Proper lawn care can turn your turf into the envy of the neighbourhood or the perfect play field for your kids! Here’s how to grow healthy grass that can withstand pests, weeds, and drought.
Lawn Care Basics
- Healthy, nutrient-rich soil is the foundation of a healthy lawn.
- Pick the right type of grass for your climate and sunlight.
- Not all grass seed is created equal. You get what you pay for.
- Water grass deeply (at least 1″ of water) when the lawn is dry.
- Mow high (to about 3″) and mow often (at least weekly).
- Use a mulching mower. Leave short grass clippings on the lawn.
- Use a sharp mower blade for crisp cuts (no tearing).
- Aerate the lawn with a lawn aerator once every year or two.
- Feed the lawn with a top-dressing of compost twice a year.
- Check turf grass often (as you would any other garden plant).
- Pull weeds by hand or with a core root weeder.
- Rake out moss before it get a chance to smother the grass.
- Brown grass isn’t necessarily dead (it’s probably just dormant).
- Permanently address any drainage problems like ponding water.
- Avoid exposure to chemicals like road salt and dog urine.
- Overseed bare healthy soil with high quality grass seed.
- Consider alternatives to turf grass in areas that just don’t thrive.
- Use your lawn! Go outside and enjoy it :)
General Lawn Care & Maintenance
Lawns serve different purposes. Consider the reason for your lawn before deciding on a maintenance plan. Decide whether you want a show lawn for curb appeal or an outdoor play area for kids.
“Are you going to have a showcase lawn? A kid-friendly lawn with a swing set or a pinchbeck? Volleyball games every other weekend? Choosing the right grass is all about determining its suitability not only for your climate, but also for your lifestyle.”The Lawn Bible: How to Keep It Green, Groomed, and Growing Every Season of the Year, by David R. Mellor, Fenway Park’s Master Groundskeeper
Consider how much imperfections bother you. Are a few weeds in the lawn ok? How about dried-out grass in the middle of summer? Most people don’t mind the odd dandelion. Lately, more and more homeowners would rather conserve fresh water in dry spells than expend it on the lawn.
Correct lawn mowing is a key component of good lawn care. The general guideline is to “mow high and mow often”. This encourages grass to grow higher blades and deeper roots that competing weeds. Grass with tall blades and deep roots is more tolerant of heat and other stressors than short grass.
Mowing the lawn on a high lawnmower height setting allows grass to grow high and strong. Grass and weeds compete for sunlight to create energy. High blades of green grass allow the grass to shade out the weeds. Grass can then put more effort into growing deep roots (increasing access to water).
Cool season mixes of bluegrass, ryegrass, and fescue are most often mowed at a height of between 2.5 to 3 inches tall. While some warm season grasses are also cut high, there are a couple types that can go short. Bermuda grass and creeping bent grass are generally cut quite short at about an inch.
The Benefits of Mowing Often
Regular mowing means the mower will only cut off a bit of the plant rather than a significant portion. It’s easier for the grass to recover from a trim than from a harsh pruning. Avoid removing too much of each blade at once.
“Cutting more than a third of the blade severely shocks the plant and harms its ability to support its own root growth.”The Lawn Bible: How to Keep It Green, Groomed, and Growing Every Season of the Year, by David R. Mellor, Fenway Park’s Master Groundskeeper
Short lawn trimmings decompose fast, adding helpful nitrogen to the soil. This is especially true for trimmings from mulching mowers. Long grass trimmings tend to create “thatch” on the soil surface. Lawns that are not mowed enough often need “de-thatching” with a power rake to allow green grass to grow.
Building Healthy Lawn Soil
Healthy soil is the foundation of a healthy lawn. Grass loves soil with lots of organic matter, more sand than clay, and plenty of air voids. A lawn on top of a foot of loose, nutrient-dense sandy loam is much easier to maintain than a lawn with poor soil.
“If you have good soil, you can grow good grass. If you don’t have enough soil – enough healthy soil – then your lawn will forever be a battleground of expense, frustration, and even environmental hazard.”The Organic Lawn Care Manual: A Natural, Low-Maintenance System for a Beautiful, Safe Lawn, by Paul Tukey
Your Lawn Soil
Dig into the soil of your lawn in a few spots to get an idea of what you’re working with. Is the soil sandy or made of hard clay? How deep is the top layer? A true lawn-fanatic will also get a proper laboratory soil test.
The top layer is the most important for lawn care. Topsoil contains concentrated organic matter and micro-organisms. A lawn with 6″ of nutrient-rich topsoil is a great start.
