Ah, spring, when longer days and wetter weather bring your yard back to life. All that greening up around you is sure to inspire daydreams of your favorite backyard pursuits—barefoot badminton? croquet with the kids?—and these may lead you to overcompensate for a lagging lawn-care regimen. Don't do it! Running the sprinkler whenever the sun shines, dousing turf with extra fertilizer, or clipping grass super short in hopes of restoring its velvety green can do more harm than good. They'll actually weaken grass, leaving it vulnerable to drought, weeds, and pests.
The good news is that you don't need to shift into overdrive to nurture lush turf. Turn the page for a bare-bones approach that will yield a more resilient and sustainable lawn—and save you time and trouble, too.
Let the grass grow a little bit
It's best to keep turf on the taller side: 3 to 4 inches high for cool-season grasses, such as fine fescues and Kentucky bluegrass, and 1 to 2 inches high for warm-season varieties, including Bermuda grass and centipede grass. Mowing lower than the recommended height, known as scalping, sends grass into shock. The shorter blades can't deliver as much energy to the roots, causing them to atrophy. Without a deep, vigorous root system, turf is less equipped to handle drought and crowd out competitors. Weed seeds easily take hold in the exposed, sunlit soil of a scalped lawn, and insects and diseases move in while the lawn's defenses are down. While you might think that cutting short buys time between mowings, the opposite is true; scalping a lawn actually speeds up growth because the grass is eager to replace the foliage that's been removed.
On the flip side, you can also do damage by letting grass become so overgrown that you're cutting off more than one-third of its length at any one time. Taking off that much top growth all at once also shocks the plant. Always set your mower blades at the turf's recommended height, and keep them sharp to ensure clean cuts that heal quickly.
Water deeply, less often
Running a sprinkler daily does a lawn no favors. Turf naturally responds to droughts by developing a deep root system, maximizing its ability to absorb soil moisture, and if dry conditions persist, a deeply rooted lawn merely goes dormant until the next rain. If you overwater, however, roots stay within the top few inches of the soil's surface, making the grass dependent on you for its survival.
To judge whether a lawn actually needs water, simply step on it. If the blades don't bounce back, they're wilting and ready for a drink. Most lawns need about an inch of water per week in summer, less when the weather is cool or rainy. If you're unsure about how long to leave on your sprinklers, place a few empty tuna cans out in the yard and water for 15 minutes, then measure the water's depth in the cans. If it's a quarter-inch deep, for instance, you'll know the lawn needs an hour-long session each week. This test can also reveal deficiencies in an irrigation system's coverage; adjust accordingly to avoid overwatering an entire lawn just to green up a few missed spots. And for extra savings, consider investing in a "smart" controller, which automatically waters based on actual weather conditions.
Fertilizer is too often seen as a quick fix for straggly turf. But bagged lawn fertilizer is far from a cure-all. It's packed with nitrogen—listed first in numbered formulas such as 4:1:2 or 3:1:2, which describe the ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—to spur lots of fresh top growth. Tender new leaves are more susceptible to physical damage and more attractive to pests. Even worse, they're produced at the expense of the plant's developing roots. Most turf varieties only need 1 to 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet annually, half applied in spring and the other half in early fall, when the grass is actively growing. Fast-release chemical fertilizers offer quick results, but slow-release options are less likely to burn foliage, and the nutrients break down more gradually, making them easier for plants to absorb.
Spreading fertilizer isn't the only way to green up a lawn, however. Overseeding traditional turf with recently developed "microclover" will keep a lawn looking lush year-round, thanks to its evergreen foliage and its ability to deliver atmospheric nitrogen to the roots of neighboring plants. This fine-textured clover ($30 per pound; hancockseed.com) was specifically bred to blend well with turfgrasses and spread evenly, avoiding a patchy look.
Last, don't waste time bagging grass clippings. Allowing them to remain on the lawn after mowing can supply up to 25 percent of a lawn's annual nitrogen requirement, which saves you from buying as much store-bought fertilizer.
Know when to call it quits
Despite its resilient nature, turf sometimes refuses to take off. If your lawn continues to struggle, do a soil test and make an honest assessment of the growing site. Favorable conditions generally include at least 6 hours of sun and well-draining soil. In shady areas, you can gently thin tree canopies to allow more light to filter through, or overseed bare spots with shade-tolerant grass varieties.
In some cases, it may be less work to forgo a lawn altogether. For instance, you might consider replacing a struggling patch with a bed of shade-loving perennials or, in arid climates, swapping turf for a tapestry of sturdy groundcovers.
But where turf does work, a smart care-and-feeding regimen encourages a top-quality lawn—and frees up the leisure time to enjoy it.
Upgrade your grass seed
Researchers have recently developed blends of cool- and warm-season grasses that require even less nitrogen, water, and mowing than traditional turf. Because these slow growers have different needs—and looks—from more common varieties, seeding over existing lawn isn't always recommended. But if you're starting from scratch, here are three mixes worth trying.
No-Mow Lawn Seed Mix
Prairie Nursery, from about $7 per pound; prairienursery.com
This blend features six cultivars of fine fescues that are all native to the Northern Hemisphere and thrive in full sun or partial shade. Mow it monthly—or not at all. Once established, it requires minimal water or fertilizer, and weeds struggle to take hold because of its interlocking root system.
Ultra Low Maintenance Lawn Seed
Pearl's Premium, about $8 per pound; pearlspremium.com
It took the company 10,000 field trials to fine-tune its blends of drought-tolerant grasses native to North America and Europe. Monthly mowing is recommended, as is an annual dose of fertilizer. Three mixes with different sun requirements are offered, including one for deep shade.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, about $40 per pound; wildflower.org/habiturf
A blend of grasses native to the American Southwest, this mix is well suited to hot, arid climates. It requires occasional mowing and needs watering once or twice a month during the growing season. If you leave clippings on the lawn after mowing, there's no need to ever fertilize.