lawn care in a nutshell
A little knowledge makes it so damn near anything can qualify for the “cheap and lazy” label. Including lawn care. Organic is just a bonus.
The key to the lawn care game is competition. You want to make things favorable
for the grass and unfavorable for the weeds so the grass will choke
out the weeds. Naturally.
There is a fight for sun. If the grass doesn’t shade the weed, the
weed will shade the grass. Sun is food. Food is strength and life.
Shade is weakness, disease and death. Grass will shade the weeds
only if it is tall enough. The shade of tall, dense grass turf will
prevent essential light from reaching most weeds and, will aid in
the destruction of new baby weed seedlings (such as the notorius
MYTH: “If I mow short, it will be longer until I have to mow
again.” False! Wrong! (SLAP! SLAP! SLAP!) Your grass needs grass blades to do photosynthesis
(convert sunshine into sugar) to feed the roots. When you whack the
blades off, the grass has to RACE to make more blades to make sugar.
It then grows amazingly fast. This fast growth uses up a lot of the
grass’s stored sugar, and weakens the plant. It is now vulnerable
to disease and pests! Tall grass is healthier and can use the extra
sugar to make rhizomes (more grass plants) thus thickening the turf.
Have you ever noticed that short grass in the summer is always
riddled with dead brown patches?
If you have a serious weed infestation, consider mowing twice as
frequently as you normally do. The sensitive growing point for
grass is near the soil. The sensitive growing point for most weeds
is near the top of the plant. So when you mow, it’s as if you are
giving your grass a haircut and cutting the heads off of the
Finally, when mowing, be sure to leave the clippings on the lawn. It
adds organic matter and nutrients back into the soil. If you don’t
leave the clippings, your soil will begin to look more like “dirt”
than soil. Soon it will be a form of cement that nothing will grow
in and you will have the world’s most pitiful lawn. Some people are
concerned about “clumping” – that only happens when you mow too
short or when you don’t mow often enough.
Mowing higher gives the following perks:
Check out this pic. Someone started to mow and then I convinced them, as an experiment, to set their mower higher. This pic was taken about six days later as summer is setting in. Can you see the difference?
My lawn care mower of choice? The “Scott’s Classic” manual mower. When
you mow high, it doesn’t take much effort to mow. It is easier with
a manual than a heavy, noisy, stinky gas mower. The Scott’s Classic
is the only manual mower that I know of that can mow three inches. The others top out at
2.5 inches or less. It’s at amazon.com.
A recent series of wacky events led me to try a cordless electric mower. Wow! Exceptionally lightweight and quiet! I definitely prefer it over the manual mower. Despite the higher price, I bought one! I like it that much! There is a bigger one with more whizbangery, if that’s what you’re into.
It is my opinion that when it comes to lawn care, mowing high is, by far, the most important thing.
There has been a lot of discussion about this in our forum. Visit the thread about lawn mowers.
This will force your grass roots to go deep into the soil. Deeper
than most weed roots. As the top few inches of soil becomes bone
dry, the weeds and weed seedlings up there die while the grass still
enjoys moisture from a little deeper.
Shallow, frequent watering encourages “thatch” (the grass propogates
with above-soil runners (like strawberry runners) rather than rhizomes
under the soil – there gets to be so many runners that they weave a
mat that chokes out water and air). Since the roots are in the top
inch or two of soil, a hot day will quickly dry the soil and much of
the grass will brown. Weeds and weed seedlings looooove a daily
watering. It’s just what they need for a good start.
Two methods to tell when it is time to water:
The first method is the best – especially if you have not yet trained your
grass to make deep roots.
Watering on a schedule does not help in the war on weeds.
A tip for lawn care experts: If you have a good feel for how often your lawn
needs watering and it is almost that time and there is a rain shower
– maybe a quarter of an inch – that is the BEST time to water your
lawn and give it that other 3/4 of an inch. Remember, the grass
roots are down deep and most weed roots are near the surface. The
idea is to keep the top three inches of soil as dry as you can for
as long as you can. That quarter of an inch might make it so that
your top three inches is well watered but the lower 9 to 20 inches
is on the edge of being pretty dry. This gives the weeds some
advantage over your grass!
Another thing about lawn care watering: I have discovered that if you are
going to water an inch, it is better to water half an inch, wait 90
minutes and then water another half an inch. Maybe do this once a
month. Sometimes when the soil gets really dry, it will repel
water. This is called “superdeflocculation” (I think Mary Poppins
would be impressed with this word!). If you put a little water in
first, wait, and then put more, the soil is better prepared to take
in more water.
