20 Most Common Mistakes People Make with Their Lawn

Maintain your lawn by learning how to avoid common mistakes.

1 / 19
Family Handyman

Mowing at the Wrong Height

Taller grass means a healthier lawn. It shades the soil surface, keeps the soil from drying out and reduces watering needs. Shaded soil also makes it harder for weeds to get started. If you raise your mowing height, you may even find that the taller grass chokes out existing weeds. Find the right height to cut grass in your area and for your type of lawn. For northern lawns, 3 in. is a great target height. For warm climates, 1-1/2 to 2 in. is best.

2 / 19
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Mowing When You Think It’s Time

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.

3 / 19
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Fertilize Too Much

Regular composting doesn’t replace fertilizing your lawn. Your lawn will still require food once in a while. And testing your soil (every two or three years) is the best way to know when and how much fertilizer your grass needs. It will help you determine nutrient deficiencies and excesses, so you won’t pay for or apply fertilizer you don’t need. Don’t fertilize because you think your lawn needs it. Contact your local university or garden center for help with soil testing.

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.

4 / 19
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Check Soil Moisture to Determine Watering Time

Common wisdom for establishing the correct length of time to water is to place a pie pan in the yard and note how long it takes to fill 1/2-inch deep. But experts prefer a more accurate method that takes soil conditions into account. Heavier soil doesn’t absorb moisture nearly as fast as loose or sandy soil, so it needs to be watered longer.

After an extended warm, dry period (dry soil is the key) set up your sprinkler and set a timer for 30 minutes. Then turn off the water and check the soil for moisture depth. Do this by pushing a shovel into the lawn and tipping it forward to expose the soil. See how deep the water has penetrated. Moist soil will be darker. Your goal is to run the sprinkler until the water penetrates three- to four-inches into the soil.

If the water has not penetrated far enough, restart the watering and continue to keep track of the time. Check again in another 15 minutes. With trial and error, you’ll eventually arrive at the optimal length of time to water for your soil type and water pressure.

5 / 19
Family Handyman

Forgetting Compost

Top-dress your lawn with high-quality compost. Compost can bring depleted or damaged soil back to life, resulting in stronger root systems and happier plants. One teaspoon of compost contains a billion beneficial microorganisms that help create a better soil ecosystem, which improves nutrient, water and air retention.

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.

6 / 19
water from hose
Rhonda Roth/Shutterstock

A Garden Hose is More Cost Effective Than a Sprinkler

In theory, but not in reality. If you water your lawn with a hose, you probably aren’t watering the lawn evenly. This leaves certain areas of your lawn thirsty, while others are overwatered. This not only causes brown patches in your lawn but can increase your watering bill if you’re not watering properly. Plus, with technology advancing, sprinkler systems can now help to conserve more water compared to before, leaving this theory in the pile of myths.

7 / 19
shutterstock_269014973 lawn mower cutting grass

Thinking Grass Clippings on the Lawn Could Lead to Thatch Build-up

Thatch buildup doesn’t happen from leftover grass clippings but from excess watering and too much fertilization. Leaving grass clippings is actually great for your soil. It returns much-needed moisture and nutrients back to your soil. So stop wasting time bagging your grass (and overwatering your lawn).

8 / 19
Raking leaves
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Leaves Will Smother a Lawn

Did you know that leaves are actually great for your lawn? Leaves have an organic matter in them that is great for your soil. It works as a natural fertilizer, helping your grass to grow the following year. According to Sam Bauer, a turfgrass researcher from the University of Minnesota, it can even suppress the growth of weeds as well. He recommends mulching the leaves by using a lawn mower (specifically with a specialized mulching blade, if you have one) over the leaves to cut them up. However, if you have huge piles of leaves on your lawn, it may be hard to mulch all at once (and yes, can smother your grass). Remove those piles until you have a good dusting of leaves around your lawn before mulching with your mower.

9 / 19
Family Handyman

Attacking Broadleaf Weeds in Wrong Weather

You need to kill weeds when they’re growing. That’s because the herbicide is absorbed through the leaves and then sent throughout the rest of the plant. When the weather is too cool, the weed isn’t growing and the herbicide won’t be absorbed, and the chemical isn’t as effective. Too hot and the herbicide will stress the grass. The product directions will give you the best temperature range. Apply broadleaf herbicides when rain isn’t forecasted; a soaking will just rinse off the herbicide before it can do any good.

