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How to Maintain a Healthy Lawn

From choosing the right lawn mower to ensuring the pH balance, read our these proven tips for maintaining a lush, healthy lawn.

Lawn iStock

As American as apple pie is our love of the lawn. Think of any classic estate, subdivision row of ranch houses, or a country farmhouse. Any of these images are likely to include a thick, grassy lawn. Originally seen as just a way to avoid a muddy yard, today lawns are the foreground of nearly every home’s landscape.

Starting a Lawn

In many places, you can’t get a certificate of occupancy for a new home until the lawn is established. There are several approaches to starting a lawn. All start after the heavy machinery has finished grading the property. First, the rocks are raked out of the topsoil with the bulk of the work being done with either a large rake that’s pulled behind a tractor or by a rotating mechanical rake on a skid-steer. The areas close to the house are raked out by hand.

The next step varies. Sod is the way to an instant lawn. Delivered on palettes, rolls of weed-free, growing-grass and soil are unfurled on the raked ground. All you have to do is keep the rolled-out lawn watered until the sod’s roots grow into the subsoil and draw moisture from there.

Sod is expensive though, so in many cases builders will fertilize and lime the exposed soil, then spread grass seed, which is followed up with a layer of chopped-straw mulch. Fertilizer helps nutrient-hungry grass sprouts get a fast start.

Lime is used when the pH of the soil is acidic. Acid soil tends to bind up nutrients that grass needs, and the lime adjusts the pH and makes the nutrients available. The mulch holds in moisture and shades the delicate grass seedlings when they sprout in a week or so. As with sod, it’s very important to keep a newly seeded lawn well-watered. On steeper areas where erosion is a risk, matts of jute might be used instead of straw mulch. Another option is hydroseeding, where grass seed mixed with a wet, pulpy mulch is sprayed on the ground.

No matter the method, the right grass has to be used. Grasses that thrive in the north don’t survive in the south, and vice versa. Landscape contractors and garden centers will know what works in your area.

Lawns Require Regular Maintenance

Once a lawn is established, regular maintenance is required. Most of this work can be done by the homeowner, but a lot of people opt to hire it done. At the very least, a lawn has to be kept mowed or it will eventually revert to being a brushy field. If you want the lawn to be as green as possible, then it will also need regular fertilization, and depending on the soil’s pH, annual liming. If weeds bother you and you want the lawn to remain all grass, then you’ll need to use herbicides as well. And like any plant, grass can be harmed by insect pests. A variety of insecticides are available for grass lawns. Dead spots in lawns are common, and they’re due to a range of issues from excessive pet urine to Japanese beetle grubs eating the roots.

Other maintenance that helps a lawn to look its best includes dethatching, where dead grass stems are raked out to allow water, fertilizer, and air to better reach the soil. Aeration is another maintenance operation, commonly done on clay-rich soils that tend to compact over time. As the soil compacts, it keeps out water and nutrients. An aerator is a tractor-pulled drum that drives many hollow tubes into the ground, where they pull up plugs of soil. As the drum spins, centrifugal force throws the soil plugs out of the aerator. Landing on the ground, they eventually work their way back in to the soil. The holes left by the aerator allow water into the soil.

Irrigation Keeps Grass Green

If you want a green lawn but your summers are dry, you’ll need to irrigate. If you opt not to irrigate the grass will turn brown during dry periods. It’s not dead though, and it will green right up shortly after the rain comes.

If you have short or occasional dry seasons, then sprinklers that run off a garden hose might be all you need. With long dry seasons, permanent irrigation systems that run off underground pipes are a better choice. These can be DIY projects, but they’re also often done by pros. There are also water-saving smart irrigation systems you might consider. And in much of the country, particularly northern regions with short summers, irrigation isn’t needed at all.

Choose the Right Lawn Mower

The basic tool of the lawn owner is the lawn mower. The mower you need depends on the size of your lawn. A small, urban lawn can be handled by an old-fashioned reel mower. The cutters are driven by the wheels, which are driven by the user pushing the mower.

Electric push mowers are a good choice for slightly larger lawns, and the newer battery powered units will cut a surprisingly large area on one charge. For still larger lawns, a gasoline-powered push mower is an inexpensive way to cover the ground. You’ll probably also want to consider buying a string trimmer for the spots a mower can’t reach.

Once you get up to a quarter acre or so though, a riding mower begins to make sense. The larger ones are small tractors and often can drive other implements such as snow blowers. Once you graduate to gasoline- powered equipment, it’s a good idea to be familiar with basic maintenance such as oil changes.

With any kind of mower, you need to consider the grass clippings. If you mow regularly and the clippings are short, you can leave them lie. If you don’t like that look, or the clippings are extensive enough to kill the grass they land on, you’ll need to rake, or use some sort of collector on your mower.

Consider a Sustainable Lawn

Lawns have come under scrutiny of late, and there’s a lot of evidence that the greenest lawn isn’t environmentally green at all. The issues range from water used for irrigation to pollution from fertilizer runoff to the global warming potential of the fossil fuel that mowers burn.

What can you do to lessen the environmental impact of your lawn? The simplest thing is not to fertilize or use pesticides. Sure, your lawn’s green color might not match your neighbors’, but your environmental cred will make up for it.

A compromise might be to use organic fertilizers, pull weeds by hand, and use pesticides only if needed. And irrigation? Unless it’s required where you live, just don’t.