Lawn Health 101: The Basics for Every Homeowner

man mowing his lawn

Over my 10 years as a professional in the Horticulture industry, I have heard the same question asked all too often. What does it take to have a healthy lawn? I have the answer; and as a professional applicator, I try to share my knowledge of what a homeowner can do on their own versus when it is best to involve a professional. First off, I always tell them that a professional company is only 50% of the equation to proper yard care. Next, I share the following so they understand why and how they can help in their lawn care.

When it comes to proper lawn maintenance, it takes a balance of adequate watering, mowing, feeding and a few other not as well-known techniques to have the best lawn on the block. We’ll start with watering, as it may arguably be the single most important factor in a lush, beautiful lawn. It is essential that your lawn gets enough water in order to maintain a green, healthy appearance. Typically we find that people err on the side of not watering enough in the heat of the summer, but occasionally it is possible to overwater as well. Ideally, you want to water your lawn for 30 to 60 minutes (depending on your sprinkler/sprinkler system you use) three times a week to get the proper water penetration of 3 inches per week. The easiest measuring tool you can use is a tuna fish can. When the tuna can is full, you have watered your lawn long enough. If it does not fill up, adjust your water time to fill the tuna can. Once you feel like your lawn is getting sufficient water, some of the other factors that affect its appearance are soil compaction (how hard the soil in the lawn is), the type of grasses you have within the lawn, and how high you are mowing the lawn. A lot to take in? Let’s look at them one at a time.

Dealing With A Soil Compaction Issue

Soil compaction can be determined by noticing how hard you lawn feels when you walk across it. If it feels like you’re walking on hard ground or concrete, then you most likely have soil compaction. Soil compaction becomes a problem because it doesn’t allow proper penetration of air, water, and nutrients into the lawn.  Thankfully, there is a solution! This issue is handled with a process known as aeration. In order to aerate your lawn, you use a machine called an aerator that looks like a rototiller with tubes on the back and a drum on the front. As you go across the lawn, the tubes/tines on the back of the aerator pulls plugs approximately 3 inches out of the lawn and leaves them on top of the grass (oftentimes people will mistake these for dog poo). The holes allow for proper penetration of air, water, and nutrients. When nutrients and oxygen can reach the roots of your grass, your care becomes simplified.  How often should you aerate? Obviously, this is going to vary based on the compaction level of your soil. However, most professionals recommend doing it once a year. You can either rent an aerator or hire a professional to do this service.

Mowing Your Lawn

Many homeowners who have hired someone to cut their grass ask to have it mowed short in order to limit the number of times the lawn will be mowed, or because they like the look when it is cut really short. They also water as little as possible to save money on their water bill, but then they are upset by the poor color and dryness of the lawn. In my 10 years as a Horticulturist in Idaho, I have learned that these two factors have a great impact on the health and color of a lawn. Contrary to what might be the natural inclination, you should cut your grass at a height of 3 inches. This does a couple of things. It will help provide shade so water doesn’t evaporate too quickly ensuring the moisture can be absorbed by the roots. It also provides a form of weed control. Weed seeds need sunlight to germinate, and grass mowed high will help provide natural weed prevention.

Proper Nutrition & Protect Protection From Insects

It is essential that your lawn is protected from insects and receives the proper nutrients. Some homeowners choose to have a professional company apply nutrients and insect control to help them have green healthy lawns. Others choose the DIY path. Both work well as long as long as they utilize the right product, at the right time, and at the right rate. If a lawn is brown and not looking the way a homeowner wants, they often think that the lawn needs fertilizer or that there are bugs in the lawn. 75% of the time when I service a customer’s lawn it turns out to be a watering and soil compaction issue, but the other 25% it is a pest issue. In Idaho, we deal with three major bugs that eat a home owner’s lawn; the Billbug, Sod Web Worm, and Cranberry Girdler. Each pest is active at a different time of the year, but are controlled with a pest control either meant to prevent or deal with the pest at the time of year it is active. To provide prevention, the application should be made mid-May through June. When bugs become active they need to be treated with pest control for the active grubs/bugs.

