Tips for Growing Green Lawns

Is the Grass Always Greener on the Other Side?

Lawn mower and grass
The green, green grass of home. Sean Hobson/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Whenever you looked at your neighbor's yard last summer, perhaps you couldn't help but think, "The grass is always greener on the other side." Well, don't despair. I have some tips for growing green lawns, including the proper use of lawn fertilizers, that will make it easy for you to gain some respect for your own grass.

Of course, assuming that it is only green grass -- and grass of good pedigree -- that you wish to see carpeting your yard in emerald splendor, weed control is necessarily a part of any collection of tips for growing green lawns.

Most homeowners intent on having green lawns will tolerate nary a dandelion weed nor tuft of crabgrass, regardless of its greenery. Fortunately, applying lawn fertilizers and practicing weed control can be integrated into the same chore – if you play your cards right.

So why do some yards exhibit beautiful green lawns, while in others the greenery always seems to be losing out to encroaching brown spots – rather like a human head of hair succumbing to graying? In a nutshell, all else being the same, the secret of having a green lawn lies in providing sufficient nutrients, practicing effective lawn weed control and following the proper mowing regimen. Of course, the devil is in the details, into which we’ll delve on Page 3. But let me begin by elaborating on that ominous-sounding little clause, “all else being the same.” For it’s important to start out with an even playing field.

First of all, disabuse yourself of any notion you may have 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 requirements. Many factors go into the selection of a type of grass for a particular lawn.

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

In between, for the Eastern U.S., lies the so-called "transition zone," comprised 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. Bentgrasses
  2. Bluegrasses
  3. Fescues
  4. Ryegrasses

Among the common warm-season grasses are:

  1. Bermudagrass
  2. Buffalograss
  3. Zoysiagrass
  4. Centipedegrass
  5. Bahiagrass
  6. St. Augustinegrass

Note, too, that lawns are not always composed of just one type of grass, but rather 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 notorious obstacles to having green lawns. Among cool-season grasses, fine fescues are the most tolerant of shade.
  • Lawn areas with heavy foot traffic require 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 "green lawn" bragging rights.

These factors will be explored on Page 2....

So you're intent on growing grass that stays green? Well, in addition to selecting the right type of grass for your yard (see Page 1), two more preliminary questions focus on lawn-thatch removal and watering lawns. Let's consider watering lawns first.

What's the yearly rainfall to be expected in your region? In dry climates, installing an irrigation system is practically de rigueur for growing grass successfully.

Meanwhile, in the misty Pacific Northwest, it is understandable that many choose to entrust watering lawns to Mother Nature. 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 consideration, but keep in mind that, in the long run, an automatic irrigation system may save you money.

One way or the other, your grass must have sufficient 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 automatic irrigation system -– and you aren’t -- you’re not starting out with an even playing field. For more information, please consult my FAQ on Irrigation Systems.

Lawn-Thatch Removal: Eliminating a Nemesis

Finally, check that your grass isn't saddled with lawn thatch:

  • If your lawn thatch layer is 1/2 inch or less, you may proceed to the tips on Page 3.
  • However, much of your effort in implementing the tips supplied on Page 3 will go for naught, unless you first dethatch (i.e., practice lawn-thatch removal) a yard with a thatch build-up that exceeds approximately 1/2 inch. If you fail to dethatch, you’re not starting out with an even playing field. Why?

    Here are the two major reasons for lawn-thatch removal:

    1. Because the lawn thatch layer will prevent water from getting to the roots of your grass, effectively nullifying efforts at watering lawns faithfully…
    2. and because the lawn thatch layer also furnishes cover for unwanted insect pests.

    If your lawn thatch build-up is right around 1/2 inch, you have a minor lawn thatch problem, for which I present easy solutions in my FAQ on Lawn Thatch. This FAQ also introduces readers to the related issue of core aeration, and to the equipment needed to perform the task.

    But if you're lawn thatch layer is, say, 3/4 inch or more, you have a major lawn thatch problem, for which you’ll need the aid of a vertical mower. Vertical mowers can be rented from your local rental center.

