Lawn Care

©Copyright 1993-2002 The L. W. Ramsey Agency 1-800-473-0157

Some green grass is essential to most yards. Lawns cool our neighborhoods, replenish our oxygen supply, prevent soil erosion, filter dust and pollen from the air, purify water, build topsoil, reduce sunlight glare, and absorb noise pollution. In addition, grass makes an ideal carpet for outdoor play or work and gives unity and serenity to the entire landscape like a backwash does for a painting.

Done with consistency and common sense, lawn care can be pleasant and minimal exercise with visible, instant results.

A healthy lawn is not only enjoyable for its beauty, it also better resists insects, diseases, and dry times. Dense, thriving turf even deprives crabgrass and some other weed seeds the sunlight they require to germinate. The best ways to minimize lawn care and maximize results are to tend to the following considerations in a timely manner. Your garden center can provide particulars regarding conditions in your local area.

FertilizersTop of Page

Grass plants, like everything living, must have nourishment to stay healthy. Fertilizing will result in a richer color, a thicker turf that stands more wear and grass that better crowds or shades out competing weeds. While you are spreading fertilizer, you can use one that kills weeds too.

Fertilizer content is always listed in order of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium; their numbers indicating relative quantity. 12-4-8 and 15-5-10 are two recommended formulae for lawn grasses. It is best to have half the nitrogen a slow release type and to have small amounts of trace elements like iron included. Read the label carefully to check for these points.

Tips for Lawn FeedingTop of Page
1. Use a fertilizer with a 3-1-2 or a 4-1-2 ratio. The nitrogen encourages leaf growth. The higher the numbers, the lower the pounds per 1000 square feet. Check the label for recommended amounts and do not exceed.

2. When buying fertilizers for the lawn, don’t throw your money away or risk damage to your grass with a fertilizer meant for gardens. -Slow or gradual-release’ is also worth the extra price because it lasts longer and cannot burn.

3. Try to apply fertilizers just before a rain. Otherwise apply when the ground is not too dry and then water well after application. Chemicals just sitting on the surface could burn the grass.

4. Use either a broadcast spreader, the kind you wear over the shoulder and crank by hand, or a drop spreader, the kind you fill and push for dry fertilizer. Many lawn foods can be mixed as liquids and some come in containers all ready to hook up to your hose.

5. Every time you fertilize, give light spots a little more to even the growth overall.

6. For most cool season grasses, 75 percent of the fertilizer can go on in the fall, most of this two months before the first frost, 25 percent in the spring. The best times to feed are when the grass is actively growing in spring and fall. You can make another application after frost so the nutrients will be available for root growth during winter and leaf growth at the first sign of spring. For warm season grasses, feed in March or April and again in August or September. Where summers are rainy (Florida) you might also apply iron sulfate once or twice at four to six week intervals starting in July for extra greening without extra growth.

7. Each time, apply half the fertilizer over the entire lawn in one direction (up and down). Then put on the other half at right angles (across) for best coverage.

8. In drought times, it is better to give lighter applications more often, especially as the heat of summer approaches. You don’t want to encourage a lot of new young topgrowth that will be extra tender. Also, stop feeding a few weeks before you stop watering.

9. Do not overfeed. This can cause a rush of tender new grass that insects can hardly resist and that requires excessive watering and mowing. If the lawn is thriving, it is getting all the nutrients it needs.

WateringTop of Page
WATER makes the most difference between a green and a brown lawn. In many states one can usually rely on Mother Nature to do this in most springs, but be ready if she sometimes does not. Take advantage of this time of active growth. It will take much less water to improve lawn quality in spring while the weather is cooler than it will in the summer

There are two ways to determine water needs. You can use a rain gauge and supplement rainfall for a total of one inch per week. Or you can watch the grass itself for signs. When growth slows and the grass takes on a bluish cast and footprints or mower tracks seem to stay forever, get out the hose. Put several containers at various points under your sprinkler to make sure all areas get their inch.

Although there is some research recently to the contrary, the rule for years has been to water deeply or not water at all. Shallow watering can result in shallow roots that will be even more vulnerable to dry conditions. Watering early in the day instead of late evenings also helps to discourage fungus formation and other diseases. Too frequent watering discourages the deep root growth turf needs to survive dry spells and encourages diseases. Be sure to water less in shady areas.

