Save this lawn from its new owner (me)
March 27, 2018 8:42 AM   Subscribe

Last fall, I bought a house with a healthy lawn. I have never lived anywhere with a lawn before, so lawn-related behaviors are new to me. I mowed it once but then had to travel for a few weeks and, by the time I got back, it was winter and the freeze was on. Now that spring is almost here, what can/should I do for the lawn? Should I mow it now, spread anything, leave it alone until...?

(I did not lay down seeds or fertilizer before winter, in case that is a thing that should be done.)
posted by chimpsonfilm to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
At its most basic, mowing and raking (and watering if it's super dry) are enough to keep a lawn healthy -- fertilizer, weedkiller, over-seeding, aerating are all things done to improve and get the "as seen on tv" level of lawn. So, are you interested in it just being green and not looking like an abandoned home, or do you want the award-winning lawn look?
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:46 AM on March 27, 2018

Response by poster: "Just being green and not looking like an abandoned home" fits the bill.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 8:48 AM on March 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been living in rented houses for 15+ years, which means I have little to no financial incentive to invest in the lawn, and the landlords had seemingly reached the same conclusion. So, I am not a lawn connoisseur, but I have definitely always had a green, non-post-apocalyptic lawn.

Mowing is the most important thing -- doesn't need to be done weekly, but often enough that weeds don't get too high, particularly broad-leafed weeds that kill grass underneath them. I recommend mulching, both because it's good for the lawn and I am very lazy and hate bagging (although I have done bagging in the past, particularly when mowing over dead leaves). I also mow way less frequently after July, and let it get a little longer, because it holds in moisture better through those dry months and is less likely to go straight to dormant (it grows slower anyway), but that's how my climate works and may be different where you are.

If you do water, be aware that in many regions during dry months there are laws about when and how you can water. For example, here there's a time of year when odd-numbered addresses can water on certain days and evens on others. However, watering is mostly about keeping the grass green; it takes a serious drought to completely kill off a lawn. Grass can get pretty brown in the fall but will still come back in the spring. Also, watering is more expensive than you think, your water bill will definitely go up if you're a "must be Crayola green all year round" person.

Raking picks up dead leaves that can mess up the chemistry of the dirt, and raking mixes up the 'thatch' (the dead material that lies on top of the ground, but under the grass, which eventually turns into more ground). I, however, am lazy and have not really raked consistently, and often I just wait until spring and mow over the dead leaves. You only really need to rake in the fall when all the leaves drop off the trees.

If weeds do get too big or repeated mowing only makes them stronger, I get a bottle of cheap generic Roundup (glyphosate) and spray the weeds directly; this can leave a dead spot, though. The other option is digging them up (which, if big enough, will leave a dead spot too).

Despite my wife's objections to spending money on the lawn, I usually watch for cheap grass seed and buy a bag, and will patch dirt spots which arrive due to where people walk, dog pee, the place I always drive over a corner of the lawn rather than carefully lining up with the driveway, accidentally spilling battery acid, etc. Seed requires being kept wet, so definitely water new seed, and even when it's long enough to mow let it grow a while, but it only takes a couple weeks to get a nice new patch of grass.

As part of lawn care, if you have trees and bushes on your lawn, do not ignore trimming those -- it's usually a once a year thing, but it can definitely get out of hand if you let it go long. Remove dead branches, cut down seedlings that got too much of a start in that area you don't hit with the mower often enough, trim things back so they don't mess up your shingles or siding, cut things so they don't block the view getting out of your driveway, etc.

Also, find out your area's rules on yard waste. Mine has different rules for branches and lawn waste, and sometimes you can't just put it on your curb for pickup, you need to take it somewhere (please refer to my laziness referenced above)

Final note: my father has been an agriculturalist for 30 years who swears by just following the instructions on the bag of Weed and Feed and he has always had a glorious lawn. If you want to go one step up, that's what I would do.
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:11 AM on March 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

My lawn deteriorated over a decade or so to the point the it was mostly weeds and very little grass. Then I fertilized and reseeded and now its OK. The lesson is that skipping one feeding is no big deal, but skipping for 15 years is.

