Lawn care needn’t take up all your time, but you do need to make a commitment to having healthy grass. Why? It not only provides a comfy carpet for kids to play on, but prevents soil erosion, absorbs many air pollutants and filters contaminants from rainwater. Healthy grass also helps clean the air by turning carbon dioxide to oxygen. And grass is a smorgasbord of insects and worms for birds. So by maintaining your lawn, you help the environment in your little corner of the world.
To get the most out of your lawn, you need to know what kind of grass you have and its needs: how much water, resistance to pests, tolerance to shade, amount of nutrients needed. If you’re starting from scratch, do some research to identify the best grass type for your climate and soil type. If you have an established lawn that isn’t all it should be in spite of proper care, consider replanting with a more suitable type of grass.
To know what your lawn needs, test your soil. Inexpensive soil pH testing kits are available at lawn and garden and hardware stores, or use litmus paper.You can even have your soil’s fertility tested by your state’s cooperative extension service (under County Government in your phone book) or a commercial soil-testing lab. If you do this periodically, you’ll be able to give your lawn what it needs when it needs it, whether it’s organic material like grass clippings, manure or compost, or chemical fertilizer or aeration.
Watering is the most important facet of lawn care and the one most often done incorrectly. Most homeowners water too often with too little water. The key is to water thoroughly and only when needed, when the grass begins to wilt, the color dulls and footprints stay compressed for more than a few seconds. Recommendations vary anywhere from one inch of water to soak into the soil two to eight inches. Drip hoses are the most efficient method, as they release water more slowly in an imitation of rain, therefore soaking the soil more thoroughly. They also conserve water by cutting down on evaporation losses common with sprinkler-type watering systems. The next best thing is an in-ground automatic sprinkler system. To evaluate how long the sprinklers should run, turn them on and time how long it takes for the water to penetrate to four inches into the soil (open up the ground periodically with a shovel). This way you’ll never over- or under-water your lawn again. One last tip: water only in early morning or evening to ensure efficient water absorption.
When it comes to mowing, there are two schools of thought, one based upon grass health and the other on water conservation. For best health, mowing frequently is recommended, but frequent mowing stresses the grass, making it require more water. It’s your decision. Everyone agrees on other points, however: sharpen your mower’s blades frequently to get a clean cut, and never mow when the grass is wet. Cut no more than 1/3 of the grass’s length at a time. Leaving your lawn slightly long will produce healthier, more pest-resistant grass. Most mowers are set too low, so set yours to a height of 2 ½ to 3 ½ inches.
To aerate or not to aerate: One good reason to aerate your soil every year is that it helps to clear out thatch. What is thatch? It’s the dead, undecayed material at the soil line. This material adds to a number of lawn problems: a breeding ground for pests, leaching of nutrients, prevention of water absorption. Before aerating, be sure to give your lawn a good, hard raking to loosen up and remove the thatch. This one step can prevent myriad problems.
Fertilizing should enhance your lawn, not hurt it. Improper fertilization can lead to grass burn and other problems. The best are organic, slow-release types. Your soil’s test results will indicate a need for a specific ratio of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), expressed as an N-P-K formula such as 5-10-5. The results will indicate specific organic fertilizer recommendations if you requested them, such as so many pounds of cottonseed, bone meal, etc. You can buy a single fertilizer that has the desired ratio. Although you can spread fertilizers by hand, you’ll get more uniform coverage with a spreader (drop or broadcast type). Make two passes at opposite angles. Water thoroughly after applying fertilizer or apply it before an expected rain, unless the directions state otherwise.
Finally, use herbicides and pesticides responsibly. Follow package directions to the letter. Apply weed-killers when they first start to grow, before they go to seed. Apply these products with a hose-end sprayer, which mixes liquid chemicals with water from your garden hose, or with a garden spreader. Pay special attention to recommended follow-up watering instructions and recommended safety precautions, such as keeping pets and people off the lawn for a period of time following the application.