If and when the lawn does go dormant, let it stay that way. Fluctuations between dormancy and active growth can be worse. Summer’s sleep is Nature’s way of preserving the living roots and crowns. The green will return when the fall rains do.

As the summer dry spell approaches, grass may be somewhat conditioned by gradually increasing watering intervals and reducing applications. In drought conditions, about 1/2 inch of water every other week should keep the grass crowns of cool season (northern) grasses alive and ready to green up again when fall brings new moisture.

Don’t be tempted to treat grass roughly just because it is dormant. With the return of rain, lawns have rejuvenation powers that can give the human heart consolation.

Warm season grasses may turn brown for short periods after a frost or go dormant in colder climates, but will green up when the weather stays above freezing long enough.

Irrigation Systems
Top of Page

  • These can be anything from a single hose to a sprinkler to an automatic system.
  • The hose and sprinkler may be enough in many situations.
  • Be sure you have a rain sensor to turn off the automatic system. These are not expensive and are required by law in many states.
  • Whatever you use, keep it in good repair and watch for leaks or patterns that put the water in the wrong place.
  • Most people with automatic sprinklers never adjust them for the different seasons. Just two adjustments a year in Florida can save 40-45% on water use. Eight adjustments a year, or about once a month, result in 70-75% savings.

Mowing: Safety First

Watch your feet whenever you must pull the mower toward you. Always wear shoes, socks, and long pants. Never mow barefoot or in sandals. Remove debris before mowing. Keep children and pets at a distance.

Refuel only when engine is stopped and cool. Pull plugwire before doing any mower maintenance. The best safety measure can be to replace grass in hard to mow areas.

Mowing: The Process and the PracticeTop of Page

Mowing is less of a chore if you have a mower that is easy to start, turn, raise or lower, and sharpen. Mulching or composting is not only a responsible way to dispose of clippings, but also benefits the yard and garden.

Mow frequently enough so that clippings are not too long. Ideally,
you should only cut off 1/3 of the leaf length at one time. These shorter pieces break down faster, releasing nitrogen, and they do not contribute to thatch buildup.

Match your mowing schedule to the growth rate of your lawn. You may need to mow every four or five days during a wet May, but only every 10 to 14 days in July. If the lawn gets away from you in a wet week, don’t mow lower, mow higher and more often.

Mowing also cuts off weed seedheads before the seeds can ripen.

Plugging or SpriggingTop of Page

In Sunbelt areas, warm season grasses that spread by runners, like St. Augustine, can be easily and least expensively started, repaired, or replaced by planting grass plugs or sprigs. Runner grasses will crowd out weeds and any seed-spreading grass like bahia, so you can plant the plugs right in this kind of turf and watch them take over.

Plugging allows you to do the job in sections. You can
pick up a few trays at most nurseries, and each will cover 30 to 50 square feet.

Seeding and SoddingTop of Page

  • Early fall is the best time for seeding a lawn most places, with spring the second best. Seeding can be done almost any month in much of the West. Sod can be put down at anytime during the growing season (not in winter).
  • Do all grading first, making sure that drainage is adequate, and sloping the lawn gently away from the house.
  • Improve the soil with organic matter in the form of peat moss or compost. Test for pH and add lime if needed. Broadcast a special fertilizer rich in phosphorus, for new seeding areas, and till all of this into the soil. Then rake smooth.
  • Buy only high-quality seed since a lawn can never be better than the seed from which it starts. Check the package for high percentage of germination, of superior, named varieties included, and low percentage of inert ingredients and weed or other crop seed. Quality seed is usually regionalized for the areas where it is sold. Keep it in the refrigerator between buying and planting.
  • Spread the seed, like fertilizer, first in one direction, then in the other. Check the label for amounts. Using a precision spreader is best for areas larger than ten feet square. Some garden and hardware stores will rent these, but the over-the-shoulder-model is not too expensive to buy.

Cool-Season GrassesTop of Page

Name Exposure Mowing height *Drought
Bent grass Sun 1/2 to 1” Fair to poor Best for putting greens


Bluegrass, Kentucky Sun 2 to 3” Medium-browns in drought but comes back Adapted to upper 2/3 of US-popular


Fescues Shade 2 to 3” Good Dense roots, good in
mixes, fast growing


Ryegrasses Sun 1 to 3” Fair Annual short-lived,
perennial takes shade,
good in mixes for disease


Rough bluegrass Shade 1 to 2” Poor Best in upper 2/3 of
states in moist shade
Wheatgrasses Sun 3” Good Western mountain
areas, bunchgrass

*Improved cultivars may do better.

