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Lawn Care: How to Repair a Lawn

Grow lush grass, even if your lawn looks worn out and unhealthy. By using a combination of soil additives, fertilizers, and tender, loving care, you can change your lawn from scraggly to golf-course green in one season.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Overview

Achieving a lush lawn doesn't have to be a constant struggle. And you don't have to pay big bucks for a lawn service to douse your yard with chemicals either. Growing healthy, green grass is mainly just a matter of knowing what to give your lawn, and when to give it.

In this story, we'll show you what to do in the spring, summer and fall to get a lawn so nice you could cut it up and sell it as sod. These steps will work for any yard, regardless of climate or soil type. The products shown in this article are available at lawn and garden centers and some home centers.

We worked with lawn care expert George Dege, better known as Mr. Lawn. He has been teaching lawn care classes since the 1970s and has helped thousands of homeowners improve their lawns. As the third-generation owner of a lawn and garden center, he has been in the lawn care business “forever.”

Spring care

Once the grass starts turning green, it's time to start your lawn care. That's usually mid to late March for Northerners, early March for Southerners. Don't fret if your lawn is slow to green up. That's good. The thicker the lawn, the less sunlight that reaches the individual blades and the longer it takes for the grass to turn green.

Get rid of the stones and sand that the snowplow or snow blower threw into your yard over the winter. Raking isn’t effective—you'll only get about 15 percent of the stones and pebbles. Instead, use a shop vacuum (Photo 1).

The snow piles that sat on your lawn all winter compacted the soil. You can loosen the soil and improve water penetration by applying gypsum (a 40-lb. bag covers 200 sq. ft.). Test your broadcast spreader's dispersal pattern on your driveway. Fill the hopper, set the spread rate so the holes are wide open for gypsum and walk at your normal speed. Then measure how far the gypsum is dispersed on each side of the spreader (Photo 2). This tells you the distance to move over with each row when you're spreading—you want the spread patterns to overlap by 6 to 8 in. Broadcast spreaders always “throw” farther on the right side than they do the left. You don't need to spread gypsum over the entire lawn; just 10 ft. back from the street and the driveway.

For your spring and summer mowings, cut just the top third of the grass. So if your grass is 3 in. high, take 1 in. off the top. Mowing more than one-third stresses the grass. You can mow the grass shorter in the fall.

Between your second and third mowings, apply a lawn fertilizer with slow-release (time release) nitrogen (a 20-lb. bag covers 5,000 sq. ft.). Always fill your spreader over a tarp or driveway (Photo 3). Follow the spread rate listed on the fertilizer bag and spread it on the entire lawn.

Fifteen days after applying the fertilizer, spread soil activator on the lawn (Photo 4; a 40-lb. bag covers 4,000 sq. ft.).

A centerfold only a handyman would love:
Look at those luscious blades!

Vacuuming the Lawn?
“Your neighbors will think you've lost your mind when they see you vacuuming your lawn. But by the end of the summer, they'll be asking you for lawn care advice.”
—Mr. Lawn

Late spring, early summer

Proper watering is crucial to a healthy lawn. The best time to water is early morning, when the sun starts to rise. You lose some water to evaporation in the middle of the day. And watering at night leaves the grass wet too long, which can cause fungus and other diseases in the summer.

Give your lawn 3/8 in. of water three times a week. Calculate the amount of time it takes your sprinkler to dispense that much water (Photo 5). Set a timer (sold at home centers and lawn and garden centers) on your hose spigot so you won't have to watch the clock (Photo 6). Increase from 3/8 in. to 1/2 in. when the daytime temperatures are above 80 degrees F.

If you have bare spots in your lawn caused by your dog, sprinkle gypsum on the spot and saturate it with water (Photo 7). Plant new grass seed in the bare spots and keep it watered.

Crabgrass will grow when the soil warms up to 55 degrees F. Apply a crabgrass preventer to keep that nasty weed from coming back. Timing is everything. If you apply the preventer too early, it will be ineffective. And once the seeds germinate, it's too late. In northern states, late April is the best time. Mid-March is recommended for southern states. Check with a local garden center to find the best time for your area.

Apply the preventer wherever you had crabgrass the previous year, which is typically along the street, driveway and sidewalk (Photo 8).

In mid-May, give your lawn its second application of lawn fertilizer.

