Adjust Your Expectations
Lawn chemicals do work, and it's difficult to get that flawless 'golf course look' without them. So if you plan to eliminate or drastically reduce chemical use, you may have to accept imperfections. Expect a dandelion or two and areas that will be a little less green at some times of the year. That said, you could still expect your lawn to look good?probably as good or better than most of your neighbors' lawns.
Mowing is a chore that's easy to put off?the grass will still be there in a couple days. But delay is bad for your grass. The taller it gets, the more you'll cut off when you finally mow. And the more you cut off, the more you'll 'shock' the grass. That weakens each individual plant and leads to other problems later on. It also opens up the turf canopy and allows weeds to bully their way in.
Rule of thumb: Never remove more than one-third of the leaf blade each time you mow. And keep your lawn mower blade sharp. A clean cut reduces the chance of common lawn diseases making their way into the leaf tissue. Your lawn will look much better too.
Regular core aeration will slow thatch development. However, it won't do much to remove existing thatch. This can be done by renting a power rake, which will 'lift' the thatch from the soil surface. This thatch residue can then be raked by hand and removed. Dethatching is hard work, so it's smart to prevent buildup in the first place. The best way to do that is to avoid overwatering and overfertilizing.
To apply compost, spread it over your lawn with a shovel, aiming for a layer 1/4 to 1/2 in. thick. Then work it into the turf with a rake. It's best to do this after aerating. Most garden centers sell bagged compost. But to cover an entire yard, you're better off buying in bulk from a garden center. Don't worry about buying too much?any leftovers will benefit your garden and shrub beds.
Reseed to Prevent Weeds
Reseeding with genetically improved varieties will also boost your lawn's performance. Many newer grasses require less fertilizer, watering and mowing compared with the older grasses that are most likely in your lawn. If you haven't reseeded in the past 10 years, you're long overdue. Simply use your fertilizer spreader to broadcast seed immediately after core aerating. Those soil plugs lying on your lawn's surface will dry out while you do this. After you've spread the seed, break up these cores with a rake. The combination of seed and pulverized soil will backfill your aerator holes, creating perfect seed-to-soil contact.
Fertilize Just Enough
There's no need to fertilizer more than twice a year. An organic fertilizer applied after core aeration will maximize plant and soil health. Like compost, organic fertilizers help feed beneficial organisms and replace valuable nutrients in your lawn. Most organic fertilizers are very safe to use nearly any time of the growing season. We prefer meal-based organics containing bonemeal, blood meal, fish meal and feather meal; however, organics made with poultry litter and biosolids work too.
One of the biggest mistakes made by lawn owners who have a sprinkler system is overusing it! Too much water is costly, wasteful and bad for your lawn. Water early in the morning, not during the afternoon when it's hot or when it's windy. More of that precious water will make its way to the roots.
Space irrigation cycles as far apart as possible. Let the grass wilt and turn a little blue before watering again. The less you water, the deeper those grass roots will go to look for it. This is a good thing! Overwatering discourages roots from penetrating deep into the soil. They are encouraged to stay close to the surface where the moisture is. A lawn with shallow roots dries out quicker. Not good!
Raise Your Mower
Aerate the Soil
'Aerating' simply means making holes in the ground by removing plugs of soil. And it's the single most important task you can perform to maintain a healthy, good-looking lawn. Nothing else comes close! It relieves compaction caused by foot traffic and creates extra pore space in the soil, allowing air, nutrients and water to enter. All of that helps roots to thrive.
Aerate your lawn at least once a year, preferably in the fall. Do it two or even three times each year if you can. The more, the better. You can rent a lawn aerator at any equipment rental store. Get one that will remove plugs of soil rather than one that pokes holes in the ground.