Warm-Season Grasses

Name Exposure Mowing height *Drought tolerance Remarks
St. Augustine Sun 3” Fair to light shade Widely used in Gulf states, coarse texture, pest problems


Blue grama grass Sun 5” Excellent Meadowlike look,
not for Sunbelt
Buffalograss Sun 3 to 8′ Excellent Adapted to plain
states of West
Bermudagrass Sun to
part shade
1 to 1 1/2′ Excellent Needs much care Used in southern half of
U.S. and West Coast
Zoysia Sun to light shade 2 to unmowed Excellent Lower third of
U.S., slower growing,
turns brown with frost
Centipede Grass Sun 1 1/2” to 2″ Good Insect resistant, adapts well
to infertile acid soils
Bahia Most shade 3” Excellent Slow-growing,
deep rooted, most shade

*Improved cultivars may do better.

  • Then rake lightly and roll the area to tamp seed down so it is in good contact with the soil. Cover seed with a light mulch of straw, peat, or dry grass clippings. Use burlap on slopes. Regular burlap needs to be removed when seeds sprout, but some biodegradable, open mesh material can be left in place for erosion control.
  • Keep the lawn moist until germination occurs. Probably 90 percent of seeding failures are due to lack of moisture. For at least the first month, the upper inch of soil should never be allowed to dry out. This is a time for frequent sprinklings rather than deep watering. If a hot, dry spell follows your seeding, you may have to sprinkle five or six times a day. Daily, slightly deeper watering will do for sod or plugs. After germination or settling of sod, water less often but more deeply.
  • Keep traffic off the new seeding until it is established. Mow regularly as soon as it is 2 to 3 inches tall. Remove clippings and leaves.
  • Fertilize again four to six weeks after planting, this time with a regular long-acting, high nitrogen fertilizer.

Repairing Bare SpotsTop of Page

Ordinarily, fall is the best time for repairing lawns in the North, spring in the South. Check for bare spots to determine if caused by insects, diseases, or ordinary wear and tear.

Like weeds, insects and diseases are best controlled by regular feeding and care so that the grass is more resistant. Warm season grasses have more of these problems. Watch carefully to stop them before they spread. Call in a lawn expert if necessary. Use all pesticides carefully according to label directions and wear protective clothing.

To reseed, prepare the soil by cultivating the bare spots 4 to 6 inches deep and then raking smooth and seeding as for a new lawn. If the entire lawn looks bedraggled, you may want to overseed it all. A rented dethatcher or power rake set deep enough to make small cuts of exposed soil will ease the job. Otherwise, rake it vigorously by hand to make scratches of soil in which the new seed can lodge. Spread seed right over the old grass at half the rate recommended for a new lawn.

Watering is a little tricky when overseeding. You want to keep the soil moist without encouraging weed growth. The shade of the established grasses will help. Mow the new grass when it reaches two inches or more and then give care as for a new lawn from scratch.

Weed Control Top of Page

To prevent crabgrass, use a pre-emergence herbicide according to label directions. With new seed, use Siduron, the only pre-emergence herbicide that will kill crabgrass without killing the new grass seed.

For established lawns, there are several brands on the market. Most give residual control for 6 to 8 weeks. Apply again if needed. Follow label directions carefully.

If you dig up one dandelion or dock, usually two more will grow. Even if you get all the roots, weed seeds already in the soil or blowing in the wind will hurry in to fill that space.

Localized chemical control can be done with a tank sprayer or ready-to-use jet-can dispensers. On a larger scale, apply granular fertilizer/broadleaf herbicide formulas with a broadcast spreader or adjustable-rate seeder.

The most important weed controls are keeping grass healthy enough to crowd weeds out and mowing before weed seeds can ripen.

Use all pesticides only according to label directions. Wear clothes that cover you well and wash them separately.

Grass clippings from a lawn treated with herbicide are NOT safe to use as mulch on other plantings. Pile them up and let the rains wash through them for six weeks, after which they should be safe for most mulching jobs.

