Lawn care can get expensive, but these low cost do-it-yourself lawn care tips explain how to keep your lawn healthy without hiring a professional. These tips apply to most northern and midwest lawns in the United States, and Canada. This article contains affiliate links to products I use and recommend. You do not pay more if you order via these links, and I receive a small commission which helps me to buy a cup of coffee once in awhile.
Mow High to Save Money
A lawn that has been mown too short dries out quickly and turns yellow, then brown. Set your mower blade higher and you’ll get denser turf that blocks water evaporation while stopping a lot of weeds from growing due to lack of sunshine. You will save money on watering and will spend less on weed control.
- Mow no lower than 2-1/2 inches during the summer months. You can mow as high as 3-1/2 inches.
- Do not remove more than one-third of the grass blades in one mowing to avoid stressing the lawn.
- Lower the mower blade a bit once the weather cools in late summer or early fall, then use an even lower setting for your final mowing late in the fall. Mowing low late in the season discourages snow mold and other problems by keeping grass from clumping together.
- Use a mulching mower and leave grass clippings on the lawn to return nitrogen to the soil. If you do not have a mulching mower, bag clippings every other time you mow or skip bagging and mow more often so clippings are small enough to break down quickly.
- Keep the mower blade sharp and never mow wet turf to discourage tearing of the grass blades. You can have blades sharpened at your local hardware store, or sharpen blades yourself very affordably with the electric Work Sharp WSKTS Knife and Tool Sharpener for around $60 or a manual sharpener like Smith’s 50603 Mower Blade Sharpener for around $20.
Water Only When Needed
Buy and use a rain gauge to determine if your lawn receives one inch of water per week. If Mother Nature is not cooperative and it rains less, give the lawn an inch of water (or the amount that will equal an inch when added to rainfall) in one watering. Rain gauges range from simple and inexpensive plastic models like this one by AcuRite to something more high tech like the AcuRite Deluxe Wireless Rain Gauge or a home weather station. Rain gauges also come in more attractive designs that fit in with landscaping, like this hummingbird rain gauge or a decorative rain gauge with a solar powered light.
Check your standard rain gauge each morning and record the amount, then empty the water from the collection vessel. If you opt for more high tech model, follow the directions with the product for accurate rain measurement.
Water early in the morning or early evening and you will use less water because you’ll avoid evaporation. Do not water late at night as it encourages growth of fungus and molds that can wipe out an entire area of your lawn.
Weeds and Pests Be Gone!
Fight weeds and pests yourself, and you’ll save a lot of money on lawn treatments. Don’t let problems get out of control and you can just do spot treatments to use less product and spend less. Always read directions since lawn treatments work best at varying temperatures and weather conditions.
Crab grass is controlled most effectively before it germinates very early in the spring (just after the snow melts in northern climates) by using a pre-emergent weed deterrent. Preen Lawn Crabgrass Preventer is a good product because it won’t harm your shrubs and other plants unless they are very young. Post-emergent crab grass killers are not always effective on large mature clumps but work well on younger, smaller crab grass clumps. A product like Bayer Advanced All-in-One Lawn Weed and Crabgrass Killer will clear weeds and crab grass, buy the concentrate and an inexpensive sprayer and you’ll save money. If you don’t use all of the product by late fall, store it in your basement. Freezing can make liquid yard care chemicals ineffective.
Broadleaf weeds can be treated with a selective lawn herbicide which kills only weeds and not your grass. Ortho Weed-B-Gon is a an excellent choice. Remember, you don’t need to treat your entire lawn unless you let weeds get away from you. Using a small, lightweight sprayer, walk around your yard each week and only spray the weeds you find.
Remember that non-selective herbicides such as RoundUp kill all plants regardless of type and can’t be used on your lawn – unless you want to kill off grass for future planting or another reason. A less expensive yet effective alternative to RoundUp is the Compare and Save liquid concentrate.
Look for sales on lawn care products at the end of the season and store them in a cool place where liquids won’t freeze. Shake liquids before using in the spring and they will work just fine.
Brown Patches in Turf
Patches of dead grass can indicate insect problems or fungus or mold, all of which are treatable. Unfortunately, turf fungicides are expensive so if you use one, follow directions to avoid wasting the product. Use pesticides as sparingly as possible because they kill beneficial insects as well as pests. The most common reason for brown patches on your lawn is from grubs, often those of the Japanese beetle, a brown/green iridescent beetle that feeds on leaves and blooms of trees and landscape plantings.
Determining what is destroying your grass can be difficult, but it is very possible to do so. Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service has free Turf grass management publications that you can download to learn how to identify and treat turf pest and disease problems. Read Turfgrass Insect Management and see the Disease Control section lower on the page help with determining what is causing brown patches in your lawn and how to treat them. You can also contact your state’s Master Gardener program to ask where you can get help locally for determining why your lawn is not behaving well.
Dethatching the Lawn
Thatch is a layer of dead vegetation that exists under grass on the soil surface. Up to one-half inch of is healthy and insulates your lawn, which is especially important in the Midwest United States and areas north of there. Having too much thatch in your lawn can keep moisture from reaching the soil and pests such as lawn months make nests in thick thatch. Most lawns do not suffer from too much thatch and home owners remove this needed layer of organic material unnecessarily.
If you need to dethatch, do so in early spring before you fertilize or apply pre-emergent weed preventative. You can rent a dethatcher from a local hardware store or a big box home improvement center like The Home Deport. Special dethatching rakes are available but are difficult to use and can be hard on your back.
Never dethatch newly seeded, overseeded or sodded lawns as they have a delicate root structure that can easily be ripped up. Speaking of seeding, after dethatching is an ideal time to overseed because soil will be roughed up a bit. Don’t dethatch yearly or you’ll remove too much protection from your lawn.
As your lawn is walked over, played on and mowed over the years, the soil will become compacted. Compaction reduces oxygen in the soil which grass roots need to properly absorb water and nutrients. To determine if the soil under your lawn is compacted, cut out a section that measures one square foot and is 6 inches deep. If the grass roots grow down two inches or less, you should aerate.
The best time to aerate your lawn is in the fall before your final fertilizer application. Rent a core aerator from a hardware store or rental center and reduce the cost by getting together with neighbors to share the machine and divide the rental fee. Then fertilize. You lawn will look pitiful after aerating, but leave the small plugs on top of the grass alone and allow them to decompose and nourish your grass. The following spring you will have healthier turf that can more easily access water, oxygen and fertilizer.
Shelley Elmblad is a master gardener in the state of Wisconsin who loves having the best lawn in her neighborhood.
Read all directions and manuals with lawn treatments and equipment.