Lawn Care for Beginners

We’ve all seen them: the sort of lush, verdant, perfectly manicured lawns that look like they’ve come straight off the covers of magazines. You may even have a few of them in your very own neighborhood, yet they often seem unattainable for the average person. Not so fast! The truth is that a gorgeous lawn is well within your grasp regardless of your level of lawn care experience. Armed with some basic knowledge and a little bit of elbow grease, you can transform your lawn into the talk of the town – and even boost your property values in the process. Intrigued? Read on to learn everything you need to know about lawn care for beginners.

Master the Art of Mowing

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t give mowing the lawn a second thought. You should. In addition to the obvious benefit of making your yard look nice and neat, it can also improve the health and vitality of the grass. However, it’s important that you follow a few key principles to get the most out of your mowing. First and foremost, make sure your mower blades are sharp, clean and well-maintained. Blades that are dull or dirty may rip and tear at your grass rather than cutting cleanly, producing ugly results and potentially even causing damage to the root system.

Additionally, resist the urge to give your lawn a buzz cut. It may allow you to go longer between mowings, but cutting your grass too short can have serious consequences. Short grass may not have enough surface area to produce food via photosynthesis, and it can’t adequately protect itself against pests, sun damage and other threats. To minimize this risk, never cut more than one-third the height of your grass at a time.

Water, Water Everywhere

The amount of water your lawn needs – and whether it needs any at all – depends heavily on your local climate. Still, most lawns will require at least occasional watering, and there are a few general rules you’ll need to follow for best results. First, be sure to water in the morning whenever possible. Afternoons are too warm for proper water absorption, and watering in the evening may cause the water to linger around for too long, raising the possibility of fungus growth and other diseases.

Next, stick with about an inch of water per week for an established lawn, or up to two inches during spells of very hot and dry weather. You can apply the full amount at once or divide it into two equal waterings a few days apart, but be sure that your soil is getting enough water. The goal is to soak the soil to a depth of about six to eight inches, providing deep moisture penetration to fuel healthy root growth.

Feed Your Lawn

Your lawn is a living organism, and like any other living being, it requires certain nutrients in order to grow and remain healthy. Make sure your lawn is happy, healthy and well-fed by following a few simple fertilizer tips. The most important aspect of fertilizing properly is timing: fertilizer should only be applied during growing seasons. Depending on whether you have cool-season or warm-season grasses – more on those in a minute – that means the fall and spring or spring and summer, respectively. How often you should fertilize depends on your soil quality, lawn health and other factors, but it’s generally best to fertilize two to three times per year.

It’s also important to use the right tools when applying fertilizer. For larger areas, a broadcast or rotary spreader will ensure good, even coverage. Handheld spreaders, by contrast, cover much smaller areas but provide more precise control. Drop spreaders represent something of a compromise, providing good control while still allowing you to fertilize larger areas relatively quickly. You’ll also notice that fertilizers have different numbers, called fertilizer numbers or N-P-K ratios, displayed on the bag. These numbers represent the ratio of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, and the ratio you should choose depends on your lawn’s individual needs. Established lawns require large amounts of nitrogen and little phosphorous or potassium, while new lawns require the opposite.

Rooting Out Weeds

The presence of weeds can ruin an otherwise beautiful lawn, but the good news is that proper weed control isn’t as difficult as you might think. In fact, one of the most effective weed control techniques requires nothing but vigilance and a bit of sweat: routinely patrol your yard in search of weeds and pull them out by hand when you spot them. This is easier to do when the soil is wet, so the ideal time is just after a soaking rain. Of course, this method is also time-consuming, and it won’t prevent weeds entirely.