Imagine a dry sponge – so dry it is stiff. And another sponge, slightly
damp – soft and well wrung out. Now pour a cup of water onto each. The
water runs off of the first sponge and all over the table. The water is
soaked into the second sponge, not a drop is lost.
Remember: water has a strange and powerful attraction to itself.
It would much rather stick to itself than disperse through the soil.
Another perk: every time you water, you wash away soil nutrients. So the less you water, the more fertile your soil!
One last point about watering deeply: If your topsoil is only two inches deep,
laying down an inch of water is a bad idea. An inch of water is good for watering
12 inches of soil. Further, an inch of water will effectively carry a lot of soil
nutrients down deeper. So if your soil is only two inches deep, this rinses away
a lot of your soil nutrients! So deep watering should be done only in conjunction
with deep soil.
Grass is a nitrogen pig. Legumes (such as clover and black medic)
can get their nitrogen from the air (remember that the air we
breathe is 80% nitrogen!). So, when you see legumes taking over
your lawn (clover, medic, etc.), you know that your soil is nitrogen
If your lawn needs fertilizer, sprinkle a little Ringer lawn fertilizer in
the spring and fall. Why this brand? Well, there is nothing scary
in the ingredients list; it is a very slow release fertilizer without salts; the company appears to have passions well aligned with my own; and it
If your lawn is in serious need of fertilizer, use a third of what
the package recommends every three weeks in the spring and fall.
Otherwise, use half of what the package recommends at the beginning
of spring and the beginning of fall.
Cool season grasses are semi-dormant in the summer. Fertilizing in
the summer feeds the weeds, not the grass.
If your soil already seems like dirt or cement, add an inch of
compost in the early fall. If you can see wood products in the compost
sprinkle the Ringer fertilizer on top, otherwise, use only half as much
of the Ringer fertilizer. (composts with wood products will feed your lawn for a week or two and then start sucking the nitrogen back out)
I’ve been getting heaps of e-mail asking about “where do I get the Ringer
fertilizer?” I used to get mine at the local home improvement stores. Lately it has been harder to find. But if you need to, try
this. I’ve also talked to people about finding it in thislawn fertilizer discussion thread.
A lot of folks ask about what difference it makes using organic fertilizers in lawn care. Consider a couple of things:
Let’s take a quick look at an earthworm. I’m going to call him … Fernando.
Fernando tunnels through the soil, eating as he goes. He gets to the surface and poops out a lot of dirt and digested organic matter. His travels make it so the grass roots get air and water. He eats organic matter like dead leaves and dead blades of grass. He converts them to materials the plants can take up as nutrients.
In an organic yard, Fernando takes a decaying blade of grass down in his burrow and munches on it “These things are my favorite!” says Fernando. “I need some more!” Back at the surface, Fernando finds some home made compost “What is this? Oh my! This is my new favorite! (munch munch) It’s so good! (munch munch) How can this be crunchy and chewy AT THE SAME TIME! Oof, I’m so full. I wanna have sex and have lots of babies so they can enjoy the crunchy chewy stuff.“
In a yard that uses chemical fertilizers, Fernando says “AAAIIIIIIIIEEEEEEE!!!! THE PAIN! THE HORRIBLE, HIDEOUS PAIN! I NEED TO GET AWAY FROM IT, BUT IT IS EVERYWHERE! ACK! ACK! HEEEEEELP MEEEEEEE! URK!“
(this dramatization brought to you by … compost! It’s yummy!)
So I’m making a strong recommendation to not use chemical fertilizers. For lawn care or for anything.
Here is possibly the world’s very best lawn fertilizer. I get tons of this stuff for free! Really! Tons! Free! Moldy hay:
Dandelions love a pH of about 7.5. Grass loves a pH of about 6.5.
So if your pH is 7.5 or higher, your grass will probably never beat
out the dandelion. Lower the pH to 6.5 and your grass has the
Be sure to have your pH tested professionally. The kits that you
can buy in the store will often give you the wrong information. I
once spent $18 on a pH meter that told me that my lawn pH was 6.0
when it was really 7.8. So I should have added gardeners sulfur,
but instead I added lime!
Call your local extension office. My local extension office will
test pH for free. I’ve heard of some that charge ten bucks.
If you’re going to buy a pH tester, be prepared to spend around $85 for
the tester and the calibration solutions. A long time ago I bought the
Oakton pHTestr 2 plus 4.0 and 7.0 solutions. I looked it up and found it here. I think most
folks will wanna keep their $85 and just pack some soil samples to
the local extension office.
I wrote more on pH here.
