5 Steps of a Healthy Lawn
Written by Ryan Such
I have several conversations throughout the year with people about their lawns and how to make them better. These are the five things that need to be done in order to have a beautiful lawn. All too often people think by just hiring a company to apply three or four applications of weed control and fertilizer, all their problems will be solved. This is a big step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. Keep in mind that if having a nice lawn was easy, you would see more beautiful lawns in your neighborhood. These five steps should help you understand and simplify the process for you.
Step 1: Every lawn needs good soil to grow on. Ideally 6+ inches of good soil is needed. This is good information if you are building a new house or putting in a new lawn, but I realize most of you are past this point. If you are passed this step, it will help you understand why your lawn may dry out quickly or be over-compacted in certain areas. Unfortunately, if your lawn lacks a proper foundation, the only way to fix issues in your lawn may be to tear it out and replace it.
Step 2: Let’s move onto the daily needs of your lawn. Properly mowing your lawn can be a huge factor in the health of your lawn. A lawn should be mowed at roughly a 3 inch height. If you mow your lawn too short, you will foster a shorter root system that will cause your lawn to dry out more quickly. This can directly lead to extra weed development. There are issues that can develop from cutting your lawn too high, but I rarely see that as an issue. Most of the time the issue is that the lawn is cut too short or not often enough. When you do not cut your lawn often enough, it will start to strain the existing grass, especially if you allow it to get long and then cut it short. Ideally, you want to cut as little of the grass as possible thus cutting more frequently when the lawn is growing fast.
If you decide to mulch your lawn, then paying attention to how much you are cutting off the length of your grass is very important. You want to cut less than one third of the length of your grass when mulching. If you can see clumps of grass on your lawn after mulching, you definitely have cut off too much grass and this will lead to excess thatch issues.
Another thing to keep in mind when mowing is to make sure to alternate directions and make sure you do not mow around the trees or obstacles the same direction every time as this will cause ruts in the lawn.
If you have a riding mower, you will want to pay special attention to areas the rider may tear up the lawn or cause stress; these areas may be suited better for a push mower.
Step 3: Weed control and fertilizer are an important part of the process for a healthy lawn. Whether you choose to do this yourself or hire a professional, this is a process that cannot be ignored. The healthier and thicker your lawn is, the less of a need weed control will be. But it will always be needed to some degree.
The amount and frequency of weed control and fertilizer will vary from lawn to lawn, mostly based off of the desired outcome. Three or four applications throughout the season is the most common and works best under most circumstances. One thing to keep in mind is if you do not water your lawn, you should not be applying weed control or fertilizer during dry, hot periods as you will be likely to burn your lawn or at the very least will have very limited results. Ultimately, if you want to know how many applications your lawn needs, a trusted professional can help with the answer.
Step 4: Watering is another essential area that needs to be taken into consideration for you to have a healthy lawn. Two biggest mistakes made here are that people either do not water enough or, surprisingly, they water incorrectly. Obviously, your lawn needs water, and how much water it needs depends on the time of year, soil composition, root development, and desired outcome for your lawn.
The general rule of thumb for watering an established lawn is to water less frequently for longer intervals. This is what most people goof up. It is better to water for longer periods one or two times a week than shorter periods every other night. By watering too frequently, the root system gets trained to be shallow and thus dries out more easily. The deeper you can train your root system to be, the less susceptible it will be to drying out. I see this all too often where lawns have been sodded years ago and the sod can still be pulled up. The roots haven’t been developed but the grass could still be green. These lawns get watered too often.
Many things factor into how much water a lawn needs that you need to keep in mind. Lawns need water to be healthy but usually, in May and June, rainfall helps out so manual watering isn’t usually needed that often. Typically, July and August are the months you need to supplement rainfall. I have watered my lawn on average 10 to 11 times a season, mostly in July and August. Also, do not be afraid to water less frequently but for a longer duration as this will help with root development.
Step 5: One thing that is often overlooked in the refurbishing of lawns is that people forget that a lawn is a living organism and living organisms will die. There may be a reason for the death, or it may just die off in certain areas because of “natural causes.” I am not talking about the entire lawn dying at once, but parts of it dying here and there. You need to practice the above-mentioned habits well, and this will help reduce the refurbishing needs. But there will always be a need to some degree. First of all, you need to understand that this is the reality of owning a lawn and you need to understand that areas will need to be re-seeded, sodded, over-seeded, and aerated to help fill in the affected areas.
I am a big believer in aerating with over-seeding. This is a great way to help with existing root development and thickening up a lawn that has thinned out for whatever reasons. This practice works well for areas that have 50% grass coverage already but need a general thickening up. If an area is completely or mostly grass-free, sodding or dirt and seeding will be needed as a first step. Every year multiple times I come across spots where people tried to fix a spot that died off by throwing seed on top of the spot with the hope that it will grow. This does not work, and save your money if that is your plan. The seed needs dirt or softened soil to affix to or it will never take root. Every spring around May 1st, I will address the areas in my yard. The reason I wait until then is because it is hard to tell if some areas died over the winter or just have not greened up yet. There have been areas I thought were dead but later greened up. May 15th and later is also typically the perfect time for aerating and over-seeding, and if you stay on top of your lawn, aerating and over-seeding will solve most of your problems in this area.
I wish I had a plan for you that would make having a nice, green lawn super easy, but one doesn’t exist. If having a nice lawn were easy, everyone would have one. The good news, though, is that it is not rocket science. Everyone can have a nice lawn; they just have to be willing to educate themselves and then do the work or be willing to allocate resources to have a professional take care of some or all of the above plans.