A more convenient solution is a pre-emergent herbicide, which disrupts seed germination and prevents weeds from growing at all. Post-emergent herbicides, on the other hand, are useful for killing weeds that have already begun to grow. Unfortunately, these treatments don’t work for every type of weed, and the prospect of spreading herbicides can cause some apprehension. For a more natural approach, spreading mulch can deny weed seeds the light they need to germinate and grow. For the same reason, leaving your grass longer when you mow is also an effective weed-control method. Finally, simply practicing good lawn care will promote healthy, vigorous grass that can out-compete pesky weeds and choke them off at the source.

Aeration and Seeding Done Right

Is your soil compact or covered in thatch? If so, aeration may be just what the lawn doctor ordered. Aeration is simply the process of perforating your soil, creating small holes that allow water and nutrients to better penetrate into your lawn’s root system. This can be done either with a spike aerator or a plug aerator. A spike aerator is rolled across the soil surface to create many small holes throughout the soil, while a plug aerator removes larger, more widely spaced holes – or plugs – that typically penetrate two to three inches into the ground. While both can be effective, plug aerators are typically recommended for best results. Aerate during the spring growing season to ensure that your lawn can properly heal and grow over the disrupted areas.

Another valuable aspect of lawn care for beginners is grass seeding. Whether you have bare spots or you’ve simply noticed that your lawn isn’t as thick and healthy as you’d like it to be, seeding can help give you the results you’re after. If you only need to address a small area, you can begin spot seeding by first working over the area with a rake or garden hoe. Once the soil is exposed and broken up, apply your seeds and gently tamp the soil back down. If you need to thicken up a larger area – called overseeding – simply spread your seeds over the problem area shortly after aerating. Whichever method you choose, it’s best to seed your lawn in late summer or early fall to ensure proper germination.

Know Your Grass

You may recall that we touched on warm-season and cool-season grasses earlier. If you’re going to get the most out of your lawn, it’s important that you know the difference between the two. Warm-season grasses are those that grow best in warm, southern climates where temperatures often range from 80 to 95 degrees. Cool-season grasses, meanwhile, thrive in northern states where temperatures often stay between 60 and 75 degrees and rarely reach into the 90s. Common warm-season grasses include St. Augustine, bahiagrass, Zoysia and centipedegrass, with bermudagrass and buffalograss being well-suited to more arid zones. Popular cool-season grasses include tall and fine fescue, ryegrass and the ever-popular bluegrass.

In practical terms, the most important difference between warm-season and cool-season grasses is the growing seasons. Cool-season grasses grow during fall and spring, while warm-season grasses thrive in the spring and summer months. Consequently, these are the best times to fertilize your lawn to ensure that the grass has all the nutrients and fuel it needs to grow. If you plan to seed your lawn, it’s typically best to seed cool-season grasses early in the spring or later in the fall. Warm-season grasses are generally best seeded later in the spring, from mid-April to late May. This ensures correct timing for the seeds to germinate and grow under the proper conditions.

The Dirt on Dirt

The final step to mastering lawn care is getting to know – and love – your dirt. More specifically, you need to understand how to test your soil and ensure that it’s well-suited to supporting that lush, verdant lawn you want. Most home and garden stores carry basic soil test kits that you can use yourself by inserting a probe into your soil and reading off the results. Alternatively, your local cooperative extension office can perform a detailed soil test for you, typically for little to no charge. While soil can be tested at any time, it’s best to do so in the fall or very early spring so that you can make any necessary improvements before the planting and growing season.

The most important aspect of your soil test is the pH level. Most grasses thrive in soils that are nearly neutral, with pH levels between 6.2 and 7.2. Acidic soils – those with pH levels below about 6.2 – can be easily treated by applying garden lime, while overly alkaline soils – indicated by a pH above 7.2 – can be improved by incorporating soil conditioners with gypsum or sulfur. Alkaline soil can also be improved organically by applying sphagnum peat moss, but this may be cost-prohibitive over wide areas.

And there you have it – everything you need to know about lawn care for beginners. Simply get out there, put your newfound knowledge into action and you’ll be well on your way to creating the lawn you’ve always wanted!
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