A little side note: a dusting of lime on the soil surface has been shown, in most cases, to nearly double earthworm reproduction.
My soil was only half an inch deep. Even weeds had a tough time
growing. Below my half inch of soil was huge river rocks seperated
by smaller rocks, sperated by sand. It bore no resemblance to soil.
I added four inches of topsoil. This was done with two dumptruck
loads at $100 a pop. It covered all of the weeds with enough
soil that they could not work through – I could start from scratch
with my grass seed of choice!
18 inches or more soil would be optimal. I have a friend that has
soil this deep. While everyone else waters a dozen times or more
over the summer, she waters just once or twice. She uses no
fertilizer or pesticides. She has thick, dark green, weed-free
grass which requires frequent mowing. Her lawn is about as
“no-brainer lawn care” as you could get.
This is a good time to talk about soil quality too. There is a big
difference between dirt and soil. Soil is rich in microbial life
and has a lot of organic matter in it. Dirt comes in many forms and
it’s a challenge to get anything to grow in it. If you are getting
“topsoil” delivered to your house, be prepared for it to bear more
resemblance to “dirt”. You may want to have compost also delivered
to your house so that you can mix the two and have the beginnings
for “soil”. One part compost to two parts dirt is a good mix for lawn care.
The above lawn care advice will eliminate 95% to 99% of your weed problem.
But there are some weeds that are almost impossible to get rid of,
no matter what. Some of these are even resistant to the chemical
army. The two to be careful of in my area are BINDWEED (looks like
white or pink morning glory) and CANADIAN THISTLE. These two have
HUGE root systems that might go as deep as thirty feet into the
soil. They spread with rhizomes, just like your grass. The above
techniques will discourage them enough to go to your neigbor’s
instead. They don’t like tall grass or mowing. They might try to
pop up on fences or other lawn borders. Fifty outcroppings could
all be part of the same plant, so you really have to get as much of
them as you can. The key is to remove the green plant that provides
it with sugar. It needs sun and sugar to support that massive root
system. Repeated digging will weaken it to the point that bugs and
bacteria can take over.
I once moved to a house that was infested with both
bindweed and thistle. Imagine my yard as a big rectangle. I
started pulling weeds on the left and stopped about ten percent of
the way across. A few days later, I started at the left again and
picked out anything that cropped up in the last few days and then
made a little progresss into the rest of the rectangle. Each brief
weeding trip gets me another 5% of new territory. The important
thing is to always weed the area you already weeded first.
If I didn’t do it this way, then the weed would recover in the first
section while I was attacking another section.
DANDELIONS are a sign of alkaline soil. Refer to the pH stuff
above. They can also indicate compacted or poor soil. The above methods will prevent dandelions from propogating.
Since dandelions live about five years, the mature dandelions will
struggle with the tall, thick turf and die off in two to three
years. I now think that a few dandelions poking up once in a while
are kinda nice and I leave them alone.
BLACK MEDIC is a sign of low nitrogen soil. Refer to fertilizing
above. The above methods will keep black medic in check. You will
occassionally see a little once in a while, but it is kinda pretty
when it isn’t taking over your lawn. This stuff is sometimes called
“yellow clover”. When it’s taking over, it will choke out grass and
make flat mats about a foot in diameter. I found a litte in my current
lawn and it was a single tiny strand with little yellow flowers.
CLOVER is a sign of low nitrogen soil. Refer to fertilizing
above. White and pink clover is often desired in a lawn. It
contributes nitrogen to the soil and doesn’t compete strongly with
the grass. Yellow clover is actually “black medic” (see above).
For more on controlling clover, see “getting rid of clover” in our lawn care forum.
KNAPWEED tries to poison plants around it with niacin. A little
water washes the niacin away and the plants around it can have a
fighting chance. Especially if mowing is involved. Mow a little
more frequently in late june and early july to wipe out knapweed.
Now that you aren’t dumping toxic gick on your lawn, you can enhance it with
some other growth.
CROCUSES: These flowers pop up in the spring while the grass is still dormant.
They’re done blooming long before the first mow. These are bulbs that are planted
in the fall. Go ahead and plant a few dozen right in the middle of your lawn.
To buy some bulbs,
ROMAN CHAMOMILE: They look like little daisies. When you mow, it smells like
To buy some seed,
YARROW: This herb makes your grass extra spongy. It feels really cool to walk on
with bare feet.
To buy some seed,
For more about fun stuff to grow, check our lawn care forum for this thread.
With these methods you will mow less, water less, never buy pesticides
and have the best looking lawn on your block.
A little lawn care side trip: Some entertaining perspective on why you should care about how you care for your lawn.
