Home & Garden

10 common lawn mistakes to avoid making this spring

A lush summer lawn starts now

A person pushing a lawnmower mowing a lawn Credit: Getty Images / Iuliia Zavalishina

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It’s almost spring, and time to get back outside. But just because it’s time to put away your salt and scrapers, doesn’t mean your home’s seasonal maintenance is over. On the contrary, if you want a lush, green lawn you can run barefoot on as soon as summer hits, there are a few things to do during the spring to give it the best chance at being healthy and looking great.

Here are 10 of the most common lawn mistakes homeowners make in the springtime—and what you should be doing instead.

1. You didn’t do a soil test

soil test
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Getting a soil test can help you know what chemicals your lawn needs, and which you should avoid.

Before you add anything to your soil, you need to do a soil test to figure out what you need. There isn’t any point in spending big bucks on a high-nitrogen fertilizer when your soil is actually low in potassium. Most state extension offices will test your soil for pH, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous; and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and lead for $10 to $20.

Check this list of state extension offices to find out where to get your soil test.

2. You’re trying to kill new weeds and grow new grass at the same time

killing weeds
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Don't try to kill weeds as you grow new grass or you'll cancel out your efforts.

When you’re growing a lawn and fighting weeds, you need to choose your battles. One of the most effective ways to get rid of lawn weeds is to attack them before they even come up. Pre-emergent corn gluten treatment keeps seeds from sprouting, keeping your lawn free of new crabgrass, dandelions, pigweed, and—unfortunately—new grass. Plants with established root systems aren’t affected by corn gluten, so your mature lawn grass will be fine.

The lesson? Start with the weeds and tend to new grass once you stop treatment.

3. You’re not starting weed treatment early enough

weeding
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Getting a jump on weed control is always helpful.

Once your weeds have sprouted, it’s very difficult to get rid of them without either spraying your lawn with herbicides that may not be safe for children or pets, or spending long afternoons digging up taproots. (And dandelion roots commonly stretch up to 18 inches long!)

If you use a pre-emergent treatment that kills weeds just as they’re starting to sprout, you can avoid chemicals later (or just use less of them) when dealing with crabgrass, pigweed, chickweed, and other lawn weeds.

If you apply pre-emergent treatment too early, though, the treatment can wash away before the weeds even begin to sprout. In northern areas, pros suggest applying pre-emergent weed control when forsythia blooms, or when air temperatures reach 65°F.

There are two main types of pre-emergent weed treatments: corn gluten and synthetic herbicides.

Pre-emergent corn gluten treatment is an effective way to control weeds that’s safe for pets and children, but using it means some planning. If your weeds have already sprouted, it’s too late to put it on—and crabgrass will sprout when the soil reaches 55°F for a few days.

Corn gluten also needs to be applied much more heavily than fertilizer or garden lime; experts recommend up to 20 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. That’s a problem because corn gluten contains a lot of nitrogen—it’s 10% nitrogen by weight—and applying that much nitrogen on your lawn is illegal in Maryland and other states where nitrogen-laden rain runoff pollutes local waterways.

Common pre-emergent synthetic herbicides include pendimethalin, or halts, a grassy weed herbicide included in many Scotts lawn products; and dithiopyr, which is used in the Preen weed preventers.

Like corn gluten, they will kill newly-seeded grass along with young weeds. Unlike corn gluten, they come with safety precautions. Read the bag carefully.

4. You’re fertilizing at the wrong time

spraying fertilizer
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Timing is key so you don't fertilize weeds when you actually mean to fertilize your lawn.

Depending on where you live, spring is either a great time for fertilizing your lawn, or a great time for fertilizing weeds. Don’t give your crabgrass extra encouragement! Here’s how to figure out when to feed your lawn, and when to wait.

Grass grows best when it gets fertilizer at the point it’s growing the fastest. There are two main types of grasses in U.S. lawns: cool- and warm-season grasses. Northern lawns are full of cool-season grasses like Kentucky bluegrass, ryegrass, and tall fescue, which grow best when temperatures are between 60°F and 75°F. These grasses need fertilizer in the spring and fall.

Southern lawns are made of warm-season grasses, like zoysia grass and Bahia grass. They grow best when the temperature reaches 80°F to 95°F. If you fertilize in the spring, you won’t help your lawn -- just all the spring weeds—save your fertilizer or compost for a warmer day.

If you live somewhere in the transition zone—from northern Virginia through northern North Carolina, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Colorado—your winters are too cold for warm-season grasses, and the summers are too hot for cool-season grasses. Your lawn is probably a mix of grasses, which means fertilizing with commercial fertilizer or compost in spring, summer, and fall.

Not sure what kind of grass is best for your lawn? Check the National Turf Evaluation Program has a chart of the best turfgrass for every state.

5. You’re not reading the directions

fertilizing
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Be sure to read the directions and account for the exact type and amount of fertilizer that's best for your yard.

Depending on exactly what you’re using, some fertilizers, pre-emergent weed control, and other lawn amendments need to be applied in different ways. It could be just before a rain, or when there isn’t going to be rain for a few days; while wearing safety goggles and long pants, or with no special safety equipment. They can be applied at a rate of 1, 2, 10, or 20 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft.

At best, if you don’t read the directions on the bag, you’re going to waste money and time on something that won’t help your lawn; at worst, you could end up with a nasty reaction to lawn chemicals, and pollute local streams and ponds with runoff from your lawn.

