Everything You Need to Know to Grow a Lush Lawn
Don't despair that spring has sprung and your turf isn't flourishing. Follow our advice to set your grass on the right path
Green, cool, and comfortable underfoot, turf grass is as versatile as an outdoor surface gets. Whether hosting a spring yard sale, a summer cookout, or a game of touch football in the fall, your lawn works hard year-round. All that foot traffic may have left it a bit ragged, though, and any missed fall maintenance—that last dose of fertilizer you were supposed to spread, any bare patches that should have been reseeded—may have caused your lawn to look a little worn out this spring, with thin spots and less color than you remember.
Now's the time to make amends with a proper feeding schedule and smart troubleshooting tactics to stop budding pest and weed problems in their tracks. Read on for what to do right now and in the weeks ahead to cultivate a hardy, healthy patch of green.
Shown: A thick, well-fed lawn is your best defense against weeds, which can't compete for space and nutrients. Leaving the grass long, 3 inches or more, encourages roots to grow deeper, where they'll weather drought better. Taller grass also casts shade, preventing weed seeds from germinating.
Neglected your lawn last fall? Here are the steps to take in early-spring to get grass off to a healthy start.
A soil test is the only way to identify what your lawn needs. A Cooperative Extension office can perform an analysis for about $25 (search usda.gov to locate one near you). While you're waiting for the results, rake up any leaves left from last fall; the raking will also fluff up grass tamped down by rain or snow. Once the grass is dry, mow the lawn to about 2 inches tall. "Mowing the lawn shorter than normal removes brown, dead tissue at the tips and encourages new growth," says Scotts researcher Phil Dwyer, Ph.D.
For more clean-up musts, see Smart Spring Yard Cleanup.
Pulling up thatch, a tight mat of dead and living plant material on top of the soil, opens up a lawn so that nutrients and water can reach turf roots. A thatching rake, like the one shown at left ($30; ames.com), has curved tines made for the job and works for lawns up to 100 square feet. For large areas or very heavy thatch, rent a power dethatcher for about $45 a day.
Core aeration, removing 3- to 4-inch-long plugs of soil, is usually done in the fall when the chance of encouraging weed seeds is lower. But if you plan to use preemergent weed control with the first dose of spring fertilizer, aerating now is a good way to loosen compacted soil so that oxygen and fertilizer get down to the roots, says Nick Christians of Iowa State University's Department of Horticulture. You can manually aerate small areas with a foot-powered core extractor, but consider renting a gas-powered one for about $60 a day to handle bigger lawns.
Shown: For larger lawns TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook uses a walk-behind aerator that pulls out 2½-to 3-inch-deep soil plugs, which will break down naturally by spring.
Q: I forgot to fertilize last fall! Am I doomed?
— John Farrow, Boise, Idaho
A: If you didn't fertilize last fall, resist the urge to double up in the spring. Dumping more fertilizer than the lawn needs in the spring is wasteful and can burn your turf. Instead, spread 32-0-4 grass fertilizer after the first mowing, then again four to six weeks later. Organic lawn food, such as corn-gluten meal or a mix of feather, bone, and blood meals, works more slowly than synthetic fertilizers, so the lawn will take an extra week to green up.
Shown: TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook relies on a broadcast spreader to add fertilizer because it reduces the chance of missing a section, which can lead to unsightly growth patterns.
If you need to seed a bare patch or your grass is so thin that you need to overseed, invest in a top-quality mix. Check the bag's label; a premium blend will name individual cultivars, such as 'Midnight' Kentucky bluegrass, while common names, like tall fescue, indicate older, lower-quality seed types. The pros agree: Cheaper seed will never perform really well, no matter how much you fertilize.
You might also consider a custom mix. Online specialty seed retailers, such as SeedSuperStore.com, cherry-pick top-performing seed types (you can research these at the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program's website, ntep.org) and can create a blend optimally suited to your site, with no weed seeds. Or, if you're looking for something special, like darker color or finer leaf texture, you can tailor a mix accordingly. Expect to pay more than double what home-center seed costs.
If drought tolerance is the benchmark, some grass types will definitely weather a lack of water better than others. Here's how they stack up from most drought tolerant to least:
Saint Augustine grass
Organic lawn care nourishes the soil; the synthetic approach feeds the plants. Grass thrives in soil full of beneficial bacteria, earthworms, and other organisms fed by organic sources of nitrogen. "Studies have shown that root mass increases as more organic matter is available," says Paul Tukey, founder of the SafeLawns Foundation (safelawns.org). Increasing organic matter in the soil also helps it to hold water, which encourages deep roots in all but heavy clay soil. The deeper root zone of organically treated lawns makes them better able to weather drought, pests, and diseases than shallower-rooted, synthetically treated lawns.
