Five Steps to a Healthy Lawn
By Melinda Myers, horticulturist and gardening expert
Lawns have long been part of the landscape. They are the canvas upon which our gardens are created, a playground for our children, the walkways, and a living surface that keeps our feet from getting muddy when it rains.
You can have grass as part of your landscape and be kind to the environment, too. It’s just a matter of changing, or for some, just fine tuning your lawn care practices.
Let’s start with a quick review of lawn care basics. Proper mowing, watering and fertilization can be the difference between a healthy lawn and a weed patch. The amount of effort you put into your lawn depends on the level of quality you desire (golf course versus roadside greenery) and the amount of wear and tear (play field versus backdrop for your gardens) it’s subjected to. Following these 5 steps can help you grow and maintain the lawn you want:
1) Mow High and Often
- Raise the mowing height of your lawn mower if you haven’t already done so. Taller grass shades out some weeds and forms deeper roots, making it better able to compete with weeds and more drought and pest tolerant. Grow cool season grasses like bluegrass, fescue, and ryegrass 2 1/2 to 4 inches tall.
- Mow warm season grasses like Bermuda grass, carpetgrass, centipedegrass and zoysia at 1 to 2 inches tall while St. Augustine should be a bit higher, 2 to 3 inches, for best results.
- Make sure the blade is sharp for healthier and better-looking grass.
- Remove no more than 1/3 the total height of the grass at one time to reduce the stress on the lawn.
- Leave clippings on the lawn. Short clippings DO NOT cause thatch and break down quickly, adding moisture, organic matter, and nutrients to the soil. A season’s worth of clippings equals one fertilizer application.
2) Put your Lawn on a Healthy Diet
- The amount of fertilizer your lawn needs should be based on the quality of lawn desired and the time you want to spend managing your lawn. High quality heavily used lawns require the maximum amount of fertilizer, while low maintenance lawns need the least.
- Start with a soil test so you apply the proper amount of fertilizer for your lawn.
- Fertilize lawns in the north and Midwest on Memorial Day, Labor Day and Halloween. Eliminate the first two if you are following a low maintenance plan and add a light summer feeding if you are watering and going for a high quality lawn.
- Fertilize low maintenance southern grasses in April and high maintenance southern lawns in April, June and August.
- Increase success and decrease the risk of damage by using Milorganite fertilizer. It’s an organic-nitrogen slow release fertilizer that won't burn the lawn and the iron is an added bonus. Plus, the phosphorous is non-leaching. And when the microorganisms work on the Milorganite it releases phosphorous and potassium bound in the soil, making it available to the grass.
3) Water – It’s your Choice
- Proper watering helps keep your lawn healthy and enables it to out-compete the weeds. Water early in the morning, if possible, and thoroughly when footprints are left behind. This encourages deeply rooted drought and pest tolerant grass.
- Recent droughts and efforts to conserve water may mean a change of habit. If you allow your lawn to go dormant during drought, minimize foot traffic and play on dormant lawns.
- Don’t apply herbicides or quick release fertilizer to dormant lawns. The fertilizer will feed the weeds and both can damage the dormant grass.
- Once you let your lawn go dormant, leave it dormant until the weather cools and rains return.
- Use Milorganite as your lawn fertilizer. It won’t burn even during a drought. It remains in the soil until the weather improves and grass begins to grow.
4) Manage those pesky Weeds
- A healthy lawn is your best defense against weeds. When weeds occur it usually means the growing conditions are better for the weeds than your grass.
- Adjust your lawn care practices (steps one through 3) so the growing conditions are better for the grass.
- Aerate lawns growing on compacted soil or with a half an inch of thatch or more.
- Hand dig small populations of weeds. There are some new tools on the market that make this easier.
- Spot treat weeds using the most eco-friendly products available and for more eco-friendly weed control tips.
5) Be kind to the Environment
- Increase your lawn’s health and beauty with the environment in mind.
- Always sweep grass clippings and fertilizer residue off the walks and drives. This simple step keeps unwanted nutrients out of our waterways and eventually drinking water.
- Never fertilize lawns when the ground is frozen.
- Use Milorganite fertilizer. It has been sustainable for over 90 years, recycling waste into fertilizer.
- Consider using a push or electric mower. It’s good for the waistline and the environment.