It’s no accident that some of the items most commonly photoshopped in real estate sales photos are lawns. While the ethics of this are questionable, it’s not difficult to see why this trick works: a well-maintained lawn enhances any exterior, not to mention it gives the impression that the owner cares for their property.
There’s so much contradictory advice available on the subject of lawn care that you could be forgiven for thinking that keeping a lawn looking beautiful is some kind of dark art, accessible only to professional landscapers and biology majors. Nothing could be further from the truth: doing the right things consistently results in healthy, vibrant grass.
In fact, you could say that there’s only one basic principle you need to know:
Grass Roots: Out of Sight but Not Out of Mind
When most people think of a lawn, they’re probably picturing the blades of grass. This, however, is literally less than half the story: what you really should be worrying about is the part you don’t normally see.
A good lawn is one with a strong root system. Strong root structures are more efficient at sucking up water and nutrients, less likely to suffer from physical damage (including problems with slopes and erosion), better able to weather a drought, and not as prone to sprouting weeds (unwanted plants struggling to gain a foothold). If you have a lawn that’s constantly developing some problem or another, chances are good that the root cause, as it were, lies below the surface.
How you cut, water, and fertilize your grass all affect root development. Even a minor change in the way you currently do things may be the key to cultivating a lawn you can be proud of.
Planting a New Lawn
There are basically two ways to establish a lawn: from seed and by planting live grass. Neither is inherently better and both can give good results, but the procedures followed in each case are very different.
In one sense, cultivating a lawn that looks great isn’t about taking care of the grass at all. All you should be focusing on is providing it with what it needs to take care of itself in the way all living things tend to do. And the earth it grows in is literally at the root of it all:
The very best kind of soil for a lawn is a humus-rich, fairly light loam. In other words, if you mix ⅓ topsoil, ⅓ sand and ⅓ compost, you’re well on your way to creating a lawn you’ll be able to enjoy for years without having to spend a bundle on irrigating it.
Achieving this perfect soil balance may not be practical, but it’s worth doing what you can to improve it. Along with the climate in your region, the kind of earth you have will play a significant role in selecting the right species of grass.
This only applies to the top 1″ – 2″ of soil, which is where the grass’s root zone is located. The ground underneath this layer, called the subsoil, also needs to be fairly loose. If your ground is very hard, as is the case on many urban plots, you’ll have to break it up a little using a garden plow, tiller, or even a gardening fork.
The shape of the ground at planting time is going to become semi-permanent as soon as the grass’s roots anchor it into place. Even small bumps will look unsightly, especially once you’ve passed over them with a lawnmower. Spending a few extra minutes on raking it even will not be time wasted!
Growing a Lawn from Seed
Seeding a lawn is usually far cheaper than the alternatives. However, with rolls of turf costing only around 35c per square foot and considering the extra time it takes for your lawn to become worth looking at, starting from seed might not be your best option. If you decide to go the seeding route, make sure you select seed with a high germination rate and purity.
Seeding is best done after autumn has said its final goodbyes, which allows the grass the maximum amount of time to embed itself properly in the soil. Since the seeds will initially be quite vulnerable to the sun’s heat and a lack of moisture, you’ll have to water your fledgling lawn for short periods two or three times a day during the first few weeks. This will be easier to do if you have an automatic sprinkler controller.
For a more detailed description of how seeding a lawn works, we can recommend the following video:
Sod, Sprigs, and Plugs
For faster results, you can also buy sheets, stalks, or blocks of grass that already have well-developed roots. These can then be laid down to form a continuous coat (called an “instant lawn”) or planted at intervals, allowing the grass to spread out and cover the whole area in time.
Apart from taking less time to reach full coverage, a lawn created using live grass is less likely to fail or be contaminated by weeds. In terms of soil preparation and post-planting care, the process is very similar to growing your lawn using seed.
Once your lawn’s roots are firmly anchored, there is only one rule to keep in mind. It’s so simple that many people manage to forget or ignore it:
That’s really how easy it is. While going too long between waterings will obviously make your lawn wilt, watering too frequently isn’t a good idea either. There are two main reasons for this:
- Not allowing the roots to dry out between waterings can easily lead to diseases that will kill off patches of your lawn, and
- A moderate amount of water stress encourages roots to burrow deeper.
