There are five factors that influence the quality and health of your lawn, and the three most important of these are largely beyond your control. Weather, soil quality, and the types of grass you have in your lawn are all critical to turf health but once the lawn is installed, it is difficult to have much impact on any of them.
1) The Weather – obviously you can’t control it so you might try to mitigate it. If it is hot and dry, you can water. If it is very humid, golf courses will sometimes drag a hose over the greens in the morning to knock off the moisture and reduce the risk of disease. If there has been a lot of snow and the grass is matted and/or diseased, rake it up to encourage air flow through the turf canopy. Other than that, you just have to hope your lawn can power through the difficult weather.
2) The Soil – it is very difficult to improve the soil if the lawn is already installed. Typically all you can do to address this is to make sure you or your lawn care company are providing proper fertility. If you have poor soil and the lawn has been installed, you should definitely be mulching your clippings and it might also make sense to be top dressing the lawn with a 1/4″ of high quality compost a couple times each season. These practices will add much needed organic matter and stimulate biological activity. Aeration will also help.
3) Grass Varieties Used – if your lawn is already in place, then there is really very little you can do short of removal and replanting. You can also try overseeding, but I do not believe it works well enough to justify the effort or expense. If the wrong grass has been planted and you want a pristine lawn, your only viable option is to spray it with a broad spectrum herbicide such as Round-up and start over.
But don’t lose hope! Now let’s talk about the factors we CAN influence…
4) Proper Lawn Care Practices – This is the secret sauce!
Proper lawn care practices are critical to having a beautiful, healthy lawn…and they cost you very little. Follow these eight simple rules and your lawn will improve – guaranteed. And it will not require you spend anything more and you might even save money – less fertilizer and weed control should be needed. The grass knows how to grow. Let it do what it wants to do naturally and help it instead of doing things that stress it and make it struggle to survive…like scalping it! In descending order of importance:
1) Mow High! – This is the key. The taller the grass, the healthier the lawn. There is a one to one relationship between the height of the grass and the depth of the roots. If you are mowing at 2 inches, you will have 2 inches of roots. If you are mowing at 4 inches, you will have 4 inches of roots. That added root mass will make your lawn more drought and disease-resistant and provides the finest natural weed control. This works!
2) Mulch Clippings – If you are bagging your clippings you are losing much of the nitrogen you are applying when fertilizing. The clippings will also help maintain biological activity in the soil. Best of all, you don’t need to struggle bagging them and carrying them to the curb to fill the landfills.
3) Water When Dry – Most grass needs 1-1 1/2 inches of water per week, especially during the dry summer months. Water deeply but infrequently (once per week is even OK) in the morning to reduce the possibility of disease. Amount of moisture and the timing of it is what matters, not the frequency. Use an old tuna fish can to determine how much water you have applied.
4) The 1/3 Rule – Never remove more than 1/3 of the height of the grass in one clipping. It shocks the grass plant and stresses it, making it less healthy and more susceptible to disease.
5) Sharpen Mower Blade – Keep the blade sharp. If you cut with a dull blade it will leave a jagged, frayed edge on the grass plants which browns quickly and will also make the plant more susceptible to disease.
6) Aerate – Core aeration reduces compaction making root development easier. It also pulls micro-organisms to the surface which helps break down thatch and encourages biological activity in the soil.
7) Vary Mow Pattern – Changing your mowing pattern insures the wheels are not running over the same areas every time, which can cause bald spots and weaken and stress the grass. If it is hot and dry, this becomes even more important. In these conditions, you should try not to mow at all. The weight of the mowers can damage the turf and even cause diseases such as dollar spot to flourish in the tire tracks where the turf is stressed.
8) Mow High! Oh, did we say it again?! If you do only one thing, mow high and your lawn will be much healthier.
5) Proper Fertilization, Weed and Pest Control/Selection of a Lawn Care Provider – So why did I put this last? Because of all the factors, I think this may be the least important (although it pains me to say it!). If you are getting some cooperation from Mother Nature, if your soil is at least average, if you have sun-loving grass varieties in the sun and shade-loving grass in the shade, and you are following the lawn care practices above, you are well on your way to a beautiful lawn. All grass will need some fertilization if you want it to be green. The soil will provide some of its nutritional needs but grass is a mono-culture, meaning there are millions of tiny plants that are all competing for the same nutrients. This is an unnatural state which will require some assistance from you to sustain the turf’s health and keep it as green as possible. That is why you need to fertilize. The amount of fertilizer your lawn needs will depend on many conditions including the age of the lawn, the quality and type of soil, the type of grass being grown, the amount of shade, the amount of rain/irrigation, the quality of the mowing/care, etc. A lawn care professional can provide this information or you can wing it and see what kind of results you get. Just don’t start too heavy – you don’t want to burn your lawn, damage the soil organisms, or pollute ground or surface water.
Regarding weed and pest control, these are best left to a licensed lawn care provider. They know which products to use and how to do it safely. They can also diagnose any issues with the lawn, which can be quite difficult for the homeowner when experiencing insect or disease issues. These problems frequently have overlapping symptoms and can devastate a lawn quickly if not treated properly.
While fertilization and weed/pest control might not be the most important component of a healthy lawn, it is still important, and a licensed lawn care company is best suited to correctly assess the needs of your lawn and select the products that will provide the best possible results. You can find the most knowledgeable companies in your area at www.landcarenetwork.org. Every state has at least one local lawn care association which can also recommend local lawn care professionals who care about quality. For other questions or more information, please call Emerald Lawn Care at 847.392.7097. We are always happy to help!