Mid to late summer

By midsummer, you should notice a thicker, greener lawn. You'll probably also notice weeds. Spot-kill patches of weeds with an herbicide in a handheld pressure sprayer (Photo 9).

If weeds are popping up all over the lawn, spray them with a dial sprayer (sold at home centers and lawn and garden centers). Pour concentrated herbicide into the sprayer and hook it up to your garden hose. Turn the dial on the top of the sprayer to the setting recommended on the herbicide container (such as 2 tablespoons per gallon of water). Then spray the weeds (Photo 10).

In mid-August, you could give your lawn a third application of fertilizer, but chicken manure works even better because it contains more nitrogen, which gives the grass a healthy, green look (there’s hardly any odor). Mr. Lawn is a fan of Chickity Doo Doo because it also contains 9 percent calcium, which improves root growth. (A 40-lb. bag covers 4,000 sq. ft. Chickity Doo Doo or other brands are available at lawn and garden centers.) Within two or three days of applying the manure, you'll see the lawn really green up.

Fall care

Don't neglect your lawn as the growing season comes to an end. It's important to keep treating your soil before the grass goes dormant for the winter. In early to mid September, apply soil activator over your yard, just as you did in the spring.

Two weeks after that, give your lawn its final application of fertilizer for the year. Use a winterizer fertilizer (a 40-lb. bag covers 10,000 sq. ft.). This specialized fertilizer has more potassium to help the grass roots grow deeper, which lets the roots absorb and store nutrients until the ground freezes. When the ground warms up in the spring, the grass uses those nutrients to jump-start its growth.

Keep mowing your lawn until the grass stops growing. Even in Minnesota, that sometimes doesn't happen until the first part of December. On your final mowing of the year, cut the grass to 1 to 1-1/2 in. high (Photo 11).

Now you're done caring for your lawn until spring!

Soil Activator
“Soil activator contains humate, a natural product that's older than dinosaurs. This is one of the best things you can put on your lawn.”
—Mr. Lawn
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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Broadcast spreader
    • Bucket
    • Garden rake
    • Shop vacuum

You'll also need a cake pan, a watering timer, a pump sprayer, a dial sprayer, a hose and a lawnmower.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • Grass seed
    • Soil activator
    • Chicken manure
    • Slow-release fertilizer
    • Gypsum
    • Crabgrass preventer
    • Herbicide
    • Winterizer fertilizer

Comments from DIY Community Members

Share what's on your mind and see what other DIYers are thinking about.

1 - 9 of 9 comments
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September 03, 8:39 PM [GMT -5]

How do you combat very dri dirt patches (drought damage)?

June 11, 8:50 AM [GMT -5]

We are in the middle of this right now and so far the yard looks great! Great advice!

April 07, 7:47 PM [GMT -5]

Checking on suggestions on yard repair from damage caused by dogs - dog waste

March 25, 10:21 AM [GMT -5]

How much of our lawns should be traffic sturdy? How do I identify a nuisance animal as opposed to plain wildlife? How large a lawn is reasonable in a country setting; that is do we want visibility or coverage?

February 25, 8:41 PM [GMT -5]

So how do I adapt this advice to a lawn in Florida?

February 22, 12:01 AM [GMT -5]

Does this apply to St. Augustine grass

February 17, 7:51 PM [GMT -5]

What happen to the voles? How did you get rid of them?

September 10, 11:06 PM [GMT -5]

I have questions (and can find now where else to ask)- I live in Palmdale, California (the high desert). I worry that vaccuming the yard would be futile since there are so many rocks. Should I try? (the soil is extremely rocky and sandy).
Also- regarding the watering- would the 1/2" of water 3 times a week (in mornings) be adequate in a desert setting too?

Thanks,
Shane

September 08, 5:59 PM [GMT -5]

I had been fighting a problem lawn for almost 20 years, trying all sorts of "programs". Starting in March 2011, after we returned from Florida, I followed this program to the letter. Even gave up using the cheepo fertilizers in lieu of all Scotts. Here it is September 2011 already in Michigan and my lawn is everything the article promised. Try this. Oh, I used SoilSyrup Organic Conditioner (humic acid) from the Internet and no chicken manure (too much clover).

Killed invasion of Creeping Charlie using 2oz/gal Trimec Classic with spot spraying.

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