Tips for Growing Green Lawns

Is the Grass Always Greener on the Other Side?

Closeup of lush grass blades with dew on them.
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When you look at your neighbor's yard, perhaps you say to yourself, "The grass is always greener on the other side." Well, don't despair. Here are some tips for growing green lawns, including how to use lawn fertilizers, that will make it easy for you to get some respect for your own grass.

Of course, assuming that it is only green grass that you wish to see carpeting your yard, informing you of methods for killing weeds is necessarily a part of any lawn-care advice.

Most homeowners who want to have lusher, thicker lawns will not tolerate a dandelion weed or patch of crabgrass, regardless of how green it is. Fortunately, applying lawn fertilizers and practicing weed control can be combined into one job if you play your cards right.

So why do some yards have beautiful green lawns, while, in others, the greenery always seems to lose ground over time to brown spots? All else being the same, the secret of having a green lawn lies in providing enough nutrients, practicing sound weed control, and following the proper mowing routine. But the devil is in the details, which we will get to. Let's begin, though, with that little clause, “all else being the same.” For it’s important to start out with an even playing field.

First of all, let's shoot down the idea that grass is simply grass, and that’s all there is to it. In fact, there’s a lot more to it than that.

People grow many different types of grasses in their lawns, and these grasses have different growing needs. Many factors go into the selection of a type of grass for a particular lawn.

One of the biggest factors is your local climate. The so-called "warm-season" grasses are ideal for the southern states in the U.S., whereas "cool-season" grasses do better in the North and in Canada.

In between, for the eastern U.S., lies the so-called "transition zone," made up of zones 6-7. This is a problematic area for growing grass: too hot for some grasses, too cold for others.

Common cool-season grasses include:

  1. Bent grass
  2. Bluegrass
  3. Fescues
  4. Rye grass

Among the common warm-season grasses are:

  1. Bermuda grass
  2. Buffalo grass
  3. Zoysia grass
  4. Centipede grass
  5. Bahia grass
  6. St. Augustine grass

Note, too, that lawns are not always made up of just one type of grass. Sometimes, they are made up of a mixture, to take advantage of the strengths of each type.

The following are examples of other factors that go into your selection of grass type, in addition to local climate (these examples pertain to lawns in the northern zone and in the transition zone):

  • Shady areas are a challenge to having green lawns. Among cool-season grasses, fine fescues are the most tolerant of shade.
  • Lawn areas with heavy foot traffic need a tough grass. A mix of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye will fill the bill here.
  • Some regions are more prone to drought than others. The new, improved strains of tall fescue are not only drought-tolerant, but they also blend in with Kentucky bluegrass better than do older strains.

But, in addition to grass-type selection, there are other factors to consider to ensure that you start with a level playing field as you strive to unseat your neighbor for bragging rights to having the greenest lawn around.

 

Lawn-Thatch Removal, Watering Lawns

So you're serious about getting a lawn that's thicker and greener? Well, in addition to selecting the right type of grass for your yard, you have to deal with two more basic issues: thatch removal and watering your lawn. Let's consider watering first.

What's the yearly rainfall to be expected in your region? In dry climates, installing an irrigation system is necessary for growing grass successfully. But, in the misty Pacific Northwest, it is understandable that many choose to let Mother Nature do the watering. For most of the rest of us, the decision of whether or not to have an irrigation system for watering lawns will not be so clear-cut. Cost will be a factor, but keep in mind that, in the long run, an irrigation system may save you money, because it is more efficient than other ways of watering.

One way or the other, your grass must have enough water on a consistent schedule in order for you to achieve the goal of a lush, green lawn. If your neighbors are watering lawns with an irrigation system, and if you aren’t, then you’re not starting out with an even playing field. 

Finally, check that your grass does not suffer from a lawn-thatch problem:

  • If your thatch layer is 1/2 inch or less, you may proceed to the tips that follow.
  • However, you won't get much good from the tips that follow unless you first deal with a thatch build-up that is much worse than 1/2 inch thick. If you fail to remove it, again, you’re not starting out with a level playing field. 

Why? The two major reasons for thatch removal are that the thatch layer:

  1. Will prevent water from getting to the roots of your grass.
  2. Will give cover to unwanted insect pests.

If your thatch build-up is right around 1/2 inch, you have a minor lawn thatch problem that is fairly easily dealt with. A thick layer (say, 3/4 inch or more) calls for the use of a core aerator or a vertical mower. Both can be rented from your local rental center.

With these basic issues out of the way, we may proceed to the rest of the tips that you will need to grow grass that will be the envy of the neighborhood. The tips that follow are much easier to put into action than the advice given thus far. With the proper groundwork laid (grass-type selection, watering, and removal of thatch), the rest is a breeze.

Lawn Weed Control

As was stated earlier, the secret of having a green lawn lies in providing sufficient nutrients (lawn fertilizers), practicing sound weed control, and following the proper mowing routine. Since it is sometimes possible to apply fertilizers and practice weed control at the same time, we will deal with these two tips first. Later, we'll take a look at how to mow properly.

We know we have to fertilize the tomato plants in our gardens, or the houseplants on our window sills. But it's easy to overlook the necessity of spreading fertilizers over our grass.

Perhaps it is because the individual grass plants work in unison, together forming something we know as "the lawn." We tend to take the individual blades of grass for granted, other than to mow the carpet that they form once in a while. But it would be more accurate to think in terms of millions of individual plants that need to be fed every so often.

So what's the best answer? Satisfying their hunger with slow-release fertilizers, which you can buy at home improvement chains. With slow-release fertilizers, you're extending the feeding period (and you're also less likely to burn your grass). That means less time spent fertilizing the lawn on your part.

