The Definitive Guide to Lawn Care

Read on to learn more about seasonal lawn care...

A 101 guide to basic lawn care practices for every season.

There is no “one size fits all” lawn care guide for all seasons. Lawn care practices are seasonal—so what is done for your lawn in the spring should be different than what is done in the summer.

For example, a common mistake is fertilizing year-round. You shouldn’t because during the winter the nitrogen from the fertilizer will barely enrich dormant grass, which uses substantially less nutrients and water, and instead will promote the growth of cool-season weeds. This lawn care guide will help you avoid these rookie mistakes, and instead, break down the most crucial practices for all four seasons.

Warm Season and Cool Season Turfgrass

It’s important to know which type you have before treating your lawn. Grass-type performance depends on how much their growth patterns match the climate in your area, and few areas are within the optimal temperature range for turfgrasses. However, turfgrasses are primarily separated into two categories: warm season and cool season.

Warm-season turfgrasses grow the best in temperatures between 80 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. In the United States, they’re best grown in the lower Southwest and Southeast. Common species are Bermuda, Carpet, St. Augustine, Bahia, and Zoysia.

Cool-season turfgrasses grow the best in temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re best grown in the West, Midwest, and Northeast regions of the U.S. Common species are Kentucky Bluegrass, Tall Fescue, Fine Fescue, Perennial Ryegrass, and Annual Ryegrass.

Oregon State University found the best growing periods for both categories. Researchers examined grazing periods of farm animals and showed turfgrass growing periods by month:

  • The optimal period for cool-season turfgrasses is from April-May to September-October.
  • For warm-season turfgrasses, the period is from May to September. With this in mind, the following sections explain lawn care tips for each specific season.

Spring Lawn Care

Fertilizing in the Spring

After winter, your lawn may begin to turn more green. But don’t apply fertilizer just yet. According to the University of Connecticut’s Home & Garden Education Center, you should wait until your grass actually grows because its roots still store carbohydrates from last fall that help early spring growth. Fertilizer is more useful after a plant exhausts its own resources.

Watering in the Spring

You should water your lawn no more than an inch a week. During this season, there’s generally still moisture in the soil. You can test this by taking a screwdriver and pushing it into the soil: If the tool sinks relatively easily, then your lawn isn’t parched.

If you live in an area with regular rainfall, avoid turning your sprinkler system back on. Overwatering your lawn will drown grass-roots and encourage weed growth. An Iowa State University turfgrass expert said you should “wait until the lawn starts to naturally wilt in the summer before you start to irrigate.” This is because “wilting signals the plant to grow more roots” that are “deeper in the ground that will help during extended dry periods later in the summer.” Before you water deeply, wait until hotter temperatures or until your soil begins to feel grainy and dry.

Overseeding in the Spring

Overseeding replenishes your grass by scattering grass seeds over your lawn. Spring, especially late spring, is a strong growth period for turfgrasses. Unless your lawn suffered severe damage in the last season, you’ll only need to overseed twice a year.

However, there is debate on whether overseeding for cool-season turfgrasses is effective or not during spring. New seeds for cool-season turfgrass may only grow shallow roots because the higher temperatures in the following summer cause photorespiration, which is when a plant uses more energy than it manufactures. But if your lawn has warm-season turfgrasses, then overseeding is generally recommended around this time.

Moles

As spring weather warms the soil, earthworms and other bugs emerge toward the upper soil levels—but moles can return as well. Moles attack and damage the root systems of lawns, searching for worms and other food. Most moles in North America are found in the eastern U.S. and Canada. The most common mole in the U.S. is the Eastern mole—generally found in the Southeast and Northeast.

They’re a pest throughout spring, summer, and fall. But the best time to lay mole traps is during the spring, before they build more tunnels. According to UConn’s Home & Garden Education Center, homeowners need to simply place a harpoon trap in the main tunnel, use a toxic bait (which is usually gummy-worm shaped), or try these other recommended methods.

Weed Control in the Spring

Weeds, such as crabgrass, begin to germinate during late spring and emerge fully during the summer, but you can curb and eliminate their presence. The product you’ll need to use is pre-emergent herbicide. According to Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Turfgrass Science, pre-emergent herbicide is “the most critical component of an effective chemical control program.” Pre-emergent herbicide is easily found in supermarkets and should applied 10-14 days prior to the germination periods of weeds.

Spring Lawn Diseases

The University of Wisconsin compiled a list of common lawn diseases throughout all four seasons. During spring, there are four diseases to watch out: Snow Mold (if your area receives snowfall), Necrotic Ring Spot, Fairy Rings, and Red Thread.