In my area (CT), its pretty necessary to use pre-emergent crab grass killer in the spring. I have better success with two half-strength doses about two weeks apart than with the typical one dose. Ask the guy at the store for the best time in your area. Its usually something like "when the lilacs bloom".
posted by SemiSalt at 10:35 AM on March 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

People in the know suggest that your lawn will be healthier if you don't mow the grass too low - you shouldn't mow off more than 1/3 the height of the grass, so leave the mower height setting toward the upper limit.
posted by adiabatic at 10:37 AM on March 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I am in New England. YMMV by where you live. I will be doing the following with my lawn the moment the snow is all gone.

-Week 1-
1. Pick up debris.
2. Rake the lawn to fluff up and separate dead grass from the stuff that is trying to grow.
3. Test the pH of the soil to know how much lime I need to add. Test in several spots. because pH is not even nor should it be. (Different vegetation prefers different pH. iirc my raspberry bushes like acidic. The blueberry bushes like basic soil.)
4. Now, for a given section of lawn, I'll mix lime (acidity), some lawn fertilizer, some weed & feed, and some grub killer. That mix I'll load into my hopper and spray the lawn.
5a. hose down the lawn slightly to get that stuff into the soil.
5b. Don't touch the lawn for a week.
6. Start seeds in starter packs this year.
7. Order pool supplies.

-Week 2-
1. Rake the lawn again.
2. Early season pruning and shaping. I am likely taking a big branch off my paper birch this year because it is an issue. That means I will be doing some chainsaw work as well.
3. Pick up more sticks
4. Edge the lawn.
5. count bags of mulch necessary to cover what we need.
6. Pull off about 3-6 inches of soil from beds and mix in appropriate amount of Peat Moss.
7. Pull out all the furniture from the garage attic.
8. Put winter stuff in garage attic.

-Week 3-
1. Decide if I am building a cold frame or a compost cage.
2. Build it.
3. Plant seedlings if applicable.
4. Start filling flower pots.
5. Clean up garage.
6. Service my lawn mower and weed wacker
7. Edge and Mow lawn.
posted by Nanukthedog at 11:19 AM on March 27, 2018

I do not cultivate my lawn but I do live in a house that has a yard with grass. That grass is now in winter hibernation, i.e. brown, and still under patchy snow at the moment. When things warm up, it will be soggy and brown for a while, and then it will magically get green. Eventually it will be green and shaggy and I will mow it. Sometime in early May I'll spend a morning in the yard and garden, and one of the tasks will be pulling out all the annoying seedlings (maple whirligigs, dandelion crowns, plantain leaf, etc) and checking for bare spots. Depending on the timescale involved in my making time to deal with it, and grass on the edges getting robust enough to fill in the patchy bits, I may or may not ever get around to seeding the bare spots. In short, I wouldn't worry about it too much; if the house didn't have a beautiful plush green HouseBeautiful style lawn when you bought it, the grass types chosen by the previous owners are probably pretty robust and will mostly take care of themselves.
posted by aimedwander at 11:24 AM on March 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Just being green and not looking like an abandoned home" fits the bill.

Seconding mowing high, preferably with a mulching mower that just blasts the mown-off tips straight back down onto the ground instead of piling them up in windrows or into a grass catcher you have to lug away and empty. Consistently returning a quarter to a third of the grass height to the soil surface with a mulching mower will keep the lawn's topsoil in excellent condition, and will mean you won't have to water it as often.

If your lawn doesn't already have clover in it, you might want to broadcast some white clover seed all over it. Clover is a legume, and it makes an excellent companion plant for grasses, because once it gets going its roots will house a symbiotic bacteria species that fixes atmospheric nitrogen. Blasting a mix of grass and clover leaves onto the soil with your mulching mower every time you mow will keep your lawn permanently self-fertilized.

