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
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How to Care for Lawn Overview
Not-so-green acres: How to Fix a Dead Lawn
Following Mr. Lawn’s advice, we worked on the lawn shown here. In March, it had dead patches of grass caused by voles. By August, the grass over the entire lawn was so thick we felt like we were walking on shag carpet. And the grass lawn looked great too (see lead photo). It was noticeably greener than the neighboring yards. We spent about $250 on supplies.
Achieving a lush grass 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 grass 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.”
Gravel and sand hinder grass growth, so vacuum them up. Start along the street and vacuum into the yard until you no longer hear stones getting sucked up. Then do the same thing along the driveway.
Photo 2: Check the spreader’s “throw”
To apply the right amount of fertilizer, measure from the wheel to the edge of the dispersal pattern. Then space your passes across the lawn so the coverage overlaps by 6 to 8 in. Do this test every time you spread a new product.
Photo 3: Don’t spill on the grass
Park your spreader over a tarp or your driveway when filling the hopper. Spills and leaks can saturate one spot of your lawn and kill your grass.
Your lawn and a chicken’s butt—a marriage made in heaven!
Chicken manure is rich in nitrogen, which is a key nutrient for a healthy grass lawn. No need to get your own flock—it’s a whole lot easier to just buy it by the bag.
Photo 4: Improve your soil
Soil activator helps retain water in sandy soils and loosens clay soils. It also helps aerate the soil, decompose grass clippings and reduce erosion.
Soil activator is available at lawn and garden centers.
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. Buy a high-quality broadcast spreader on Amazon here.
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.).
“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
How to Care for a Lawn: Late spring, early summer
Photo 5: Measure the right amount of water
Set a cake pan halfway between your sprinkler and the edge of the spray pattern. Watch your clock to see how long it takes the sprinkler to fill the pan with 3/8 in. of water. Water for that amount of time three times a week, unless it rains.
Photo 6: Water with a timer
If you don’t have an automatic sprinkler, an inexpensive timer frees you from watching the clock every time you water. The timer controls the sprinkler, so you’ll be sure the lawn gets the proper amount of water.
Photo 7: Neutralize dog spots
Gypsum and water are the antidote for dog spots in your yard. Gypsum neutralizes the dog urine, and the water soaks the area for new grass seed. If you treat the brown spots early, your grass won’t die.
Photo 8: Stop crabgrass before it starts
Apply crabgrass preventer to any areas where crabgrass previously grew. A hand spreader is perfect for small areas, like along the pavement where crabgrass tends to grow.
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.
How to Care for a Lawn: Mid to late summer
Photo 9: Spot-spray individual weeds
Don’t treat the entire grass lawn if you have just a few weeds. A pump sprayer is more economical than buying spray bottles. Be sure there’s no rain in the forecast for 24 hours.
Photo 10: Use your hose for large areas
Use a dial sprayer hooked up to your hose to kill large areas of weeds. Spray the herbicide on a calm day so the weed killer won’t drift onto your plants and flowers.
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.
How to Care for a Lanw: Fall care
Photo 11: Face winter with short grass
Mow the grass short at the end of the year. This reduces the chance that your lawn will get snow mold and vole damage.
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 contains humate, a natural product that’s older than dinosaurs. This is one of the best things you can put on your grass lawn.” —Mr. Lawn