Lawn care tips: how to take care of your lawn

lawn care tips - grass

Lawn care is one of those gardening tasks that can take you as much or as little time as you are willing to give it.

Once you know how to take care of your lawn – which this article will show you – you can take these lawn care tips and tailor them to the amount of time you have available.

In a sense, lawn maintenance is a never ending task because your lawn is a living thing.

It is subject to the effects of the living world around it – the insects and bugs in the soil, maybe pets or other animals scratching at its surface, you and your family walking, running and playing on it.

And then there’s the influence of the weather, which provides an ever changing environment in which the lawn has to survive and, hopefully, thrive.

Nevertheless, lawns are a virtually ever-present feature of modern gardens.

They are infinitely versatile and can be a relaxation zone, a football pitch, a play area or a design feature and foil for the trees, shrubs and plants displayed in the garden.

Lawn maintenance

One of the reasons for the popularity of lawns is, ironically, that they are often seen as a low maintenance option.

To some extent, this is true. In temperate climates, a lawn will grow without much effort from you. Indeed, in the right conditions your lawn will grow and grow unchecked.

And, if you are not looking for the perfect green velvet finish, you can keep your lawn serviceable, for a while at least, by merely giving it a mow every couple of weeks in the growing season.

However, lawns left to their own devices will undoubtedly deteriorate over time.

A lawn may develop problems associated with soil compaction, poor drainage or the impact of pests and diseases.

A lawn may also consist of the wrong types of grasses for the climatic or other environmental conditions it is subject to.

And this can change as a lawn’s uses change. For example because some types of grasses are more hard-wearing than others, a lawn planted by an elderly couple for its visual beauty may not be able to withstand the impact of a family with 4 children and a dog if the property changes hands.

In all of these cases, the likelihood is that the lawn grasses will gradually die back and be replaced by weeds and mosses and other unwelcome additions.

lawn care
My own patchy lawn needs some lawn care

Lawn care services

So, in view of the lawn’s tendency to decline in quality over time, it is worth considering how you should go about caring for your lawn.

Of course there are lots of lawn care companies who will provide on-going lawn care services and lawn maintenance.

There are national companies like Scotts Lawn Care or Tru Green who will set up a maintenance program for you. These will involve varying degrees of work on the part of the company, according to how much you want to pay.

You’ll also find local lawn care services companies. These may be small operations offering a lawn mowing service, or businesses offering a full lawn maintenance approach.

As ever, work out what it is you need and shop around to find the best value deal.

Do-it-yourself lawn care tips and advice

However, depending on your own personal circumstances, you may want to take care of your lawns yourself and I’d certainly encourage you to do so.

Whilst there is lots of detailed lawn care advice around that will help you, there are 3 main lawn care tips that I think you should bear in mind when it comes to developing or maintaining a lawn.

1. Soil preparation

Lawns won’t thrive in soil which is compacted and/or poorly drained.

The underlying soil needs to be friable enough for the roots of the lawn grasses to penetrate and for water and nutrients to seep into the soil so that they are available to be taken up by the grass roots.

What this means is that when you are sowing a lawn or laying turf, you should take care to prepare the underlying soil well. Dig it over to at least a spade’s depth, remove all weed roots and large stones and rake it flat.

For existing lawns, you need to may need to add drainage to particularly poorly drained areas.

You should also at least ensure that you break up compaction by regular aeration and remove the build up weeds and moss by regularly scarifying the surface. There is more on this below under the ‘regular maintenance heading’.

2. Right grass right place

Different grass species thrive in different conditions.Some grasses will not tolerate shade, while others, like Tall Fescue will. Some thrive in full sun, others don’t.

Different grasses will also suit different soil types. So you should find out whether you have sandy, clay or loamy soil.

Finally, some grasses are harder wearing and better suited to highly trafficked areas.

Sowing grass seed: what do you need to know?

When choosing the best-growing grass seed for your area, there are several factors to consider.

