During a summer of discontent about 20 ago, I cut lawns to survive. Actually, that was the job of Gary, Rick and Tony. I was more the Wench of Weed Whacking, the Pope of Pulling Poison Ivy. Every morning at 5:30, I'd drag my aching bones out of bed, look out the window and pray for rain. Rain meant no work and more sleep. Rain also meant no money and thicker lawns. I couldn't win.
We never cut tiny postage-stamp lawns. Oh no, these were the lawns of the wealthy. You could smell the money and the fertilizer. On one particularly hot and steamy afternoon, we pulled up to an estate with a lawn the size of Rhode Island. Every week we came here. I turned to my good friend Tony and rather sullenly asked, "Do people really need lawns this big?" The lawn was gorgeous, green and lush. I vowed never, ever to have a lawn that size. I kept that promise -- until last year.
My New England property was once studded with hemlocks, maples, ashes and something I call the "bean tree." Over the years and the storms, trees tumbled and branches fell like World War II buzz bombs. Now I have nearly 2 acres (0.8 hectare) of, um, lawn. I cut it myself with a tiny 24-inch (61-centimeter) mower (I'm not the brightest spark plug on the engine). Over the years, which included the heady days of working with Gary, Rick and Tony, I learned a few things you should never do to a lawn. Here are 10.
Winter can be harsh. Snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain. Many people in cold climes have concrete or stone walkways carved into their lawns. To keep these frozen avenues of egress open, people may put salt on them. While salt will melt ice, it also will damage the lawn when the ice dissolves and leaches into the soil.
When spring comes, brown patches of dead grass might appear where the salt has settled. In many cases, spring snow melt and rain often will flush the lawn of accumulated salts. Within six to eight weeks, your grass may green up again. If it's a dry spring, experts recommend watering the damaged area three or four times [source: Throssell].
Cutting your lawn too short, or scalping, will damage the root system of the grass. Scalping happens when two-thirds of the leaf blade is removed and the stem is left standing. Studies show that by cutting your grass high, the roots grow deeper, allowing them to take in more moisture and nutrients. As a result, the grass grows thicker.
Experts caution against removing more than the top third of the grass blade. A taller lawn will not only blossom better than a shorter lawn, but it also will cut down on the number of weeds. Taller grass also shades the soil, which means the roots won't dry out as fast [source: Dream Yard].
I mow "Big Dog Farm," the name I christened my property with when the landscape work was finished, every two weeks during the summer. We have big dogs but not a farm in the Old McDonald sense. The task takes me about two hours to accomplish on a not-too-humid day. It would take me six if I bagged the clippings, which I don't. I mulch them instead.
Little did I know that my sloth was helping my lawn stay green. Mulching clippings provides lawns with nourishment. I also found the clippings cover any bare spots. Moreover, bagging grass saves valuable landfill space and transportation costs to the dump [source: West Virginia University].
Here's another tip: Don't rake leaves in the fall, mulch them with your mower. Scientists from Michigan State University say mulching leaves into your lawn stops weed seeds from germinating on bare spots, while providing ample nutrients to the rest of the lawn. As an added benefit, you won't need to spread as much fertilizer come springtime [source: Finneran].
The best time to mow is when grass is dry. When moisture from rain or the morning dew weighs grass down, the blades bend, making a straight cut difficult. You also can slip on wet grass, and the clippings tend to clump and not spread evenly. In addition, disease can spread quickly when you mow wet grass. That's because a wet, freshly cut grass blade is more susceptible to disease-carrying organisms [source: Boyd].
However, there might be times when you have to mow wet grass, especially when it rains a lot. Experts at Kansas State University say it is better to mow wet grass than letting grass grow too tall and then cutting it when it is dry. Conversely, don't mow grass during a drought or periods of dry spells because mowing stresses the turf [sources: Boyd; Lowe].
Fertilizing is complicated. One slip and you can turn a lush lawn into a dirty desert. That's why you don't want to overfertilize or fertilize at the wrong time. Take nitrogen, a main ingredient in most fertilizers. Too much can burn the grass brown. Some nitrogen fertilizers release quickly into the ground. Others release slowly. Make sure you get the right type for your lawn.
Fertilizers also contain salts, which in small amounts help grass to grow. But too much salt, as we talked about in that first entry, can damage roots and eventually kill the grass [source: Clark]. If you're going to fertilize, only do it twice a year in the spring and fall. You might want to add a bit of dolomitic lime every few years. That's because watering and fertilizing can turn the ground acidic over time. Lime restores the pH level while adding important minerals.
Every spring I take my lawn mower into town where my good friends at the lawn equipment shop properly tune it up and sharpen the blades. Sharp blades are important to the look and health of a lawn. Grass that is cut sharply decreases water loss and increases photosynthesis. As you'll recall from middle school, photosynthesis is the process by which green plants turn carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen, using light energy trapped by chlorophyll.
You'll know your machine needs a tune-up if you see white tissue sticking out of the leaf blades after you mow. A cut from a dull blade results in a nutrient deficiency that will wreak havoc with your growing lawn. Sharpen your mower blade twice a year [source: Boyd].
Some experts recommend not using herbicides to kill weeds or pesticides to kill insects. These chemicals find their way into the environment, and they also restrict the movement of water in the soil. Pesticides can harm myriad insects, microorganisms and earthworms that help keep a lawn healthy. Moreover, many plants that we consider weeds are actually beneficial. Clover, for example, takes nitrogen from the atmosphere and distributes it in the soil [source: National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns].