Summer Lawn Care

Mowing Height Adjustment

A horticulture expert at the University of Illinois said “mowing height adjustment is probably the most important practice to prepare lawns for hot weather.” He recommended setting your mower three inches or slightly higher because lawns maintained at taller lengths develop deeper root systems. Avoid mowing too frequently, especially if your lawn is made of cool-season turfgrasses. Their growth naturally slows down when temperatures become hotter and drier.

Watering Deeply in the Summer

It’s time to turn your sprinkler system back on. Watering your lawn deeply in the summer is crucial to the development of deep root systems, which are the basis for resilient and durable lawns. “Deeply-rooted turfgrass can withstand stressful weather conditions much better than shallow-rooted plants,” said an Iowa State University horticulture expert. “Watering deeply promotes the development of deep root systems.”

But what does it mean to water deeply? The answer depends on your soil type:

  • Sandy soil should be watered 0.8 to 1.2 inches per foot
  • Loam soil should be watered 1.8 inches to 2.4 inches per foot
  • Clay soil should be watered 2.2 inches to 3.2 inches per foot

Once you determine the soil type of your lawn, you need to set the appropriate sprinkler time. The Soak and Cycle method is the best measurement:

  1. Take empty containers and spread them across your lawn.
  2. Turn on your sprinkler system for 15 minutes, then measure the containers with a ruler. Afterwards, turn on the sprinkler for another 15 minutes, then measure again.
  3. These measurements should help you determine the flow rate of your sprinkler heads. Time your sprinkler system to the appropriate amount of water that your soil type needs.

The best time to water your lawn is early in the morning, before the sun rises too high. If you water in the afternoon, it will evaporate before your lawn can adequately absorb it. And if you water in the night, your lawn will remain wet overnight and become prone to diseases.

Weed Control in the Summer

Weeds sprout in the summer, becoming fully visible on lawns. For those who missed the window during spring to use pre-emergent herbicide, there’s still a chance to remove weeds from your lawn. The two main methods of weed removal are cultural control and chemical control.

“Cultural control involves hand weeding, followed by creating an adequate growing environment for the turf species present,” said Sam Bauer, Executive Director of the North Central Turfgrass Association. Chemical control, Bauer said, involves using “post-emergent herbicides containing the active ingredients quinclorac or fenoxaprop.”

Cultural control is a quick remedy if your lawn is only sparsely populated with weeds. Just bend down and pluck them (easy weeds to pick are dandelions and broadleaves). Chemical control is a better solution if your lawn is heavily populated by weeds. Bauer recommends these products with the essential active ingredients: “fenoxaprop-P-ethyl (Bayer Crabgrass Killer for Cool-Season Lawns) or quinclorac (Bayer All-In-One Weed and Crabgrass Killer, Ortho Weed-B-Gon + Crabgrass Killer, others).”

Summer Lawn Diseases

During the summer, there are six diseases to watch out: Necrotic Ring Spot, Fairy Rings, Summer Patch, Dollar Spot, Red Thread, and Rust.

Fall Lawn Care

Dethatching in the Fall

Fall is the most crucial time to prepare your lawn for colder temperatures. To boost grass growth, you should first remove thatch—the build-up that accumulates over your lawn. Although you should dethatch in any season, fall generally produces the most thatch (i.e. small branches, fallen leaves). Without this practice, your lawn may suffocate.

The common dethatching tools are vertical mowers and power rakes. For larger lawns, vertical mowers are easier to use. A major tip is to set the blades high before your first run, so you don’t accidentally rip up your turfgrass. Afterwards, you should adjust accordingly. For smaller lawns, power rakes are an easier alternative. You’ll have more hand control when you remove material from your lawn.

Aeration in the Fall

Virtually all lawns benefit from aeration. This is the practice of breaking down compacted soil by plugging holes into your lawn—allowing water and nutrients to reach the roots more easily. However, not all parts of your lawn needs to be aerated equally. According to Clemson University’s Home & Garden Information Center, aeration is needed more in grass areas with frequent foot traffic. The center recommends either of these two tools for aeration: a spading fork or a core aerator.

A spading fork is great for small lawns. Simply stab the ground four inches deep with the tool’s thick tines, then rock it back and forth. This movement will loosen the soil and make room for new grass-roots.

A core aerator is better for larger lawns and less labor-intensive. Adjust the height of the tines—which usually are between three-quarters of an inch to an in-depth three inches—and run the machine across your lawn.

Overseeding in the Fall

Cold temperatures can make turfgrasses brown. But if you overseed in the fall, this is avoidable. This season is the last growing period of the year, so overseeding is essential, even if you did it in the spring.

