Best Practices for a Happy, Healthy Lawn

My personal lawn philosophy is that a healthy, beautiful lawn does not — and should not — mean a perfect expanse of one single type of grass. Uniform emerald expanses are lovely to look at but they require a continual cascade of chemicals, unsustainable water levels, and frequent maintenance, all of which are antithetical to those of us who want our lawns to be safe play spaces for kids and pets, or our own barefoot adventures. In an effort to have a lawn that meets my expectations aesthetically and environmentally, I've let go of perfection and embraced a lush, rugged mix of micro-clover and fescues with a smattering of wild violets sprinkled throughout.

If you're ready to green up your grass, read my recommendations for lawn-care best practices.


Commit to Going Organic

A non-toxic organic lawn feed is an essential part of seasonal upkeep and will help replenish nutrients to the soil. My go-to brands are Espoma and Jonathan Green. Both are made from sludge-free ingredients, which means they're safe for kids and animals to play on after application and for rainwater runoff. Note that Espoma's includes some chicken manure that will smell unpleasant for about 24 hours after application.


Weed the Old-Fashioned Way

Manually weeding a lawn.
Image by Goldirocks, courtesy iStock.

The verdict is still out on whether RoundUp (the best-known brandname weed killer made from Glyphosate) is actually toxic and cancer-causing to humans and animals. (For those interested, this article from NPR about its current status is quite illuminating.) Regardless, I like to keep any and all potentially noxious chemicals out of the picture when it comes to lawn and garden care. Sprays that can kill weeds can also kill ornamentals and edibles. Furthermore, letting those chemicals leech into ground water and beyond is environmentally problematic. So when it comes to dealing with weeds, the best way is the old-fashioned way: Dig them up by hand and pull them out. And start now. The key is to begin weeding early in the season and stay on top of it.

Aerate

Aerating your lawn — a.k.a. letting it breathe — is one of the best things you can do for it. And doing it is easy. The process releases tension in the lawn's roots after a vigorous season of growing. It also encourages growth and increased water and nutrient absorption. For a smaller lawn, opt for aerating shoes that strap on over your shoes or other manual options, like a rolling spike aerator or core aerator. You can even use a pitchfork and manually work it into the ground around your lawn. For larger lawns, a motorized core or spike aerator will make the job efficient and simple. You can either buy an aerator or rent one from your local hardware store, Home Depot, or Lowes. I highly recommend aerating your lawn once a year, either in the fall or early spring. Doing so will help prevent several common pitfalls, including bare patches and sluggish growth.


The Lowdown on Mowing

Mowing the lawn.
Image by Serhii Krot courtesy iStock.

While how often and how short you mow should vary based on what your region and your personal taste, there are a few simple guidelines to follow. First, be aware that lawn growth speeds up in the summer and slows down in spring and fall so plan to mow weekly during the hottest months and only every 1.5 to 2 weeks the rest of the time. Second, aim to keep your lawn a bit longer in early- to mid-summer to encourage deeper, longer roots which make it more drought-tolerant, but shorter in late summer moving into fall (to help it wind down for dormancy). Lastly, make sure the blade(s) on your lawn mower are sharp. Mowing with a dull blade can rip the grass rather than cut it, causing uneven breakage and stress which can lead to uneven growth and susceptibility to disease.