Before my master gardener training I thought that herbicide use had a time and place.
The training covered not only the time and place, but also covered the details of
toxicity. 2-4D is considered one of the safest herbicides. A quantity of 2-4D that would
be about the same as a roll of life savers rubbed on the skin of four kindergarten children
would kill two of them. This is not getting it in their mouth, but just rubbed on their skin.
My reading on this subject has exposed far too many nightmares than I care to share here.
My closing opinion is that I can see no time and no place to ever use herbicides. Especially
not for anything as frivolous as lawn care. I would rather have weeds.
I actively participate in these permaculture forums. And there is a whole forum dedicated to nothing but doing lawn care the way I advocate. Feel free to pop over and ask questions any time.
If you are thinking about doing this lawn care thing as a bidness, then I would like to point you toward my buddy Patrick’s lawn care business stuff. He has been helping folks make a go at lawn care income for damn near ten years. He provides all sorts of bean counting, newsletters, advertising and … the center showpiece, lawn care software. As an added bonus, for every 100 people that click on this stuff, Patrick has agreed to give me pie. You want me to have to have pie don’t you?
I am compiling a list of lawn care providers that fully subscribe to my philosophies and techniques! Please visit my lawn care providers page.
What variety of grass should I plant?
I recommend “tall fescue”. Be sure to check the label and make sure it is pure tall fescue. Some
outfits that sell seed mix in some annual ryegrass and call it “nursury grass – it will care for the
tall fescue which takes longer to germinate.” I don’t agree with that. Note that tall fescue seed is
significantly more expensive than annual ryegrass …
Tall fescue makes deeeeeep roots and is one of the most drought tolerant species. Combining this
species of grass with the infrequent watering makes it one of the best lawn care species for fighting weeds. It also
means you can have a lovely lawn using less water.
Tall fescue is one of the most durable grasses. It stands up well to the abuse of football games
and pets. It will also stand proud at three inches, four inches and five inches! Kentucky Bluegrass starts
to waver at three inches.
Tall fescue does well in shade and sun!
Downsides of tall fescue:
It is slow to germinate. It could be two weeks until you see the baby grasses. In the meantime, weed
seeds have probably germinated.
Some people think it is not the prettiest type of grass. The fine fescues (very different from tall fescue) have
thin blades and the tall fescues have broad blades. I have to admit that a lawn with the fine blades does
look better – as long as nobody ever walks on it. But who wants grass that you’re not allowed to walk on?
Some people think that tall fescue doesn’t feel as good under bare feet. This is true. Tall fescue is a stiffer grass.
The grasses that feel better are the ones that won’t compete with weeds as well. Besides, I think most folks won’t
notice the difference in feel between tall fescue and Kentucky Bluegrass.
Note that Tall Fescue is a cool season grass (for areas that get a frost). I’m not very familiar with warm season grasses
to make a recommendation.
You can get some tall fescue seed here.
What’s an extension office?
Nearly every county in the United States has a county extension office. The word “extension” means that the office
is an extension of the the state agricultural school. This office is staffed by people who are paid to answer questions
about plant life in the county (including lawns). If people don’t call, they could lose their jobs! Call! Ask
lots of questions! Visit! Take weed samples to them for identification! Bugs too!
Sometimes the phones are manned by volunteers. Folks that love gardening and horticulture so much, that they are itching
to share their lawn care expertise with you. Many of these folks have completed the master gardener training offered by the
If nothing else, a visit to the office can be worthwhile because they have loads of brochures about issues in your area.
To find them, open your phone book to “the blue pages” (government listings) under “County Government” and look for
“Extension Office”, “Extension Agent” or “County Extension”.
I think I have grubs. What do I do?
Grubs are the larvae of certain species of beetles. Grubs think grass roots are yummy. If you dig up dead patches of grass
you just might see a bunch of grubs munching away.
This is where birds are your friends. Birds think grubs are yummy.
I have never had to personally deal with grubs. And I have yet to encounter an organic grower that has had to deal with them.
But I have had many people write to me and ask how to deal with grubs organically. Nearly all of them have mentioned “Last year
I sprayed toxic goo to get rid of the grubs and now they’re back”. While I did not see what happened, my guess is that birds
and other natural grub control ate the dead grubs and died. No more natural grub control.
So the trick is to kill the grubs, but don’t harm anything that eats grubs. The answer is to bring in more grub predators.