First, determine your regional growth patterns and cycles, as well as your climate type.

There are two basic categories of lawn grass, cool season grasses and warm season. Just as the name implies, cool season grass grows particularly well in cool temperature climates. Likewise, warm season grass thrives in warm and hot climates.

Once you identify your regional climate type, you can select between these two types of grasses.

Second, determine the level of maintenance you want to put into your lawn. It’s important to consider the pros and cons of each grass type.

For instance, cool season grass often needs more water during warmer temperatures, so you’ll have to be out with the garden hose more often during the spring and summer. Likewise, warm season grass is not as tolerant of cold temperatures, and will generally turn brown and go dormant during cold spells.

Try to find a happy medium. Horticulturalists use the term “transition zone” to indicate areas with hot summers and cold winters. In these regions, it’s a toss-up as to whether or not you want to go with a cool season grass or warm season grass.

The best advice is to consider the longest season and go from there. In addition, keeping your lawn well-fed and watered, as well as sown and re-seeded from time to time, will help your grass thrive through less-than-optimum temperatures.

The different types of grasses

Once you have worked out which kind of grass you need – warm or cold season, you can decide on the particular species..

Warm season grasses

Among warm season grasses, these are some of the most popular:

lawn care tips - grass seed
sowing grass seed
  • Zoysia grass: Zoysia grass is a particularly durable grass that can be walked on without much damage. In addition, it thrives in a wide range of soil types. However, it does require some watering and good drainage so it doesn’t go dormant.
  • Buffalo grass: This type is particularly popular with homeowners who don’t want to put a lot of time into lawn maintenance, because Buffalo grass doesn’t need to be watered as often as other types, even in drought conditions. However, it isn’t as durable when it comes to foot traffic. While it does well in several different soils, Buffalo grass particularly thrives in sand and clay.
  • Bermuda grass: This is a popular type of grass because it doesn’t require much maintenance and watering, and it thrives in a wide variety of soils. However, it doesn’t tolerate cold temperatures very well, and it does need to have a great deal of direct sunlight in order to grow and remain healthy.
Cool season grasses

Cool season grasses include the following:

  • Perennial ryegrass: This is not only fast-growing, but also durable for foot traffic and can grow even in shady areas. However, it does need to be watered a fair bit during the spring and summer to keep it green. Perennial ryegrass also requires a fairly rich type of soil.
  • Tall fescue: This type of grass doesn’t need to be watered as often, and thrives even through drought conditions. It also tolerates shade. While it is a slower-growing lawn alternative, it doesn’t require much maintenance and prefers sandy and clay soils.
  • Fine fescue: Fine fescue is actually a term that includes different types of fescue grasses, including chewing, hard, red and sheep. These all thrive in shaded areas and don’t require much watering or maintenance. They are durable as well.
  • Kentucky bluegrass: Kentucky bluegrass (also called smooth stalked meadow grass) creates a particularly beautiful and durable lawn, provided it is planted in rich soil. This type of grass can thrive in shady areas as well. Kentucky bluegrass requires frequent watering during the summer or it will quickly go dormant.

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Turf grass

Of course, very often a new lawn is created from turf (or sod, as it is often known in the US), rather than seed.

Cultivated turf is grown by specialist turf producers on vast areas of flat arable land. Once ready, the turf is cut into lengths. The most common size of cultivated turf is 1 square metre (610 mm x 1640 mm) or 1 square yard (16” x 81”). It is usually delivered rolled up.

Turf usually consists of a variety of different grass species. In the UK these normally include:

  • Perennial ryegrass
  • Red fescue
  • Kentucky bluegrass
  • Browntop bent

In the US, turf is likely to consist of a combination of warm season grasses or cool season grasses, according to location.

3. Regular Maintenance

As I said at the beginning of this piece, you can pretty much give over as much time as you want to lawn care maintenance; there is always something you can do. But, on the assumption that you have others things in your life you need to take care of, we can probably safely say that that your lawn maintenance time is limited.

