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15 lawn care mistakes you're probably making

You can have a green lawn all summer long

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A lush, green lawn is one of the great pleasures of having a yard, but keeping your grass looking good can be a time-consuming headache. Stop working so hard and start relaxing by avoiding these common lawn care mistakes.

1. 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.

Though it may seem like a good idea, cutting your grass on the lowest mower blade can do more harm than good. Most lawns typically range from 2.5-inches to 3.75-inches tall. Mowing your lawn too short, around 1-inch or less, can prevent it from absorbing sunlight properly, essentially starving it. The taller the grass is, the better it can absorb sunlight, helping it establish deep roots. Since grass loves the sun, adjust your lawnmower blade to high to avoid chopping off too much. Deep-rooted grass also absorbs more water and is more resistant to drought—saving you money on lawn-watering bills.

2. Your lawn mower blades aren’t sharp enough

Dull mower blades chew up your grass instead of cutting it cleanly, leaving you with a messy-looking lawn that is more susceptible to disease and pests. You can sharpen your own lawnmower blades or bring them to your local hardware store. It may be time to buy new mower blades if yours are too beat up to handle another sharpening session.

3. You're not watering enough

Lawn sprinkler watering grass
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Lawns grow best with long, slow watering sessions.

Most grasses require 1-inches to 1.5-inches of water per week. Lawns prefer a nice long soak that trickles down in the roots (about 6-inches deep). This process takes about 30 minutes for most irrigation systems, so make sure you run your sprinkler system long enough, allowing the water to penetrate deep into the ground. (Even worse, crabgrass thrives on shallow watering. All the more reason to water properly.) Take charge of your watering cycles with a smart sprinkler controller. With the device, you can automate your in-ground sprinkler system with schedules and intuitive weather intelligence features for a well-watered lawn.

4. You’re watering at the wrong time

Sprinklers watering grass at dusk
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Don't try to fit watering in when you get home from work, or you risk disease from cool water sitting on your grass overnight.

Water early in the morning before the sun is overhead and it gets too hot. Doing so gives your yard time to dry off. Cool water left on grass blades overnight can spur rot, fungal growth, and some garden pests.

This is another reason to opt for a smart sprinkler, which can remember to do the watering for you. It also gives you the ability to modify your lawn water schedule from anywhere via the companion app on your phone. Genius.

5. You’re not using the right fertilizer

fertilizing a lawn
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Not all fertilizer is created equal. Make sure you're using the best kind for your lawn.

Lawn fertilizer generally comes in three types: fast-release, slow-release, and compost.

  • Fast-release fertilizer will make your grass green—and fast. Applying it can be tricky, so smooth out any bumps. It can also “burn” the grass and damage it if you put down too much. A lot of fertilizer can disappear in rain runoff, too. Check the forecast before you fertilize.

  • Slow-release or controlled-release fertilizer is easier to apply than fast-release fertilizer and is less likely to burn your grass (or dissolve in rain runoff). However, slow-release fertilizer tends to cost more than others, and it takes a while to see results. Organic fertilizer is similar to a slow-release chemical fertilizer consisting of ingredients derived from plants and animals like bone meal, feather meal, and seaweed.

  • Compost adds nutrients and organic matter to your soil, helping it hold water during a drought. Cut the grass to 1-inch thick and then apply the compost before the first frost in fall or at the start of the growing season. Rake compost over the lawn as a top-dressing—about a half-inch thick.

In some states, like New York, fertilizers with phosphorous are illegal due to the potential for pollution. Check with your local agricultural extension if you have questions about your fertilizer.

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6. You're using too much fertilizer

Fertilizing a lawn
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Over-fertilizing can do more harm than good, so read instructions carefully.

If your grass is brown, piling on the fertilizer isn't going to do much good. Excess fertilizer will get washed away in the rain, wasting your money and polluting local ponds and streams.

Follow the directions on the bag and only apply the recommended amount. Remember, applying more fertilizer than the instructions say wastes your money and damages your plants. Skip powdered or granular fertilizer just before a rain—it will run off in the rainwater. If using compost, plan on using three-fourths of a cubic yard per 1,000 square feet of lawn.

7. You’re applying fertilizer during the wrong season

Fertilizer works to improve your lawn when your grass is growing the most and not when your yard is under stress from the summer sun or drought conditions. For most of the country, the best time to fertilize the grass is during the spring and fall seasons. Check with your local agricultural extension for the best timing for your area.

8. You skipped the soil test

Testing soil for lawn
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An home soil test can help determine what nutrients your lawn really needs.

Soil quality is a crucial part of keeping your grass in good shape. A soil test will determine the make-up of the dirt your grass is growing in. When the results come back, apply any lacking nutrients to help your lawn thrive, like nitrogen, phosphorous, or potassium.

Your local agricultural extension office may also have soil tests available. These often include extras like the presence of lead and heavy metals in your soil, organic matter, and recommendations for fertilizer amounts for lawns, vegetables, and flower beds.

9. You're growing the wrong type of grass

backyard barbecue
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Consider your climate and how you'll use your lawn before deciding on a type of grass.

There are two basic types of lawn grasses: cool season grasses and warm-season grasses.

  • Cool-season grasses look lush earlier in the season and stay green long into the fall before they go dormant for the winter. The grass can turn brown in summer heat if it doesn't get regular watering. Cool-season grasses begin to grow at temperatures of 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 45 degrees Fahrenheit and grow best when the temperature is 65 degrees Fahrenheit to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. These grasses can tolerate some shade but need at least a half-day of full sun.