The amount you overseed depends on the type of turfgrass you have. If your lawn is comprised of warm-season turfgrass, Virginia Tech provides a useful list. If your lawn has cool-season turfgrass, University of Massachusetts Amherst provides a useful list as well.

Fertilizing in the Fall

Lawns are less likely to brown if you apply a slow-release fertilizer in early fall. When you shop, buy products with controlled-release nitrogen. The steady release of nitrogen helps grass retain its green color. The amount to apply varies slightly based on turfgrass type. But most individual applications are around 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. In addition, don’t fertilize a dry lawn. Instead, fertilize after rainfall or after you finished watering for the best results.

Weed Control in the Fall

Some weeds persist during this season, even if you treated your lawn in the past spring and summer. The University of Maryland offers a free and encompassing database of lawn weeds. Once identified, quickly apply herbicides on the weeds before the temperatures drop. Otherwise, the weeds will become dormant and remain preserved until spring (though some simply die from the cold).

Fall Lawn Diseases

These are the four fall lawn diseases to watch out for: Necrotic Ring Spot, Fairy Rings, Red Thread, and Rust.

Winter Lawn Care

There isn’t much to do with your lawn in the winter. Grass growth slows, and lawns go dormant. So, take a break. Most agriculture and horticulture departments at universities don’t even publish winter lawn care guides. However, if you’re that inclined to do something for your lawn, there is one task.

Weed Control in the Winter

This is the primary lawn care for this season. Annual cool-season weeds grow and remain vital if the summer heat didn’t kill them. A lawn care guide from North Carolina State University suggests these weeds can be controlled with store-shelf herbicides. They should contain a mixture of 2,4-D, mecoprop, and dicamba.

Winter Lawn Diseases

The only lawn disease to look out for is Fairy Rings—typically caused by thick layers of thatch.

General Lawn Care Tips

Regardless of the season, there are general lawn care guidelines to bear in mind. The following guidelines are largely drawn from the prolific writings of Sandra Mason, an extension lecturer of horticulture at the University of Illinois.

Mowing Tips

A common mistake is mowing your lawn too short. It weakens the foundation. And as mentioned before, lawns cut at higher heights grow deeper roots. Remember the One-Third Rule: never cut your grass more than a 1/3 inch for each mow. If your grass is particularly long—such as 6 inches—then mow 4 inches. Afterwards, wait a couple days and mow it to 2 inches.

With the exception of winter, you should mow your lawn between 2 to 4 times a month. Frequent mowing prevents the build-up of thatch. Also, alternate your mowing pattern, especially when using a riding mower. It can reduce soil compaction in certain areas. When there is a drought, mow your lawn less frequently. When there’s rain, don’t mow wet grass.

Also, leave behind short grass clippings after you mow. They decompose and come a nutrient-rich fertilizer for your lawn. Grass clippings are 75 to 85 percent water, so they integrate quickly into your lawn and won’t become thatch. However, this is the case as long as your lawn is frequently cut and properly fertilized.

Finally, be sure to pick the best type of lawn mower for your property. There are a number of different types of lawn mowers to choose from depending on the size of your lot, how many intricacies your yard has, and whether you have to deal with hills or not.

Lawn Service Pro or DIY Lawn Care

Although this lawn care guide is as lengthy as it already is, the expertise of a lawn service professional may be more helpful and efficient. An experienced lawn service pro identifies lawn diseases more quickly and possibly diagnoses the needs of your lawn with more accuracy.

They are also equipped with more herbicide, pest-control, aeration and other lawn care tools. If you rather not pay for a $100 plus core aerator and avoid all the labor, then hire a lawn service pro. However, according to Mason, the horticulture lecturer, there are two main downsides with lawn care services. One, pros tend to overuse chemicals during lawn care, and two, they are not too flexible with your immediate needs. After all, other customers are waiting on them. Regardless, Mason said choosing either this or DIY lawn care simply depends on your needs.

There are benefits to DIY lawn care. One benefit is greater control of what chemicals are used on your lawn. Some homeowners prefer only organic pest control, while others prefer knowing the chemicals in their grass if their children play on the lawn. Another benefit of DIY lawn care is you can address your grass needs more quickly. If homeowners discover a lawn disease or pest infestation themselves, they may not want to wait for a pro to resolve the issue. But, as Mason said, the choice is yours.

“Carefully weigh all the alternatives when making the choice whether to hire or do it yourself,” Mason said. “One size does not fit all. Know what you have in a lawn, what you want, and what you are willing to do.”