If your mower is putting so much dead grass back onto the lawn that what's under it struggles to grow through, so that you actually need to rake it to promote healthy growth, you're mowing too low.
posted by flabdablet at 11:27 AM on March 27, 2018

A lot of it depends on your climate, the current state of your lawn, and what you want to get out of it.

Nth'ing the cut it tall advice. Set your mower to one of the taller settings and mow it regularly. In the spring the grass will grow fast. You probably want to cut it at least weekly if not slightly more. It'll usually be heavy with moisture and new growth than can make your mower struggle especially if you're mulching. Sharpen the mower blade at the beginning of the season (at the very least). It'll make everything work a little better.

The single most effective weed killer is grass that grows tall and fast so it chokes out any other plants. Leaving it taller also provides more shade on the ground so water doesn't evaporate as fast. It also leaves (heh) the plant more resources to grow it's roots deeper and stronger. When you gut grass short it can sacrifice the roots to try and grow the blade taller and catch more sunlight.

2nd'ing clover. A lot of the benefit of fertilizer is the nitrogen it adds to the soil and as Flabdablet says, clover is a nitrogen fixer so it does a lot of that for you. It's leaves also provide some shade both to keep water from evaporating and to choke out other weeds. Be aware that since clover is a broadleaf plant, herbicides that target broadleafs will kill it. It's a pretty easy problem for the pesticide companies to deal with, they just convince everyone that clover is a weed! It isn't, clover is a excellent synergistic plant to grow along with grass.

Clover has only three potential downsides that I'm aware of:
1. It'll make your lawn so soft, lush, and green that if you let it grow too much your mower will struggle.
2. It's a bit more likely to leave green stains on clothing. That applies mostly to kids rolling around as they play.
3. Clover flowers in the spring which will attract bees which can be a problem for anyone with allergies but can be a boon to your local bee population

If you feel a need to address weeds in your yard beyond what the clover and just having a healthy lawn can do for you...
-I prefer spot treating with herbicides as much as possible.
-The best time to use herbicides, especially anything you apply to whole lawn, is the fall, especially for dandelions.
-There are pre-emergent herbicides that target crab grass. They work by preventing the seeds from germinating and will keep any grass seeds that you've laid down from germinating as well.
-Dandelions only seed one per season but can regenerate the flowers. So if you pull the bright yellow flower off it'll just grow back but if you pull the fluffy seeds off after it's been pollinated that one plant won't be able to add any more dandelions to your lawn that year.

As far as watering goes...
-It's typically something you only need to do in the late summer and it only needs the equivalent of an inch of rain per week to stay alive. It might be a mix of brown and green but once it starts raining in the fall again it'll perk right back up. Water a little more often and it stays a little more green.
-Ideally you're supposed to water the lawn early in the morning. This lets the grass absorb more water before the sun can evaporate it
-In theory you want to avoid watering the lawn at night lest the damp lawn start growing some sort of fungus. I've never had this problem and I've never talked to anyone who has. I wouldn't make a habit of it but I wouldn't worry much about it either.
posted by VTX at 12:14 PM on March 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

It really depends on the grass type, soil, and climate. I could give you detailed answers about Saint Augustine sod growing on (basically) sand in S Florida but YMMV. Your local agricultural extension agent can be very helpful.
posted by sudogeek at 1:40 PM on March 27, 2018

If you have neighbors whose lawn looked similar to how yours did when you first moved in, ask them what they do. Or if you have contact info on the previous owner, ask them.
posted by Blue Genie at 11:39 AM on April 1, 2018

Response by poster: I'm long overdue in thanking all of you for this wealth of great advice. I was waiting to see how the lawn would come out after the long tail of winter in our area. It is lovely and green, and the advice received here has already helped and will help keep it that way. Thanks!
posted by chimpsonfilm at 7:59 AM on May 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

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