10 / 19
Family Handyman

Applying Preventers at Wrong Time

Crabgrass preventers (aka pre-emergence treatments) do one thing and one thing only. They prevent crabgrass (and any other seed) from sprouting. Once crabgrass sprouts, it’s too late. Here’s the key. Apply preventer between the second and the third mowings. Because crabgrass starts sprouting a few weeks after the grass greens up, that’s generally just the right time.

11 / 19
Illustration courtesy of Trevor Johnston

Not Testing the Soil pH Level

Grass grows best when it’s growing in the “pH happy zone.” Grasses like a pH level between 6 and 7.2. If the soil is too acidic or too alkaline, the grass won’t thrive even if you do everything else right. So collect one tablespoon-size sample a couple of inches under the sod in three different places in your yard and take the three samples in for testing. Some garden centers offer the service, or search the Internet for “soil testing” to find a place to send it.

You’re after a pH between 6 and 7.2. If it’s too high, apply sulfur to your lawn; too low and you’ll use pelletized limestone. Whoever does the testing will tell you what and how much to use to fix the pH. Applying the treatment is as easy as walking around the yard with a spreader.

Illustration courtesy of Trevor Johnston

12 / 19
Family Handyman

Eliminating Weeds in Broad Strokes

Don’t treat your whole lawn for just a few weeds. That’s expensive, a hassle and ecologically unsound. If you have only a few weeds, pull them by hand with a weeding tool, or spray each one with a pump-up sprayer.

13 / 19
Family Handyman

Use Granular Weed Killers

Use a hose-end sprayer to kill a yard full of weeds. It’s faster and more effective to dispense concentrated liquid broadleaf killers than to use granular broadleaf killers. You just add the herbicide, dial in the right concentration on the sprayer lid and walk around the yard and mist all the weeds. You can treat an average yard in less than 20 minutes.

14 / 19
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Not Using Concentrates

Use concentrates whenever you can. For most liquids, you can buy concentrates and mix your own treatment with water. You’ll save about 70 percent of the cost of premixed. Be sure to mix only as much as you can use within a week or two. Minerals in tap water will reduce the potency of the chemicals in just a short time.

15 / 19
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Dethatching a lawn involves flailing away at your lawn with a powerful, engine-driven steel rake. If that sounds scary, imagine how your grass feels! The idea is to rake up the old woody stems resting at the base of the grass leaves. Dethatching does this, but at great cost to your lawn because it tears up not only the grass but also the roots. It’s rarely a good idea. If you have thatch, it’s probably because you’ve been under watering, over fertilizing and/or consistently mowing when the grass is overgrown.

16 / 19
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Ignoring the Directions on Lawn Treatments

They are SO important! It’s not only the concentration for fluids or the spreader setting for granules. Pay attention to the details like the rain forecast and what temperature ranges the treatments require. Skip them and you’ll either wreck your lawn or waste your time and money.

17 / 19
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Over Fertilizing

Yep, just skip the directions and pour it on. You’ll kill your whole yard in no time. And if you don’t kill it outright, it’ll turn yellow and take weeks to heal itself.

18 / 19
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Mowing With Dull Blades

Dull mower blades rip through the leaves, which stresses the plant. Instead, you want to slice them off cleanly with sharpened lawn mower blades. You can always tell a lawn that’s been mowed with a dull blade because it looks brown on the top. Get on your hands and knees and you can actually see the damage.

19 / 19
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Feeding Shady Areas Equally

People tend to overapply fertilizer to shady areas because the grass is struggling. But that just kills it faster!

Many people really have two lawns—a lawn that gets full sun for most of the day, and a shaded lawn that may get only two to four hours of direct sun—and their water and fertilizer needs are different. The grass in shady areas needs less water because less evaporates, and it needs less fertilizer because with less sun it doesn’t grow as much. When you go into shade, shift the controls on the spreader so you’re spreading about half the amount.