    With the above preliminary considerations out of the way, we may proceed to the tips for growing grass that will be the envy of the neighborhood. The tips on Page 3 are much easier to implement than the advice on the present page. With the proper groundwork laid (grass-type selection, irrigation and removal of excessive lawn thatch), the rest is a breeze….

    On Page 2 we finished looking at some preliminary concerns. Now it is time to get to the nitty-gritty: lawn weed control and grass fertilizer application. Ideally, thanks to your fertilization and other maintenance efforts, you'll get to a point where your grass is so healthy that it crowds out most weeds.

    As I stated earlier, the secret of having a green lawn lies in providing sufficient nutrients (lawn fertilizers), practicing effective lawn weed control and following the proper mowing regimen.

    Since it is sometimes possible to apply fertilizers and practice weed control simultaneously, I'll deal with these two tips first, on the present page. On Page 4, we'll take a look at mowing strategies and the reasons behind them.

    Lawn Weed Control and Lawn Fertilizers

    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 toil in anonymity, forming, en masse, an entity we know as "the lawn." We tend to take the grass in our yards for granted, as if it's just supposed to be there -- an outdoor carpet that just gets a trim every once in awhile. But it would be more accurate to think in terms of millions of individual plants craving periodic feedings.

    So what's the best answer? Satisfying their cravings with "slow-release" fertilizers, which are readily available 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 work as efficiently as possible, the use of lawn fertilizers can dovetail nicely 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: they're hotbeds of germination activity. When you remove those spots, you're hitting weeds where it really hurts.

    Here's some more great news on the efficiency front. 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 lawn 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 being wasted, as they are not going to your grass.

    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. I live in New England and grow a mix of cool-season grasses, so I'll use my own case as an example.

    If I were to follow the recommended fertilizing schedule, I would begin by feeding the grass in May with a product that also contains a preemergent to suppress crabgrass.

    I would follow that up in June with another lawn fertilizer that "kills two birds with one stone." In this case, that other "bird" I'm after is broad-leaved weeds, so I need a product that contains a postemergent herbicide designed to kill them. I explain the difference between preemergent and postemergent herbicides in my article on killing crabgrass.

    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.

    Take heed, however, to study the label of a winterizer bag before buying, so that you can determine 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, which you can expedite by watering first (weeds come out of wet soil more easily than out of dry ground).

    If you're not already landscaping organically but are interested in doing so, your next step will be to learn how to make compost.

    But there's still one prominent component of growing greener lawns to cover. On Page 4, we'll see how your mowing regimen affects the health of your grass....

    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? Learning from the mowing tips on this page 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 to that end would be in a mulching mower.

    Using mulching mowers can not only cut down on your yard maintenance, but also make your grass greener. Otherwise, you may end up either raking or bagging your grass clippings -- which in turn means disposing of them or recycling them. All extra work. Besides, hauling away your grass clippings means depriving your lawn of a natural fertilizer (supplementing the chemical feedings discussed on Page 3) that can make your grass greener.

    Proper Mowing Height and What to Do About Grass Clippings

    So how long should you wait before cutting the lawn? And how short should you cut the lawn (which is another way of asking, At exactly what mowing height should you set lawnmowers?)? According to the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, cutting the lawn with a lawnmower 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 then 2 to 2-1/2 inches or remove more than one third of the leaf surface at any one mowing."

    The premise 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.

    Employing this mowing tip will entail 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. Again, think of the lawn not as an amorphous mass but as a vast garden of individual plants. Those plants can profit from "pinching," as can many houseplants or garden flowers.

    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! For more information, please consult my product review of mulching mowers.

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


    • "The cutting edge": Be sure to keep lawnmower blades sharp. Sharp lawnmower blades produce clean cuts, and clean cuts promote better grass health. Dull lawnmower blades, by contrast, produce rougher cuts that make the grass more susceptible to disease.
    • 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 lawnmowing session. Using this mowing tip, you will prevent your grass from "getting into a rut" (literally). If your lawnmower wheels pass over the same area in the same direction each time you mow, they'll form ruts over time.