If that all sounds too complicated, you can top dress your lawn with compost instead of using synthetic fertilizers. One of the many advantages of adding compost to your lawn is that it adds both nitrogen and organic matter to your soil, making your soil more resistant to drought. If you have a 1/4-inch layer of compost, you’ll need ¾ of a cubic yard of compost for every 1,000 sq. ft. of lawn.

6. You’re planting grass at the wrong time

planting grass
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Different climates require different types of grass, so check what's likely to work best in your area.

It’s tempting to put new grass seed down in the spring when you see bare brown spots in your yard, but spring lawn plantings are high-maintenance. Young grasses compete with young weeds, and if they do manage to grow, they have to survive getting blasted by summer heat. To figure out the best time to plant your grass, check this state-by-state chart of grass planting times.

It’s best to plant cool-season grass in the fall, when it will have time to develop sturdy roots for the spring battle royale with young crabgrass. If you must seed in the spring, wait until the soil temperature is over 40°F, and be prepared to do a lot of weeding.

You should plant warm-season grasses in the spring—but wait until daytime temperatures are over 65°F. The little sprouts will appreciate the head start before their summer growth.

No matter what grass you’re planting, the seedlings can dry out and die very easily. Keep the area moist for 10 to 14 days; water if you’re not getting natural rainfall. You may need to water several times a day. And consider planting a mix of grasses instead of a single variety. Having different types of grass in the mix will make your lawn more disease-resistant, and more likely to survive droughts and storms.

Can’t stand the bare spots? Try applying a top-dressing of compost or some fertilizer to kick-start your lawn; the growing lawn may expand fill in the bald patches. And if the spot is too big, you can always put in sod plugs or turf—but you’ll still have to water it.

7. You’re aerating your lawn at the wrong time

aerated lawn
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Not every lawn needs to be aerated, so consider your specific circumstances first.

There’s a lot of controversy about aerating lawns. “Aerate” means to put holes in your lawn so that your soil is less compacted, and landscapers love to sell that service. If your lawn gets heavy foot traffic, or your soil is heavy clay, or there’s more than half an inch of thatch on the ground, aerating the lawn can help kick-start soil organisms to break down that thatch, and will get more oxygen down near your grass’s roots.

If your lawn isn’t compacted, though, there isn’t much point in making holes in the ground. Unless you’re regularly driving a bulldozer over your yard, or you can see open holes in the lawn next to the volleyball net, your lawn probably doesn’t need aeration.

If you do choose to aerate your lawn, you should not aerate in the spring. Weeds are just as likely to benefit from space around their roots, and warm-season grasses haven’t started really growing yet.

Aerate cool-season lawns in the early fall, when the grass is entering another fast-growth phase and will still have time to recover before frost, but spring weeds are slowing down. Aerate warm-season grasses in June and July, when they’re growing fastest. As a bonus, when aerations puncture warm-season grasses’ underground roots, they resprout vigorously, making your lawn lusher and greener. Follow your aeration with a top-dressing of compost to get more organic matter into the soil and improve your soil’s structure and drought-resistance.

8. You haven’t gotten got around to sharpening your mower blades

changing lawn mower blade
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Keep lawnmower blades sharp—either carefully deal with them yourself or consider calling a pro.

It’s time. Sharp mower blades cut your grass cleanly and leave your lawn looking neat. Dull blades pull and tear your grass, leaving ragged edges that look awful, and make your grass blades more attractive to chewing insects, fungus, and disease. You can sharpen your own lawnmower blades or get them sharpened at a hardware store. Just do it already.

9. You’re mowing too low

Mowing a lawn
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Cutting your grass too low can deprive it of the sunlight and water it needs to thrive.

At the beginning of spring it’s tempting to shear the grass down to the ground so you won’t have to mow so often. It’s a bad idea. Short grass starves. Grass that’s cut close to the ground can’t capture much sunlight, and it won’t have the energy to grow the sturdy roots it needs to help it survive the summer.

Most grasses should be cut to 2.5 to 3.75 inches, and experts recommend removing only one-third of the grass blade at each mowing—so a 4.5-inch blade shouldn’t be cut shorter than 3 inches.

Unfortunately, if you’re growing cool-season grass, and you don’t want a prairie in your backyard, you may have to mow your lawn more than once a week in the spring to keep the grass a manageable height.

10. You’re overwatering

watering
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Overwatering is a common mistake that can cost your lawn.

It’s tempting to turn on the hose to try to get your lawn to “green up” in the early spring. Resist the temptation. It doesn’t work—the grass will green up when it’s good and ready and excess water will drown your grass’s roots. The University of Missouri Extension even suggests letting your lawn wilt a little in the spring to encourage your lawn to grow deeper water-seeking roots to help it survive the summer.

Mature lawns need about an inch of rain a week; an inexpensive rain gauge can help you tell if your lawn is getting the rain it needs. You can also use the footprint test to see if your lawn is dry: If you can still see your footprints in the grass after you walk across the lawn, it's time to water.

When you do water, water deeply. Most grass has roots that penetrate 3 to 4 inches into the soil. Dig down with a trowel after you water. If the soil is moist 4 inches down, you’ve watered enough; if not, it’s time to turn the hose back on.

Newly seeded grass needs to be kept moist for the first two weeks to keep from drying out, but it doesn’t need to be wet; puddles can make grass seed rot. By the time the blades reach 2 inches high, it’s time to water it like established grass.

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