“Why do you need to test your soil? Let’s see. If saving time, money, and aggravation are important to you, have the soil tested. If not, go ahead and wing it – with your fingers crossed and your wallet open.”The Lawn Bible: How to Keep It Green, Groomed, and Growing Every Season of the Year, by David R. Mellor, Fenway Park’s Master Groundskeeper
Improving Lawn Soil
Starting a new lawn from scratch sometimes means hauling in new soil. A lawn on 6″ of compost-rich topsoil will do much better than a lawn on mineral-only dirt. Depending on the size of the lawn, this might mean several dump trucks of quality topsoil! Quality materials up front means easier lawn care down the road.
“There should be a level of 6 to 8 inches of topsoil on your bare yard. If your topsoil level is not that high, you’ll need to add some more to ensure a healthy soil bed for good root growth. And remember, not all topsoil is alike. Have a soil test run on your new topsoil, too.”The Lawn Bible: How to Keep It Green, Groomed, and Growing Every Season of the Year, by David R. Mellor, Fenway Park’s Master Groundskeeper
Compact soil that’s otherwise healthy improves with lawn aeration using a core aerator. The lawn aerator removes plugs of soil, loosening up the soil matrix. Deep, loose soil allows for deep watering.
Liming a Lawn
The pH of your soil is also important. Grass thrives with a soil pH of about 6.5. Avid gardeners often send soil away to labs for testing.
Naturally-occurring minerals can help to adjust the soil pH if it’s a bit off. Ground limestone or dolomitic lime can be sprinkled onto lawns with a pH below 6 and raked in to increase the pH to become more hospitable to grass growth.
Spring Lawn Care
There are a few lawn care activities that are generally done in the spring.
Aerating Lawn Soil
Lawn soil must have pockets of air to host the roots of grass plants and the beneficial organisms that support a healthy lawn. Compaction of lawn soil by foot traffic or equipment can be counteracted by mechanically pulling out bits of soil to create voids. This is generally done with a core lawn aerator, which has hollow tines that extract little cylinders of soil.
Core aeration is best done when the lawn in moist, in early spring or early autumn. A core aerator can be rented or a lawn service company can do the core aeration for you. We tend to aerate our lawn every 2-3 years, as we have lots of foot traffic running around the yard!
Topdressing a Lawn
Topdressing involves spreading a thin layer of soil-improving material onto a lawn. Perhaps the most common residential lawn topdressing is to sprinkle on about an inch of loose homemade compost. The compost is then raked in and the lawn is watered.
An enthusiastic lawn caretaker might topdress their lawn with compost twice a year (in the early spring and early fall). Topdressing a lawn with nutrient-rich compost is often done immediately after core aeration, so that the compost can infill the open core holes.
While topdressing is generally done with compost, it can also be done with other materials. Sandy lawns might be top-dressed with a thin layer of composted steer manure. Clay lawns might be top-dressed with sand after core aeration. Whatever the substance, topdressing is done to improve the existing soil in its place.
Dethatching a Lawn
Thatch is the layer of matted organic material that can accumulate around the bases of blades of grass. Thatch tends to develop when long grass clippings or whole leaves are left on the lawn. It can also develop when moss smothers out the grass. The thatch layer can reduce water infiltration and air movement, which is not good for the health of the lawn.
A good early-spring raking with a handheld lawn rake should remove the thatch that’s accumulated over the winter and loosen up the blades of grass after snow melt. If hand-raking out all of the thatch is not reasonable, power-raking may be necessary.
Power-raking a lawn is also known as power de-thatching. It uses a machine that looks rather like a big, unruly lawnmower. A dethatching machine can usually be rented from a local tool rental agency for an afternoon.
Power-raking is hard work and the process usually encourages taking better care of their lawns in the future. A well-cared-for lawn may never need a power dethatcher. If a lawn does have a persistent thatch layer, it should be dethatched prior to core aeration and topdressing.
Lawn fertilizer adds essential nutrients that are otherwise missing. Without doing a soil test, it’s hard to know exactly what your lawn care requires. Most lawns, however, tend to like a feeding of nitrogen.
“Excepting only drought, no deficiency is as dramatic in its effects as nitrogen deficiency is. General chlorosis and etiolated habit are the most characteristic systems. Growth is retarded and slow, and the plants have an unthrifty, spindly appearance.”Mineral Nutrition of Plants: Principles and Perspectives, by Emanuel Epstein and Arnold J. Bloom
Most homeowners are moving towards organic lawn care methods – especially those with children, grandchildren, and pets. While there are pros and cons of both synthetic and organic fertilizers, more and more lawn caretakers are making the safety of the greater environment and inhabitants the priority.