Of course there are certain things you will need to do on fairly regular basis, as necessary, during the growing season, such as mow and water your lawn.

But other than that, the minimum regular maintenance I’d recommend only needs to take place twice a year – spring and autumn.

In fact, if you do a thorough job, you’ll only really need to a big maintenance session once a year. So, if you follow all the steps below in Spring , for example, you’ll just need to do a bit of a tidy up in Autumn.

Clearing and brushing your lawn

First things first – clear your lawn of any twigs, branches, leaves or other debris that may have accumulated over the previous season.  You’ll need to pick up any large material by hand but it will definitely be more efficient to use tools if you have the right ones to available, especially if you have a large space to care for.

You can use a hand push lawn sweeper or, if you have a really large space, one that can be attached to your riding mower or lawn tractor for this job. 

These tools have the added advantage of also brushing up the lawn and raising the grass stems that have been pushed down flat by snow and winter rains. If you are going to use a lawn tractor or riding mower, make sure the ground is not too soft or you could do a fair bit of harm to the grass and the structure of the soil.

If you don’t have ride on lawn equipment, a stiff brush will enliven the grass stems and your lawn mower bagger should gather all the small debris quite adequately.  However, read right through this article before your first spring mow because there’s some important advice about cutting towards the end.

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Dethatching

This is more usually a job for autumn/fall, but if you don’t do it then, do it in Spring. 

Dethatching involves removing the dead grass, weeds and other material that are located around the live stems of grass, crowding out them out and depriving them of air, light and water. In fact, Brad Fresenburg, Turfgrass expert at the University of Missouri makes the point that ultimately thatch build up will kill lawn grass.

lawn care tips scarifying
Dethatching – also called scarifying – with a wire tined rake

For smaller spaces I usually use a spring tined hand rake. Drag it through affected areas and you may be surprised how much non-grass material is in your lawn.

In larger spaces you can use a hand push dethatcher,  or a riding mower attachment.

If you have a moss problem, you may wish to apply moss-killer a few weeks before dethatching because if you rake out live moss you can end up spreading the problem around rather than curing it. 

In any case, moss is often a sign of poor drainage and/or soil compaction, so you’ll need to deal with those problems as well to bring about a lasting solution (see aeration below).

Once again, you can use your lawn mower bagger to collect up the material that has come loose.  This will make great compost, so make sure you put it on your compost heap rather than disposing of it elsewhere.

Thatch
Thatch raked up from the lawn

Aeration

Again, this is usually an autum/fall job, but if the soil under your lawn is hard and compacted it’s best to do it before the growing season gets into full swing, so that that you give your lawn the best chance to thrive.

Aeration involves opening up the soil around the grass roots to allow water, nutrients and air to penetrate deeply.  It also prunes the  roots, encouraging fresh root growth. Test whether you need to do it by trying to push a screw-driver into the soil.  If it goes in easily, you don’t have a problem.  If you have to force it, you probably do.

Smaller areas of grass can be aerated with a garden fork and a bit of effort – push the prongs of the fork in hard and pull them out straight.

As ever, there are mechanical tools for taking care of larger areas. You can even get lawn aerating boots to help you get the job done by taking a walk around your lawn.

Once you have aerated the lawn, by creating a network of holes across it, it is often a good idea to spread some sharp sand over the surface and into the holes, as this will help keep the drainage effective.

Weeding

It’s never been my practice to use herbicides or chemical weedkillers of any kind. In fact you’ll find a full run down of all the ways you can remove weeds organically here.

If you do use lawn weed-killers, there is always a danger that they may affect the sub-lawn roots of surrounding shrubs and trees, not to mention the risk of affecting the eco system that supports soil fauna, such as earthworms. 

This is important because those little creatures are nature’s way of caring for our lawns,  by aerating with their burrows and fertilising with their waste products.