  • Warm-season grasses fill in with bright green color later in the spring than cool-season grasses. Warm-season grass goes dormant in early fall but stays green through the summer (and cannot tolerate shade). This type of grass only starts growing when the thermometer reaches 60 degrees Fahrenheit to 65 degrees Fahrenheit and grows best at 90 degrees Fahrenheit to 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

The best choice for your lawn depends on where you live and how much money you want to spend on watering in the summer.

If you live in a northern state at a high elevation or want your lawn green for as long as possible, choose cool-season grass. (And don't forget to water it heavily in the summer to keep it green.) Cool-season grasses include fescues, Kentucky bluegrass, and ryegrass.

If you live in a state with hot summers, don't mind brown grass in the fall and early spring, and want to keep your watering budget low, choose warm-season grasses. These grasses include Bermuda, carpet, and zoysia.

10. You're throwing away your grass clippings

Grass clippings in wheelbarrow
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Grass clippings can reduce your need for fertilizer since they're rich in nitrogen and organic material.

In the past, everyone bagged up their grass clippings and threw them out with the yard waste, but the best method is to let the clippings fall onto the lawn. The cuttings decompose fast since they are 75% to 80% water. The clippings add nitrogen and organic material, which reduces the need for fertilizer. In some states, it is illegal to throw grass clippings (or any other yard waste) in the landfill.

If you're commonly cutting your grass back more than one-third at a time, consider using a mulching mower to make smaller clippings, or compost your clippings (unless you're using certain herbicides, like picloram or clopyralid). You can also use grass clippings as mulch.

11. You're seeding your grass at the wrong time

Seeding a lawn by hand
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Early fall is the ideal time to reseed dead patches in your lawn.

Seeding the bare spots in your yard can help it look fuller, but the key is to sprinkle your grass seed at the right time. Though spring seems like the most likely season to spark new grass growth, that is not always the case. For example, planting cool-season grass during spring in northern areas doesn't allow enough time for the grass to become well established before the summer heat stops it dead.

If you want to stop the cycle of dead-grass bare spots, reseed your lawn in the early fall, and don't use more grass seed than the label recommends. Crowding your grass just leads to spindly, weak plants. Water your young grass carefully; grass seedlings will die if they dry out. (A soil test is a good idea before you reseed your lawn.)

Reseeding is only a temporary fix for bare spots caused by white grubs or patch diseases. For more permanent lawn health, adjust your watering and fertilizing practices in addition to reseeding.

12. You're trying to get rid of weeds the wrong way

spraying weed killer on dandelion
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Spray bottles of weed killer should not be your first line of defense. Try to prevent them before they have a chance to grow.

When it comes to weeds, the process is much easier to prevent them than getting rid of them after they appear. Avoid using a spray bottle of weed killer, which can contain chemicals you may not want in your yard (especially if you have kids or pets). The best way to remove weeds is to make sure your lawn is mowed high and healthy with the right amount of fertilizer/compost, soil organic matter, water, and grass seed mix.

Another way to stop weeds in the germination phase is by applying pre-emergence herbicides, including an organic corn gluten option. Corn gluten alone can reduce weeds by up to 90%. Since this method stops young plants from growing, avoid using pre-emergence herbicides if you are reseeding your lawn. It will not kill existing plants that already have established root systems. Consistent use is the key to a weed-free yard.

Clover, while tempting to remove, is beneficial to your yard's growth because adds nitrogen to the soil. It also attracts earthworms that keep your soil aerated and full of organic matter.

13. You're bothering the whole neighborhood with your loud mower

You know who you are. If you can't wait until a civilized hour to mow your lawn, you can at least invest in quieter equipment. Electric mowers and leaf blowers are not as loud as gasoline-powered equipment—and old-fashioned mechanical push-mowers are the quietest.

14. You're treating your lawn like a carpet

Front lawn of a home
Credit: Getty

Trying to keep your lawn looking too pristine can lead to unhealthy practices.

You can't steam-clean your lawn and have it look brand new. A lawn is made of living plants that grow in soil, so it may be time to scale back on the chemicals you're using to clear out pesky weeds or fertilize your lawn. Your grass may look healthy on top, but the soil underneath can't support healthy plants fully when treating the yard with chemicals. To get off the chemical treadmill, go back to the basics by taking a soil test, applying fertilizer and compost, setting a watering schedule, and making plans to reseed in the fall.

15. You're growing a lawn just because all your neighbors have one

backyard patio
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Not into lawn maintenance? Consider alternatives like this wooden terrace surrounded by rocks, mulch, and shrubbery.

There's no getting around it: Lawns require hard work to maintain a lush green look and feel. Regular maintenance is key—everything from mowing, watering, fertilizing, and weed and pest control. This can eat up hours of your time on the weekend, so you have to ask yourself, "Is all my time and effort really worth it?" While you may be vying to win Yard of the Month from your neighborhood association, you don't have to dedicate every Saturday to achieving a beautiful yard that will make your neighbors green with envy. You can save time when you opt for lower-maintenance lawn alternatives like no-mow grass mixes, creeping perennials, rock gardens, edible gardens, and succulents. It doesn't hurt to ask a local landscape professional what works well in your area.


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