Lawn Care: The Basics of Lawn Maintenance

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

  1. Healthy, nutrient-rich soil is the foundation of a healthy lawn.
  2. Not all grass seed is created equal. You get what you pay for.
  3. Water grass deeply (at least 1″ of water) once or twice a week.
  4. Mow high (about 3″) and mow often (at least weekly).
  5. Use a mulching mower. Leave short grass clippings on the lawn.
  6. Aerate the lawn with a lawn aerator at least once a year.
  7. Feed the lawn with a top-dressing of compost twice a year.
  8. Check turf grass often (as you would any other garden).
  9. Pull weeds by hand or with a core root weeder.
  10. Brown grass isn’t necessarily dead (it’s probably just dormant).
  11. Address any drainage problems like ponding water.
  12. Avoid exposure to chemicals like road salt and dog urine.
  13. Overseed bare healthy soil with high quality grass seed.
  14. Consider alternatives to turf grass in areas that just don’t thrive.
  15. Use your lawn! Go outside and enjoy it :)
Green Grass - Lawn Care - Tips for Lawn Maintenance

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 an outdoor play area for kids.
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 use it on the lawn.

Lawn Mowing

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.

The Benefits of 3-Inch Grass

Mowing the lawn on a high lawnmower height setting (about 3 inches), 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).

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 short trim than from a harsh pruning. Avoid removing too much of each blade at once.
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.

Grass Seed

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!

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 mostly 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.

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.

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?
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.

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.
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.
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.

Lawn Fertilizer

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.

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!

Recommended Lawn Fertilizers

Here are some recommended high-nitrogen natural lawn fertilizer options:

  • Homemade Compost
  • Corn Gluten Meal
  • Espoma Organic Lawn Food

(Click here to read more about organic fertilizer options.)

Lawn Fertilizers to Avoid

Other fertilizers like phosphorus are generally unnecessary for turf grass. Synthetically-produced salts of any type can do more harm than good in the long run. Keeping synthetically-produced salt off the lawn is a basic component of 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!

Lawn Watering

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.

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. Take a shovel and remove a lump of soil from an inconspicuous spot in the lawn. Is the top 6″ of the soil completely dry?

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, a general guideline is to water deeply with 1″ of water once or twice a week. 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!

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. 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 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.

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 Lawns

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.

Lawn Weeding

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.

Lawn Weeding Tips

The most effective and safest way to weed the lawn is to physically remove weeds. 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! 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.

Mary Jane

Mary Jane is a home gardener who loves creating healthy, welcoming spaces (indoors and out!) - About Mary Jane (

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