If you need to control weeds, do it in an eco-friendly manner. Mowing is essential. Cutting off the heads of dandelions before they have a chance to spread their seeds is a good form of weed abatement. If you need to use a weed killer, use a "natural" one. These nonchemical weed killers are often made from corn gluten and other nonchemical sources [source: Haiken]. One year, when my yard looked like Jurassic Park, I concocted my own weed killer made of vinegar, alcohol and dish detergent. The detergent helped the vinegar solution stick to the leaves. It worked wonderfully for a few species of weeds, but not so much on others.
Mowing at the right time of the day, especially during the summer, will help your lawn stay green. As we said before, don't mow in the morning when the grass is wet. Wait until the lawn dries.
Once dry, mow in the late afternoon and early evening. For one thing, it's excessively hot at noontime for such work. Not only can mowing in the heat of the day stress you out, but it can also stress your lawn. Also, don't water your lawn in the blazing hot sun. The water will just evaporate.
Watering a few minutes a day is not a good idea. It's a vicious cycle. Frequent watering creates a shallow-root system. Plants with shallow roots need be constantly watered to remain healthy. Instead, water once a week for an hour or so. This will allow the water to penetrate the soil and make your lawn more tolerant of dry conditions. It will also cut down on weeds.
When you water, do it in the early morning before the sun starts to bake the landscape. You can also water in the late evening. Know your species of grass, too. Some grasses don't need regular watering. When it doesn't rain, these grasses will go dormant and turn brown. However, when it rains, they perk right up [source: Bender].
Every year, especially if it rains and I haven't mowed my lawn for a couple of weeks, mushrooms sprout. I don't eat the fungi, and I certainly don't want them on my lawn. They're unsightly. However, not all mushrooms are bad, although some spread disease. Mushrooms contain the reproductive parts of certain fungi. Mushrooms like to chow down on tree stumps, agricultural waste and other decaying matter including animal waste. 'shrooms break down the organic material and release nutrients that can help grass grow.
Mushrooms often sprout from buried and decaying construction lumber and other organic substances. Sometimes mushrooms can discolor the lawn by stimulating grass growth in certain areas, creating a ring in the grass. In other cases, fungal growth permeates the soil, stopping water from penetrating, killing the grass in the area.
If you want to get rid of mushrooms, water less. Or, you can do what I do: mow over the tops or take a 9-iron and swat them like golf balls. Cutting the top off a mushroom does not kill the fungi underneath the soil, but you won't see the toadstool again for a few weeks [source: Weekend Gardner].
How much do you know about eco-friendly lawn care? Keep reading to discover 5 Tips on Eco-friendly Lawn Care.
Author's Note: 10 Things You Should Never Do to Your Lawn
Here are two things I've learned about lawn care: never weed whack in short pants and always wear safety goggles. Although you might be hard-pressed to wear shorts on a hot, humid day (and your goggles always steam up), don't do it if you're going to be trimming your lawn. I've been hammered by branches, rocks and other flotsam that slammed into my thighs and face as the weed whacker went about its business. So, as we used to say back in the day "be safe ... mow hard!"
- Bender, Steve. "Don't Be a Lawn Watering Dummy." Southern Living. July 12, 2011. (March 7, 2014) http://thedailysouth.southernliving.com/2011/07/12/dont-be-a-lawn-watering-dummy/
- Boyd, John. "Mowing Your Lawn." University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. (March 6, 2014) http://www.uaex.edu/publications/PDF/FSA-6023.pdf
- Clark, Danielle. "Reasons for the Grass Turn Brown with Over-Fertilized. San Francisco Chronicle. (March 6, 2014) http://homeguides.sfgate.com/reasons-grass-turning-brown-overfertilized-66896.html
- Dream Yard. "Mowing Lawn." (March 5, 2014) http://www.dream-yard.com/mowing-lawn.html#.Ux2movldWSp#?1#?1#WebrootPlugIn#?1#?1#PhreshPhish#?1#?1#agtpwd
- Finneran, Rebecca. "Smart gardeners mulch fallen leaves into lawn to save money." Jan. 24, 2013. (March 6, 2014) http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/smart_gardeners_mulch_fallen_leaves_into_lawn_to_save_money
- Haiken, Melanie. "Basic Lawn Care Tips." HGTV.com. (March 6, 2014) http://www.hgtv.com/landscaping/basic-lawn-care-tips/page-2.html
- Lowe, Judy. "Is it OK to now a wet lawn." The Christian Science Monitor. Aug. 29, 2008. (March 6, 2014) http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Gardening/diggin-it/2008/0829/is-it-ok-to-mow-a-wet-lawn
- National Coalition for Pesticide-Free Lawns. "Read Your Weeds: A Simple Guide to Creating a Healthy Lawn." (March 6, 2014) http://www.beyondpesticides.org/pesticidefreelawns/resources/Read%20Your%20Weeds-Organic%20Lawns.pdf
- Throssel, Clark. "Lawn damage from ice melt products." Greenview Fertilizer.com (March 5, 2014) http://www.greenviewfertilizer.com/articles/ice-melt-lawn-damage
- Weekend Gardener. "Mushrooms in Lawn." (March 7, 2014) http://www.weekendgardener.net/plant-diseases/mushrooms-090809.htm
- West Virginia State University. "'Don't Bag it' Mulcher Mower Research Project Summary WVU Extension Service." (March 5, 2014) http://www.wvu.edu/~agexten/hortcult/turf/dontbagt.htm