Aeration Top of Page

One of the easiest ways to aerate a lawn is to wear aeration
sandals, available from garden catalogs, while you cut the grass about every third time.

  • This or the use of a power aerator creates a better environment for the microorganisms that consume thatch. Use core aerators like seeders in a criss-cross pattern. You can rent these.
  • For St. Augustine grass, a verticutter does the same job and should be used every several years. The clumps that are torn out can be raked up and composted.

Thatch Top of Page

Thatch is a decaying accumulation of fibrous leafsheath and roots. It is beneficial because it recycles plant tissues, provides organic fertilizer, and helps to control weed growth. Too much thatch, however, can harbor insects and disease organisms, prevent water and fertilizers from reaching the soil and new grass from breaking through to the light.

If this happens, a good raking with a pronged or rented power rake will make an amazing improvement in just a few days. Till the raked thatch into the garden or put it on the compost pile.

You don’t need to bag grass clippings as long as you keep up with the job. They make the lawn healthier by recycling the nutrients and adding humus. Clippings can contribute 25% of the nitrogen needed by the turf. Grass clippings do not ordinarily cause thatch buildup.

New mulching mowers now on the market, finely chop the clippings or chop leaves in the fall and blow them back deep into the lawn so you can’t see any residue at all.

Mowing Alternatives Top of Page

Lawns take more maintenance and water than anything else in the yard. But a regular schedule of good care is the best way to prevent outbreaks of diseases, infestations of insects, and invasions by weeds. If you don’t have time for that care, invest in a good lawn care service. They may need to use some pesticides, but the best ones use the most care and the least chemicals.

Ground Covers Instead of GrassTop of Page

Grass takes more water, fertilizer, and work than any other landscape planting. Most of us still want some, but we can cut the work and add an air of elegance with different textures and colors by putting some of the yard into ground covers.

Ground covers are especially appropriate on slopes, in the shade, in small areas where it is hard to get the mower, and where there is little foot traffic that can be handled by stepping stones or paths through the planting.

Such plantings take about as much work as a flower or vegetable garden until they become established. This usually takes one to three years, depending on the climate, the kind, and how closely the plants are set. After that they are almost maintenance free. Heavy mulch between the plants until they spread will save much of the weeding and conserve water for faster growth.

Some Favorite Ground Covers Top of Page

Ajuga or bugleweed is one of the hardiest of plants. It thrives equally well in Pennsylvania cold and Florida heat, in full sun or partial shade, in clay or sand.

Lily-of-the-Valley is a fine ground cover for shade or the north side of a house. The basal, bright green leaves grow about 10 inches tall and are attractive from spring to fall.

Strawberries make excellent, edible ground covers with foliage that is attractive all year, white blossoms in the spring, and delicious red berries that begin to form while the plants are still in bloom. Strawberries need full sun to fruit and they spread quickly by runners.

Violets, the same that grow wild, are fine ground covers for a woodland floor or shady garden corner. Some have runners, some spread by branching rootstocks, and some self sow readily.

For an evergreen ground cover, junipers can’t be topped. Do not confuse these with the taller shrubs or trees of the same species. Be sure to get the low, sprawling shrubs often called Creeping Juniper. They come in kinds from 4 inches to 4 feet. Colors include silver, bluish, gray-green, bronze, gold laces, and purple tipped in winter. These thrive in sun or light shade.


Ground Covers for Dry Gardens

Coronilla varia
Festuca glauca
Rosemarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’
Crown vetch
Blue fescue
Dwarf rosemary
Lavender cotton

Ground Covers for Deep Shade

Aspidistra elatio

Convallaria majalis
Euonymus fortunei
Galium odoratum
Pachysandra terminalis
Vinca minor

Cast iron plant
Most ferns
‘Colorata’ Wintercreeper
Sweet woodruff
Japanese spurge

Getting Started

  • Pick location if new
  • Pick mulch
  • Select ground covers
  • Select grass seed, sod ·plugs
  • Soil amendments ·peat ·compost ·lime
  • Fertilizer
    ·for new grass ·for established lawn
  • Tools
    ·rake ·hoe ·spreader/seeder
    ·plugging tool ·hose ·sprinkler
    ·irrigation system ·lawn mower

Some facts may vary by region. Please check with your local lawn and garden dealer if concerned about possible variations.


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