Home & Outdoors

15 lawn care mistakes you're probably making

Want a green lawn all summer long? Avoid these common mistakes.

mowing lawn Credit: Getty / ArtMarie

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A lush, green lawn is one of the great pleasures of having a yard, but keeping your lawn looking good can be a time-consuming headache. That means less time to spend actually enjoying the barbecues and al fresco dinners that come with it. 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.

Think you'll save time by cutting your grass to your lawnmower's lowest setting? Think again. Most grasses should be cut to a height of 2.5 to 3.75 inches. Mow your lawn down to 1 inch, and you'll starve the grass: It won't absorb enough sunlight to grow well. Mowing your grass high also allows the sun-loving grass to make more, deeper roots. Deep-rooted grass absorbs more water and is more resistant to drought—saving you money on lawn-watering bills.

2. Your lawnmower blades aren’t sharp enough.

While you're at it, make sure your lawnmower blades are sharp. Dull mower blades chew up your grass instead of cutting it cleanly, leaving ragged edges that look messy and make your grass more vulnerable to disease and pests. You can sharpen your own lawnmower blades or get them sharpened at a hardware store.

3. You're not watering enough.

Lawn sprinkler
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Lawns grow best with long, slow watering sessions that distribute 1 to 1.5 inches of water a week.

Most grasses require 1 to 1.5 inches of water a week. Lawns are healthier when they get that water in one long, slow session that gets all the way down to their roots (6 inches deep)—it takes about 30 minutes for most irrigation systems. If you're just turning on your sprinkler for 10 minutes a day, the water isn't getting down to the grass's deep roots, and a lot of that water is going to evaporate before the grass has a chance to absorb it. Even worse, crab grass thrives on shallow watering.

Using sprinklers? Test your sprinkler's output by putting six cat-food cans across the lawn and running the sprinkler for 30 minutes. Measure the amount of water in each can with a ruler in inches, take the average, and multiply the average inches by two. You'll get the number of inches of water per hour that your sprinkler is putting out. Adjust your timing to get that 1 inch per watering session.

4. You’re watering at the wrong time.

Sprinklers 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.

To ensure that water gets to the grass you want, and to minimize evaporation loss, water early in the morning before the sun gets high and hot. Don't water at night. Cool water sitting on the grass overnight can increase disease.

Don't rush out to water the grass the moment the sun comes out, either. Grass grows deeper roots when it gets slightly drought-stressed. Use the footprint test to see if your lawn needs watering: If you can still see your footprints in the grass after you walk across the lawn, it's time to water. Once you figure out your ideal setting, a smart sprinkler can remember to do the watering for you.

5. You’re not using the right kind of 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 get green fast, but it's easy to apply it unevenly, resulting in patchy, clumpy growth. It can also “burn” the grass and damage it if you apply too much, and a lot of fertilizer can disappear in rain runoff.

Slow-release or controlled-release fertilizer is easier to apply well, and is less likely to burn your grass or dissolve in rain runoff. However, it's more expensive, and it can take a while to see results. Organic fertilizer acts a lot like slow-release chemical fertilizer, but is typically made of ingredients derived from plants and animals like bone meal, feather meal, and seaweed.

Compost adds both nutrients and organic matter to your soil, helping it to hold water during a drought. Apply compost just before first frost in fall or at the very start of the growing season by cutting grass to 1 inch and raking compost over the lawn as a top-dressing a half-inch thick.

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

6. You're using too much fertilizer.

Fertilizing a lawn
Credit: Getty

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

If you're just dumping a bag of fertilizer on your lawn when your grass turns brown, you're probably doing more harm than good. Excess fertilizer will get washed away in the rain, wasting your money and polluting local ponds and streams. And if your grass is turning brown, it's not growing much, so it isn't taking up the fertilizer anyway.

How much should you use? Follow the directions on the bag to the letter; you'll need less than you think. Remember, applying more fertilizer than the package says will waste your money and damage your plants. Don't apply powdered or granular fertilizer just before a rain—it will run off in the rainwater. If you're using compost, plan on using three-fourths of a cubic yard per 1,000 sq. ft. of lawn.

7. You’re applying fertilizer at the wrong time.

Fertilizer will help your lawn the most when it's growing the most—that is, not in the middle of summer, when your grass gets stressed by heat and drought. For most places, that's the spring and fall. Check with your local agricultural extension for the best timing for your area.

8. You haven't done a soil test.

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

It's hard to tell whether your lawn is looking limp because it doesn't have enough nitrogen, phosphorous, or potassium, or if doesn't have enough organic matter to hold moisture between waterings. Instead of spending money on fertilizer that might not help, get a soil test.

You can buy a home soil test kit to test your soil’s nitrogen/phosphorous/potassium levels (listed as NPK on test kits and fertilizer bags). For a more complete rundown of your soil's needs, contact your local agricultural extension. Soil tests from extensions typically give NPK levels, and often include extras like levels 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.