“If you have kids playing games on the lawn, consider all the factors before applying any unnatural lawn additives. According to numerous studies, children have been proved to be significantly at risk from many lawn and garden chemicals.”The Organic Lawn Care Manual: A Natural, Low-Maintenance System for a Beautiful, Safe Lawn, by Paul Tukey
When to Feed a Lawn
Nitrogen-rich lawn fertilizer can be helpful for grasses like bluegrass, fescue and rye. Fertilize these common cool season grasses twice a year – in the spring and fall. They don’t need fertilizer in the summer when they’re semi-dormant. That’ll only help the weeds!
“Feeding is not an annual necessity. If grass growth and color are good then do not feed; you will only encourage more grass growth, which means more mowing! If growth is poor then apply a general organic fertilizer or a complete organic lawn feed over the whole lawn in early spring.”Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Complete Guide to Natural and Chemical-Free Gardening, by Anna Kruger, Maria Rodale, and Pauline Pears
Recommended Lawn Fertilizers
Here are some recommended high-nitrogen natural lawn fertilizer options:
- Homemade Compost
- Corn Gluten Meal
- Espoma Organic Lawn Food
- Seaweed Meal
“The best time of day to fertilizer is when the grass is dry. Fertilize the lawn, then water it to knock the fertilizer off the blades of grass and activate it into the soil. Don’t fertilize on wet grass – as the grass dries, the fertilizer left on the blades can actually burn the grass in the hot sun.”The Lawn Bible: How to Keep It Green, Groomed, and Growing Every Season of the Year, by David R. Mellor, Fenway Park’s Master Groundskeeper
Lawn Fertilizers to Avoid
The most important lawn fertilizer to avoid is…excess fertilizer of ANY KIND! Resist the urge to “add a little extra for good luck.” Your lawn doesn’t work that way.
“With excessive fertilizer applications, crop nutrient efficiency declines”Mineral Nutrition of Plants: Principles and Perspectives, by Emanuel Epstein and Arnold J. Bloom
Other fertilizers like phosphorus are often unnecessary for turf grass. Synthetically-produced salts of any chemical can do more harm than good in the long run. Keeping synthetically-produced salt off the lawn is a basic component of natural lawn care. Unnecessary synthetic chemical fertilizer is simply wasted money. Worst of all, it’s wasted money that weakens the lawn and pollutes groundwater. Not cool!
“Overfeeding your lawn nitrogen can injure your plants and “burn” your lawn. Additionally, excess nitrogen can cause a major growth spurt in your lawn. This means much more mowing (like any of us have time for that) and creating a habitat for a bunch of creatures that love to munch on a long, lush grass plant. Since nitrogen leaches through the soil easily, water runoff containing this surplus nitrogen can end up polluting the groundwater or nearby lakes and streams.”The Lawn Bible: How to Keep It Green, Groomed, and Growing Every Season of the Year, by David R. Mellor, Fenway Park’s Master Groundskeeper
Deep, infrequent lawn watering encourages strong, deep grass roots. The goal is to force the grass roots deeper than the roots of competing weed plants. Weeds with shallow roots will suffer as surface soil dries out between waterings. Deep grass roots will be able to pull up moisture from deeper in the soil.
“Anyone committed to growing a healthy lawn will likely, at some point, have to apply water above and beyond what Mother Nature provides.”The Organic Lawn Care Manual: A Natural, Low-Maintenance System for a Beautiful, Safe Lawn, by Paul Tukey
When to Water Grass
Watering the grass should happen when the lawn needs water – not on a strict schedule.
So how do you know when to water grass? You go out and check the blades of grass or even the soil. If the top 6″ of soil is dry and the grass is starting to go limp, it’s likely time to water the grass. If only the top 2-3″ of soil is dry, and the grass roots extend deeper into soil with some moisture, wait it out.
In the absence of actually checking the soil moisture, a general guideline is to water deeply with 1″ of water once or twice a week. BUT – it’s better just to check to see if water is required. Once your grass has deep roots, keep the top few inches of the soil dry until the grass needs water. Weeds love every-day watering!
“If you water once a week just because somebody once told you that you should, you could be needlessly wasting water and perhaps damaging your lawn in the process. Watering more frequently than your lawn needs can mean more weeds, more disease, and more mowing.”The Lawn Bible: How to Keep It Green, Groomed, and Growing Every Season of the Year, by David R. Mellor, Fenway Park’s Master Groundskeeper
The Best Time to Water Grass
The best time to water grass is whenever it’s not too hot and sunny out. Watering is most effective when the sun isn’t evaporating the water away.