Happily for those of us who like to cut down on yard work, the use of lawn fertilizers can go hand-in-hand with lawn weed control. As your grass takes in those nutrients, its root system will expand and begin to cover any bare spots. Weed seeds count on those bare spots to take hold. When you remove those spots, you're hitting weeds where it really hurts. Ideally, thanks to your fertilizing and other maintenance efforts, you'll get to a point where your grass is so healthy that it crowds out most weeds.

Here's some more great news for those seeking a low-care yard. There are lawn fertilizers that not only feed your grass, but also promote common lawn weed control at the same time. These are the so-called "weed and feed" products. It's a combination that makes a lot sense, when you think about it. Effective weed control should, after all, go hand-in-hand with the application of grass fertilizers. Because if the weeds suck up some of the nutrients that you're supplying, those are nutrients that are being wasted, as they are not going to your grass.

Applying Lawn Fertilizers: a Schedule to Follow

The Scotts company recommends applying lawn fertilizers in four stages. The exact dates will, of course, vary from region to region. Another factor is the kind of grass you grow. So always read the package labels carefully before applying, and pick the brains of the staff working at local home improvement stores. As an example, here is how to fertilize a lawn if you live in the northeastern United States and if your lawn is a mix of cool-season grasses:

Begin by feeding the grass in May with a product that also contains a preemergent to prevent crabgrass from growing in the first place. Follow that up in June with another lawn fertilizer that performs two jobs at once. In this case, the other job (besides fertilizing) is controlling broad-leaved weeds. For the latter, you need a product that contains postemergent herbicide designed to kill weeds that have begun growing in your lawn. 

In mid-summer, bugs and drought are two of the greatest enemies of your grass. Scotts puts out a lawn fertilizer called "SummerGuard" to address these issues. It's designed to fight chinch bugs and many others, including the deer ticks that carry Lyme Disease (note, however, that to kill ticks in brushy areas of your landscaping, you'll have to spray with other products). According to the company, it also improves the ability of your grass "to absorb water and nutrients."

Last but not least, when you winterize your yard in autumn, don't forget your grass. It's not difficult to remember which fertilizers to shop for at this time, because they will often contain "winterizer" in their names. These products are designed to help your grass build a deeper root system to weather the winter.

But make sure you study the label of a winterizer bag before buying, so that you can learn the NPK content. In The Myth of "Winterizer" Fertilizer, Robert Cox, Cooperative Extension Agent for Colorado State University, warns that such lawn fertilizers will fail to enhance the winter hardiness of your grass unless they are sufficiently high in nitrogen. Suggesting the use of a 25-5-5 or thereabouts, Cox goes so far as to state, "Nitrogen applied in the fall is the most important lawn fertilization of the year."

For those who prefer to landscape organically, applications of compost will be the answer (or at least a big part of it). If you keep your grass well-fed with compost, it has a better chance of crowding weeds out (and avoiding pest invasions, too). To practice organic lawn-weed control on the weeds that do emerge, you'll have to resort to good old-fashioned hand pulling. If you choose this route, water the area first, since weeds come out of wet soil more easily than out of dry ground.

What Is the Proper Mowing Height? 

Would you be surprised to learn that your reason for mowing the lawn (and doing the job properly) goes beyond impressing the neighbors with that "clean-cut" look? Proper mowing can promote lawn health and give you the greenest lawn possible. The goal is a lawn that looks not merely well-kept, but lush.

One of the best investments you could make to that end would be in a mulching mower. Using mulching mowers can not only cut down on your yard maintenance, but also makes your grass greener. Otherwise, you may end up either raking or bagging your grass clippings, which, in turn, means having to dispose of them or recycle them later. This is all extra work. Besides, hauling away your grass clippings means depriving your lawn of a natural fertilizer that can make your grass greener.

So how long should you wait before cutting the lawn? And how short should you cut your grass? According to the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, cutting the lawn with a mower set at a proper mowing height can save you from having to bag your grass clippings, even if you don't own a mulching mower. The rule of thumb suggested by the Cornell Extension is, "Mow when your grass is dry and 3 to 3-1/2 inches tall. Never cut it shorter than 2 to 2-1/2 inches or remove more than one third of the leaf surface at any one mowing."

The point behind this mowing tip is that the valuable nutrients in the grass clippings can do your lawn some good, left right where they lie after cutting, as long as their bulk is kept at a minimum. By following this rule of thumb and cutting only about an inch off the top of your lawn at any one time, the bulk of the grass clippings is kept low.

Following this mowing tip means more frequent cutting, to be sure. But the result will be a healthier lawn, fed by nutrients that you would otherwise be hauling away. Besides, cutting a lawn too short can stress it out, especially during periods of hot weather. In addition, cutting the lawn stimulates growth and increases thickness. You are, in effect, "pinching" your grass plants each time you mow, just as you pinch many houseplants or garden flowers to make them sturdier plants.

Note that with mulching mowers, you don't need to be quite so careful about the height at which you cut the lawn, since the grass clippings are shredded up more finely. This works much better for those of us who don't generally walk around with tape measures on our belts.

Mowing Tips on "The Cutting Edge": When and How to Mow

  • "The cutting edge": Be sure to keep mower blades sharp. Sharp mower blades produce clean cuts, and clean cuts promote better grass health. Dull mower blades, by contrast, produce rougher cuts that leave your grass wide open to diseases.
  • When to mow: It puts less stress on the lawn to mow in the evening than to mow when the sun is pounding down in the afternoon.
  • How to mow: Alternate the direction in which you mow each mowing session. If your mower wheels pass over the same area in the same direction each time you mow, they'll form ruts over time.