The latter point is especially important if you want to use less water, or on turf where sports will be played. Your lawn will certainly not remain attractive for long if anyone running over it carves divots out of the grass!
So, don’t water your lawn until you see the grass turns a slightly darker, blueish color and the blades start curling up lengthwise or start losing their springiness (i.e. footprints on the grass take longer to appear).
At this point, give it enough water to saturate the soil to about 2″ deep. Depending on your soil type, this means applying about half an inch of water, or 0.31 gallons per square foot. In warmer seasons, of course, you’ll want to water the lawn more frequently, but the amount of water you apply each time should stay the same.
An automatic sprinkler system makes it easy to adjust the irrigation quantity to the correct amount. It also allows you to run the sprinklers as early in the day as possible, which is the optimum time for both plant health and water conservation.
Strange as it may seem, the nutrient plants need most apart from water – carbon – is actually absorbed from the air through photosynthesis. This constitutes most of your grass’s physical bulk, but carbon on its own isn’t nearly enough to keep your lawn healthy. If you don’t fertilize your lawn at least once per year, it will never have that “wow!” factor.
NPK Fertilizer or Compost?
There are two schools of thought on the best way to feed your lawn, both of which have some merit. On the one hand, chemical fertilizers derived from petroleum contain a lot more nutrition per pound, are easy to apply, and can be tailored for different purposes:
Compost, by contrast, supports the ecosystem around the root area, where overuse of synthetic fertilizer causes harm. Plant roots actually rely on numerous microscopic helpers to extract the appropriate minerals from the soil, while many species struggle to absorb nutrients without the presence of the humic acids that are plentiful in compost.
Organic matter also helps to drain and aerate soil, while simultaneously storing much more water than barren dirt can. In addition, compost is a great source of plant micronutrients. N, P, and K are great, but without small amounts of calcium, molybdenum, copper, and a few dozen other elements, your grass will never reach peak form.
The best approach is probably to not exclude either organic or chemical fertilizers completely. If you want to, for instance, stimulate root growth before summer, by all means use a good 6-1-3 mix. Just make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, especially those that pertain to application rates and post-treatment watering.
At the same time, there’s no reason not to spread compost on your lawn. What dissuades many people from doing so is not understanding the difference between compost and manure.
Compost, in the first place, does not stink, but at most emits a pleasantly earthy odor. It’s also completely decomposed, which makes it a much better source of nitrogen and humid acids (manure loses a lot of nitrogen to the atmosphere in the form of ammonia).
It will come as no surprise that regular mowing is an essential part of caring for your lawn. Doing this once a week during the high-growth season rather than letting it slide too long reduces the stress on the grass. In human terms, this is the difference between a haircut and a scalp injury. You never want to take off more than a third of the leaves’ total length.
If you insist on trimming your grass golfing-green low, it won’t absorb water or nutrients nearly as effectively, meaning that you’ll have to fertilize and irrigate it that much more often. The ideal height for your grass varies significantly by species.
You also need to take care of your tools. A dull lawnmower blade tears the leaves instead of cutting them cleanly, which is also what will happen if you mow your lawn when wet.
You can sharpen the blade yourself using a grinding wheel, but try to keep the angle the same as what you’ll find on a new blade. Most knives are sharpened to around 20°, whereas high-RPM lawnmower blades perform best and last longest with an edge of roughly 40°.
A Stitch in Time
A healthy lawn is inherently self-sustaining as long as you keep doing the minimum necessary. Dry periods, plant-eating insects, and diseases that would wipe out poorly-maintained turf are often no more than a minor nuisance to deep-routed, well-nourished grass.
To put this another way, almost all the work needed to maintain a top-notch lawn is done before it reaches prime condition. This isn’t necessarily easy, and you may have to deal with problems not covered in this guide: a termite infestation, for instance, or a lousy pH balance.
Don’t lose heart, though. As soon as you get things up and running, things become much simpler as many common problems start to solve themselves.