Early in the morning is often the best time to water grass.
“What time of the day should you actually water your lawn? Without a doubt, early morning is best. You’ll diminish the amount of water you waste due to evaporation – both on the grass and directly from the sprinkler. The morning weather is generally cooler, with gentler winds, so the water has a better chance of actually reaching the roots instead of drying up too quickly on the blades or being blown off course by wind.”The Lawn Bible: How to Keep It Green, Groomed, and Growing Every Season of the Year, by David R. Mellor, Fenway Park’s Master Groundskeeper
Morning watering adds to the morning dew when the soil is expecting some moisture. After a light rain is also a great time. If it’s rained 1/4″ already, adding 3/4″ of water will turn the shower into a deep lawn watering.
The depth that rainwater reaches in the soil can be deceiving. If you’re considering skipping a deep watering, go out with a shovel and actually check. If only the top few inches of soil are moist, add more water! Keep conditions favourable for turf grass so it can outcompete other plants.
How Long to Water Grass
Water grass for as long as it takes to add 1″ of water to the soil. Place a shallow container with straight sides in the path of your lawn sprinkler. Watch the depth of the water in the container and note how long it takes to get to 1″ depth. That will give you an idea of how long to water grass with your specific setup.
After watering, take a shovel or another metal tool like a screwdriver and check that the water has gone down deep into the soil (at least 6″ down). Soil that has been very dry can create a bit of a crust on top, which causes runoff instead of absorption. Check to make sure this isn’t the case with your soil.
“Water your lawn until the water reaches between 6 to 8 inches deep into the soil. You can check this by poking a long screwdriver into the soil after watering. If it goes in easily to a depth of 6 to 8 inches, you’re all set.”The Lawn Bible: How to Keep It Green, Groomed, and Growing Every Season of the Year, by David R. Mellor, Fenway Park’s Master Groundskeeper
Just remember that deep, infrequent watering creates drought-resistant grass. This type of lawn watering results in fewer problems with weeds, pests, and thatch. These are all good things!
Brown grass doesn’t necessarily mean dead grass. Cool season grasses go brown while they are dormant in the heat of summer. This gives the plants a little break when it’s just too hot out.
Healthy grass plants generally come back in the fall unless they were too dried out for too long. Give them a deep watering at least once a week. Wait until the heat of summer decreases before getting too worried.
Weeds tell lawn care-takers a lot about the condition of a lawn. Weeds take over turf grass when conditions are more favourable for the weeds than for the grass. The idea is to change the conditions to favour the grass rather than the weeds.
“When it comes to natural lawn care, the real question isn’t so much about how to grow grass, is it? The real challenge is how to eliminate everything else that wants to grow in your lawn.”The Organic Lawn Care Manual: A Natural, Low-Maintenance System for a Beautiful, Safe Lawn, by Paul Tukey
Weeding Tips for Healthy Lawn Care
The most effective and safest way to weed the lawn is to physically remove any really offensive weeds by hand. Remove the whole part of the plant, roots and all. Roots come out with less effort if the soil has been wet for a while. Weeds are best removed when they’re small. It’s also best to remove them before they create seeds (…future weeds!).
Small weeds slide out of the soil well with a core weeder. Take a bucket around the lawn with you and fill it with weeds. It’s very satisfying! It’s like performing core aeration on a tiny patch of your lawn. You may need a proper shovel for areas with dense weeds.
Reasons a Lawn May Have Certain Weeds
Clover grows well in lawns that have a low amount of nitrogen in the soil. Clover isn’t such a bad thing for these lawns, as clover plants add nitrogen to the soil. Plus, it’s kind of nice. Some people don’t mind clover, and others even add it to their lawn mix. Still, a lawn with clover likely requires some high-nitrogen organic fertilizer.
Dandelions grow well in soil with an alkaline pH (slightly over 7.0). Grass, and the microbes that support it, thrive in soil with a pH in the range of 6.0 to 7.0. Alkaline soil makes it hard for grass to take up nutrients.
A laboratory soil test will determine if your soil is outside of the 6.0 to 7.0 pH range. Change lawn soil pH by adding naturally-occurring minerals. If your soil is alkaline, you can lower your soil’s pH with gardener’s sulfur or peat moss. Many lab soil tests come with customized soil amendment instructions.