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

Cool season grasses get green early in the growing season, and stay green long into the fall before they go dormant for the winter, but they turn brown in summer heat if they don't get regular watering. They begin to grow at temperatures of 40°F to 45°F, and grow best when it's 65°F to 75°F. These grasses can tolerate some shade, but need at least a half day of full sun.

Warm season grasses “green up” later in the spring, and go dormant (turn brown) in early fall, but they stay green through the summer. They only start growing when the thermometer reaches 60°F to 65°F, and grow best at 90°F to 95°F. They can't tolerate shade.

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

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, above 6,000 ft., or you want your lawn green for as long as possible, choose a cool-season grass, but remember that you're going to need 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, you're not as bothered by brown grass in the fall and early spring, and you'd like to keep your watering budget low, choose warm-season grasses. These grasses include bermudagrass, carpetgrass, and zoysiagrass.

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. It never made any sense, and studies have shown that as long as you're not cutting more than a third of the grasses' height, it's best to let them just fall back onto the lawn. The cuttings decompose quickly (they're 75 to 80 percent water), so they don't create thatch, and they return nitrogen and organic material to your lawn, reducing your need for fertilizer. It's also illegal in many states to throw grass clippings or any other yard waste into a landfill anyway, so you don't have much choice.

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.

It's satisfying to throw more seed onto your lawn when you see bare spots in the spring, but in northern areas, cool-season grass planted in the spring doesn't get well established before 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.

If you haven't gotten a soil test, do one before you reseed your lawn, and correct any nutrient problems before you plant more seed.

Lastly, before you reseed, take a step back and think about why grass isn't growing in that spot. There may be underlying problems that can't be solved with seeding. If you're trying to grow grass under a shallow-rooted, shady Norway maple tree, or out in the sun where your dogs like to dig, you may be fighting a losing battle. Reseeding is only a temporary fix for bare spots caused by white grubs or patch diseases. For permanent lawn health, you'll need to change your watering and fertilizing practices, not just reseed.

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

spraying wee killer on dandelion
Credit: Getty / Wega52

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

If you're walking around your lawn with a spray-bottle of weed killer, you're doing it wrong. It's easier to prevent weeds than to try to get rid of them after they appear. The best way to get rid of 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.

The second-best way is to stop weeds while they're germinating, before they've grown big enough to compete with grass. There are a variety of products that stop germination on the market. They're called pre-emergence herbicides, and include an organic option called corn gluten. Since they stop young plants from growing, you can't use them when you're trying to reseed your lawn, and they won't kill existing plants with large root systems. But if you use them consistently in the early spring each year, they work. Corn gluten alone can reduce weeds by up to 90 percent.

If you're walking around your lawn with a spray-bottle of weed killer, you're doing it wrong.

Crabgrass likes sunlight, so it tends to appear in lawns that are mowed too low (under 2.5 inches) and bare spots. Mow your lawn high, and seed bare patches in the fall so that the grass is well established and can shade out the crabgrass.

Grassy weeds like tall fescue need to be hand-pulled; any weed killer that will kill fescue will usually kill your lawn grass, too.

Broad-leaved weeds like dandelions can be killed by pulling or spraying. If you choose to spray, don't broadcast the spray over a wide area; opt for spot-treatment of individual plants, and follow directions carefully. It's easy to misapply weed killers and accidentally poison other nearby plants, pets, and wildlife, especially foraging bees.

And remember, nowadays, lawn experts recommend keeping the clover in your lawn, not pulling it. Clover adds nitrogen to the soil and also attract 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. In general, electric mowers and leaf blowers are quieter than gasoline-powered equipment—and old-fashioned mechanical push-mowers are the quietest of all.

14. You're treating your lawn like a carpet.

Front lawn of a home
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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. If you're constantly using chemicals to poison grubs, and weeds, and “green up” your lawn, your lawn may look healthy, but your soil isn't supporting healthy plants. If you want to get off the chemical treadmill, go back to the basics: Do your soil test, apply fertilizer and compost appropriately, make sure that you're watering on the right schedule, and plan on reseeding 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.

Let's face it: Lawns are a lot of work. They need mowing, watering, fertilizer, and weed and pest control. If all you're doing with your lawn is looking at it through your windshield when you pull into your driveway after work, it might be time to think about some lower-maintenance alternatives.

Lawn alternatives include no-mow grass mixes, creeping perennials, rock gardens, edible gardens, succulents, or you might want to just mow a grass border around a meadow. California's water resources department offers a guide for removing your lawn and examples of rain-wise, pollinator, edible, and succulent gardens. Ask a local landscape professional what works well in your area.

While you're at it, consider adding one of the pollinator seed mixes from the Xerces Society to help your local bees and butterflies thrive. Native bees and pollinators have been dying off, and modern single-species grass lawns don't produce the flowers bees need to stay healthy. If you won't be using your lawn anyway, why not use the space to help the critters who'll be making future flowers grow?