Just like any other living organism, grass needs nutrients to survive. As to proper feeding/fertilization of a lawn, it should be made on a regular schedule. Avoid thinking the more the fertilizer the greener the lawn.  Fertilizer is basically salt and when it comes to your lawn too much of a good thing is not always the best. Always apply at the recommended rate on the fertilizer bag.

Professional Application Companies use these rates to give their customers the best care possible. It should be mentioned that fertilizer comes both as a liquid and granular forms, both quick and slow release. Both have pros and cons for each. When it comes to liquid fertilizer it is quickly absorbed into the grass roots and is used up quickly unless slow-release liquid fertilizer has been used. A quick release is good for a quick green up, but it doesn’t last as long as granular form. Granular fertilizer breaks down as it is watered, but is used longer over a period of time. A proper feeding schedule should be spaced at about 4 to 6 weeks apart to give the lawn the best health it can have.

The products a DIY yard care homeowner gets to treat their lawn are often not equal to the products that professional companies use. Professional products have a higher rate of active ingredients. You will be able to see by the results the quality of fertilizer that was used. Another benefit to using a professional is that they will apply both pest control and fertilizer at the optimal time for the maximum benefit.

Other than your basic fertilizer, professional applicators have additional services that can benefit your lawn. Lawn in Idaho can also benefit from balancing the pH levels in the soil. Idaho has alkaline soil so it takes sulfur to lower the pH level to what is known as neutral level of 7. This is the proper balance in pH levels. Back east the soil is acidic so it usually needs lime to raise the pH level up to neutral.

Another application that can be beneficial is iron. Iron can help green up a lawn when it is yellowing. When lawns and even trees have yellowing, iron applications can help improve their color back to the desired green color. Applicators will usually add iron into their lawn application mixes to help keep the lawn healthy and avoid potential yellowing.

Control Those Weeds

Of course, weed control also plays an important part in a healthy lawn. Weeds create unhealthy lawns. They can also choke out healthy lawns over time. The true definition for a weed is a plant out of place; so even a grass in your lawn can be a weed. Now crabgrass is a weed that will ruin a lawn fairly quickly over a few seasons, but another grass that people mistake as crabgrass is a fescue grass that can also take over a lawn. It is broad-bladed grass called Tall Fescue and can only be dealt with by killing the grass patch then digging out the spot and reseeding with desired grasses. To deal with Crab Grass it is common to apply a pre-emergent in the early spring when soil temperatures are at or about 45 degrees. This will not kill the existing crab grass, but will keep any seeds from germinating. Crab grass has a short life cycle, so if you do this on a consistent basis each spring you can eventually eliminate it. Also, although people often want a spray that will “kill” the weeds and undesirable grasses, we have found that if your lawn is healthy (i.e. fertilized, watered and mowed at a proper height) it will choke out many of the weeds and undesirable grasses on its own.

Not All Grasses Are Created Equal

If you have all of the above factors taken care of, but still aren’t happy with the look of your lawn, there is the possibility that you might not have the most desirable grass. Unfortunately, not all grasses are created equal. Idaho best serves Blue Grasses, Rye Grasses and some Fescues. One fescue that doesn’t do well in Idaho is Fine Fescue. This grass is identified as a fine, needle-like blade of grass. Homeowners will tell me that their lawn looks great in spring and fall, but in summer it has brown spots, and mistake it for bug damage. Not so, Fine Fescue is a cool weather type/shade grass. It doesn’t like heat, so often the best solution is reseeding these areas with grasses more suitable for the climate.

As spring draws nearer, I’m sure most of us are ready to get outside and nothing makes that more enjoyable than having a beautiful yard to enjoy with family and friends. The great thing is that it is attainable! Just remember the essential keys; adequate watering, reducing soil compaction, mowing at a proper height, and providing your lawn with nutrients and weed control.  We hope this year the grass is green on your side of the fence.