Dandelions also thrive in compacted soil. They actually work to aerate and loosen up compact dirt! Core aeration will help the lawn in the long run. A handheld core weeder will help in the short term.
Crabgrass will overtake turf grass in a lawn with poor nutrient availability. To defeat crabgrass, create healthy lawn soil. This means adding organic matter, lawn fertilizer, and a proper watering routine. These lawn care conditions favour turf grass. The crabgrass will have a hard time re-establishing itself in the spring.
“The best first step in natural weed control is to take a deep breath and make an honest evaluation of your weed population. A rule of thumb is that if you have anything less than 10 percent weeds in your grass, you don’t have a weed problem worth treating. Anything more than 90% perfection isn’t even reasonable to expect in a backyard setting.”The Organic Lawn Care Manual: A Natural, Low-Maintenance System for a Beautiful, Safe Lawn, by Paul Tukey
Grass Seed for Home Lawns
Choosing high quality grass seed is an important component of lawn care. Seed new lawns or bare soil patches with quality seed suited to your climate. High quality grass seed leads to easier lawn care. You do get what you pay for!
“Buy your grass seed from a reputable source such as a lawn and garden centre or home improvement retailer. Buy the best seed available and expect to pay some money for quality grass seed. After all, there’s a reason that the cheap seed is cheap.”The Lawn Bible: How to Keep It Green, Groomed, and Growing Every Season of the Year, by David R. Mellor, Fenway Park’s Master Groundskeeper
Choosing Grass Seed
Grass seed companies are always improving seed to be stronger, finer, and greener. Mixes generally contain a few different types of grass to promote biological diversity. In much of North America, this means cool-season grasses like bluegrass, fescue and rye.
I like grass mixes that are perennial grass types (a single plant can live for multiple years). Check that the seed is 99.99% weed free, doesn’t contain fillers, and has a germination rate of at least 85%.
Planting Grass Seed
Early fall is the best time to plant grass seed. The soil is warm and seeds germinate well. The baby grass plants then get the whole fall season to get established before winter.
Spring is also a good time to plant grass seed. Wait until outdoor temperatures reach are warm enough for germination. Grass seed won’t germinate on cold soil. Check your grass seed bag for specific temperature ranges. Many instructions specify a minimum temperature of 10-15 degrees Celcius (50-60 degrees Fahrenheit).
Grass seed should be in direct contact with bare, loose soil. Newly placed seed requires consistent watering to germinate. Keep the seeds and soil damp by watering twice a day for about a month. Pull out any weeds by hand. If you do choose to use starter fertilizer, use a balanced, OMRI-listed product like Sustane Organic Turf Starter Fertilizer (4-6-4).
Fall Lawn Care
Fall lawn care is all about getting the lawn ready to rest for the winter. This is also the time to set the stage for a healthy lawn the following year.
Start by collecting and removing fallen leaves. Shred them up and use them to make wonderful homemade compost! Inspect the base of the lawn for thatch build-up and dethatch the lawn if necessary. Fall is also a good time for core aeration and topdressing the soil.
I find that early fall is the best time to plant grass seed. The grass tends to have time to settle in and get established before winter, leading to thicker grass than waiting until the following spring. Because of the excellent grass seed establishment, early autumn is a great time to level out or otherwise change the elevation of parts of the lawn. You can even plant a few crocus bulbs in the soil while you’re at it!
Winter Lawn Care
The cooler months are generally a low-maintenance time for most lawns. That being said, there are a few tips for the wintertime that can really help with the health of your lawn. Here is an article all about what to do as grass stops its active growth period in late fall.
“As temperatures really begin to cool, grass growth will slow almost to a standstill in much of North America…In regions where growth does slow, the most important factor to remember is to mow the grass low, to about two inches. Long grass matted down by ice and snow is a recipe for trouble next spring.”The Organic Lawn Care Manual: A Natural, Low-Maintenance System for a Beautiful, Safe Lawn, by Paul Tukey
Trees like oak and hornbeam don’t lose their leaves until mid-winter. These leaves will need to be removed, but only when it makes sense to do so. Avoid unnecessary walking on the lawn when temperatures are below freezing or the grass is frosty. Wait until a warm day to get out there and rake up the leaves.
Winter is a great time to get your lawnmower cleaned and serviced. Book your mower into a local shop for annual maintenance to keep it working at its best.
Lastly, make a plan for winter snow removal. Consider a few tall marking stakes at the edge of the lawn to as a guide. It’s also good to consider a spot to pile excess snow. Avoid really big piles of snow on top of the lawn as they can take a long time to melt in the spring (meaning the grass may not thrive).
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