Spreading garden compost improves soil biology and structure, but top-dressing a lawn with a ½-inch layer twice annually is labor-intensive—and slow to work. Below, two easier methods for getting compost's benefits.
Compost tea makes beneficial bacteria and nutrients immediately available to lawn soil and turf roots. To brew it, put 5 cups of loose compost in a mesh sack and suspend it in a 5-gallon bucket oxygenated by an aquarium pump for about 24 hours. For the simplest delivery system, skip the backpack or pump sprayer. Screw a siphon (we like Hozon's, $32; amleo.com) between an outdoor spigot and a garden hose hooked up to a sprinkler to pull the tea out of the bucket and through the sprinkler nozzles. One quart of compost tea will cover about 1,000 square feet of lawn. Repeat every four to six weeks.
A dehydrated version of the traditional stuff, granular compost comes alive in the presence of moisture yet has a shelf life of about eight years. Once wet, the beads of dried manure, straw, food scraps, and sand break down slowly, like traditional compost. But because you can use a broadcast spreader to apply it, you can cover your lawn in a quarter of the time. You'll need one pound per 100 square feet of lawn. Repeat every four to six weeks.
The severity of your response to these invaders should depend on the numbers: When half the lawn is covered with weeds, it's time to get a soil test and renovate the entire lawn. For a scattering of weeds, a hand weeder or targeted spray is kinder to the lawn ecosystem. The stand-up sprayer at left ($25; weedblasterpro.com) holds 16 ounces of any weed treatment. Pushing down on the handle dispenses a 3 1/2-inch-diameter mist beneath the 7-inch cone.
A sharp mower blade cleanly slices grass tips (far left), so they heal quickly and aren't open to disease. A dull blade tears them (near left), leaving weakened, jagged edges that turn brown and are vulnerable to disease. You should sharpen your blade after every four to six uses. If you hit something while mowing, file nicked edges right away.
For more, see How to Sharpen Mower Blades.
MYTH: Clippings don't cause thatch.
FACT: Since grass clippings are about 90 percent water, they break down too quickly to add to thatch. Lawns develop thatch naturally, but more than a ½-inch layer prevents nutrients, oxygen, and water from getting through.
MYTH: Spiked shoes won't aerate a lawn.
FACT: True aeration requires removing 4-inch-long plugs of soil to create voids so that nutrients can get to the roots. Despite the name, slip-on spiked aerator shoes don't aerate, and golf cleats can actually compact the soil.
MYTH: Hot weather doesn't kill grass.
FACT: Turf naturally goes dormant during a drought. A brown lawn isn't necessarily dead and usually bounces back when watered after temperatures cool. But a lawn that goes from brown to tan to gray is sending out an SOS.
Delivering an inch of water per week isn't easy when you have an irregularly shaped lawn or have to fuss with setting up a sprinkler in just the right spot week after week. These two hose-end options make the job easier.
To water an irregularly shaped area or a long, narrow side yard, lay a path with your hose. Then place this 19-inch-long cast-iron tractor on top, screw the couplings together, and watch as it crawls over the rubber tubing at one of three speeds while its rotating sprinkler arms toss water from 15 to 55 feet away. $60; lrnelson.com
Dig a hole, place the sprinkler inside and backfill with soil and gravel, and you've got a pop-up head without digging up the entire lawn. Set the spray pattern and watch it throw water from 30 to 70 feet away. Connect the hose to raise the sprinkler; disconnect and it falls to grade level until next time. $40; wateringmadeeasy.com
Unseen insects can damage turf throughout the growing season. Three invaders to look out for:
Chinch Bugs: Damage shows up in spring to midsummer as yellow spots in the lawn, signs they've sucked the water out of the grass.
Treatment: Dilute rosemary oil, a natural insecticide, with water and spread with a pump sprayer.
White Grubs: Peel back a bit of lawn starting in mid- to late August, when they chew on grass roots, destroying the roots' ability to absorb water. Damaged patches will roll up easily, like carpet.
Treatment: Once soil reaches 70 degrees F, use a pump sprayer to spread beneficial nematodes (microscopic worms) mixed in water.
Mole Crickets: They're most active in late summer to early fall, when they feed on grass roots.
Treatment: Dilute neem oil, a natural insecticide, with water and spread with a pump sprayer.
Tidy edges upgrade your lawn instantly. But getting straight lines (and avoiding a backache) can require a steady hand and practice. To make the job easier, look for a lightweight cordless string trimmer. The Worx GT 18-volt string trimmer-edger (left) has a pair of in-line skate wheels to guide it along edges, so there's no scalping the lawn. An adjustable second handle and a telescoping shaft offer optimal ergonomics. It's compact and lightweight for storing, too. $120; worxtools.com