Nevertheless, if you are looking for lawn perfection quickly, you may need to resort to the chemical weapons.

Choose a selective broad-leaf weed-killer.  These kill weeds and not the grass.

Be careful not to use general herbicides like glyphosate (or something that contains glyphosate) because they will kill your lawn as well as the weeds and you’ll be re-seeding a few weeks later, rather than admiring your lawn’s beauty.

Use weed-killers in late spring, when the weeds are growing strongly.  Apply the selective weed-killer a few days after you have mown, when the soil is moist and the weather warm, dry and still. 

Those conditions help to ensure that the active ingredients stay where they are intended to be and are quickly circulated around the weed’s sap transporting system.  Wait a few more days before you mow the lawn again.

When you see complete die-back of the weeds, use your de-thatching tools to rake out the remains.

Re-seeding your lawn

If, by this stage in the process, you find you have bare or thinning patches on your lawn, you can re-seed where necessary – but wait until at least six weeks have elapsed since you applied any weed or moss killers.

Break up the surface (gently) with your rake and sow seed at the rate of about ½ to 1 ounce per square yard (17-34g per m2). Follow the guidance above to decide which species of grass will suit your conditions.

Feeding your lawn

Again, I personally try avoid using fertilisers. If your soil is well aerated and the grass roots are free of thatch, there is every chance the lawn grass will grow away strognly with the right amount of light and water.

But if you need to boost you grass, you can apply a nitrogen rich fertiliser once the lawn and re-seeded areas are growing strongly. 

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and make sure you don’t overdo it.  Slow release fertiliser is preferable. Too much fertiliser at once will burn and kill your grass as effectively as any weed-killer.  And even if it does not kill the grass, excess fertiliser causes weak soft growth and can damage the root system of your grass.

If your underlying soil is healthy and you have carried out the other maintenance tips outlined here, then you can afford to under-do the feeding. Consider also the available organic lawn care products for natural lawn feeding.

Cutting your lawn

If you are doing your lawn maintenance in spring (depending on where you live), your lawn could have put on fair bit of growth during the winter.  As always, the temptation will be to cut low so that you don’t have to cut frequently. Don’t do it!

The best advice generally is to keep your cut height fairly generous.  This is because longer grass leaves can photosynthesize more which stimulates root growth. Longer grass also shades the soil and conserves moisture. 

In spring it is even more important to keep your cutting height high for the first few cuts.

If you cut the lawn too short before it is growing strongly, it can’t very easily put on the growth that it needs to produce the long leaves that then help it photosynthesis and stay healthy. 

So cut when you need to but don’t cut too short.

Lawn care points to take away

Remember, you only need to do the jobs outlined here that are necessary in your particular case.  For example, if your soil is soft and not compacted and teh drainage seems good, don’t worry about aeration.

But, in summary, here are the main lawn care tips to remember:

  • If you are starting a new lawn, make sure you choose the right kind of grass for your conditions.
  • Choose cold or warm climate grass according to where you live, and shade tolerant grass if your garden is shady.
  • When doing you annual or bi-annual maintenance, if you follow the order of working set out above and you won’t go far wrong.
  • Clear debris, de-thatch and aerate to get the right basic conditions for new growth.
  • Weed, re-seed and feed to allow your lawn to grow away strongly.
  • Don’t over-feed and don’t cut too short.

Most important of all, don’t stress about caring for your lawn.

Do what you can. Enjoy the fresh air while you are doing it.

And don’t worry if your lawn is not perfect – nothing in the garden ever is.

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7 thoughts on “Lawn care tips: how to take care of your lawn”

  1. Thanks for pointing out the need to take care of the underlying soil well when you lay the turf. My mother will surely find this tip helpful because she is planning to have turfs installed to improve the appearance of her lawn next Friday. I will ask her to ensure that she will hire an expert for the installation to be done right the first time.

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