart Grass, actually look like grass. The polyethylene blades, modeled in color and shape after Kentucky bluegrass, shrug off being trampled, won't stain your clothes, and stay green even in deep shade. Pros unroll the turflike carpet over a soft bed of crumb-rubber "soil" made from recycled tires. Adhesive strips hold down seams. The cost runs from $9.50 to $13 per square foot installed and includes a warranty of about 20 years.