Having done a little reading on this topic, “Milky Spore” (Bacillus popilliae) and/or predatory nematodes appear to be the organic control. “Milky Spore” is a naturally occuring bacteria that makes the grubs puke their guts out, but it doesn’t seem to bother anything else. So if a bird eats a dead grub, the bird will be fat and happy. Predatory nematodes (also called “beneficial nematodes”) are like micro worms that crawl through the soil and eat a variety of different organisms, including grubs.
Here it is for sale:
My soil is more like dirt. How do I improve it?
If you have an inch of “dirt” and everything under that is big rocks or rock-hard clay, improving your “dirt” isn’t
going to make much difference. You are probably going to need to import some top soil.
If you have the bucks, you can have a foot and a half of topsoil dropped on your existing lawn and then plant new
grass seed and start over. Soil on top of dirt ain’t bad.
If you have patience and think that your dirt can be renovated into soil, you can:
Take a post hole digger and dig a hole about two feet deep. Re-fill the hole with 50% compost and 50% of what
you took out of the hole. Stir a little grass seed into the top quarter inch of soil.
I think that by doing this, you will create a wonderful home for worms and a great place for deeeeeep grass roots.
Over time, the roots and the worms will convert the neighboring dirt into soil.
If anybody tries this, I hope you’ll write me and tell me how it turned out.
How do I get rid of mushrooms?
People that are trying to grow mushrooms will provide the mushrooms with rotting sawdust or rotting logs. Generous
moisture and a lack of direct sunlight can help too.
In the horticultural world “rot” almost always mean “composting”. To properly compost, you need a certain mixture
of carbon heavy organic matter (wood, dried leaves, straw, etc.) and nitrogen heavy organic matter (manure,
grass clippings, table scraps, weeds, etc.). If you get just the right mix, you get hot composting happening. Too much
nitrogen and it gets a little stinky. Too much carbon and the composting takes a very long time.
To get rid of mushrooms, you just need to get your lawn to outcompete them. Grass loves a nitrogen rich soil. Mushrooms love
a carbon rich soil. Lawn fertilizer has heaps of nitrogen and hardly any carbon. Time to fertilize! Twenty bucks and
ten minutes of time will do wonders for your lawn care strategy.
Here’s something that can be a kick: take a close look at your mushrooms. If there are a bunch of them, are they growing in a
circle? If so, this is called “fairy ring”. The ring will grow larger and larger as the spores from the current mushrooms land
just outside of the ring.
Consider for a moment that if you have a lot of mushrooms in your lawn, this is most likely a sign that you have really excellent soil! Further, the mushrooms you see are the fruiting bodies of a much bigger fungus organism under the soil. Most fungus organisms help your grass be healthier – so I’m usually glad to see a few mushrooms in my lawn now and then. The mushrooms are usually gone as soon as things dry out a bit.
For more on getting rid of mushrooms, see “mushrooms on lawn” in our lawn care forum.
How do I deal with burn spots in my lawn from my dog?
Dog poop and dog pee are both high in nitrogen. But if you give your lawn too much nitrogen,
you’ll kill it. Not the whole lawn. Just the spot with too much nitrogen. Usually there will be a load
of dog poop and the grass under it will be dead. And the grass immediately around it will be greener,
taller, thicker and healthier than all the rest of the lawn. So the stuff immediately under the crap is
“too much” and the stuff surrounding the crap is “optimal”. Same thing for pee only there won’t be a pile of
poop in the middle.
This solution is reserved for the Zen Masters of the school of the cheap and lazy lawn care.
For dog pee, the grass is tall enough that it
hides the dead spot. Rain and irrigation will eventually rinse enough nitrogen out that they grass will grow
back into that spot.
I leave the poop to the worms and the microbials in the soil. Birds will also work it
over a bit (looking for the worms and other bugs attracted by it). How quickly the poop
disappears on its own shows how healthy your lawn is. Just be careful not to step on the fresh stuff.
An added benefit is that you can remain on great terms with your neighbors.
If your spousal unit says “go clean up that dog crap in the yard!” You can now say “I looked it up on the internet
and it said the best solution was to leave it!”
Sprinkle a little sawdust on the spot and give the spot a little attention from your hose. The sawdust will hide the poop
and it will counter the excess nitrogen. Combining with the nitrogen, it will, in time, turn into compost – enriching the soil.
The sawdust will also reduce any odor by about 95%. The water will wet the sawdust and dilute the nitrogen source a bit,
thus helping the beginning of the composting process.
Remove the poop, dig an inch into the soil and mix sawdust into the soil. This is the same as solution 2, but the sawdust
will be more effective this way.
Anal Retentive Solution
Remove the poop and an inch of affected soil. Replace with compost and some grass seed.
A lot of people do this. I think it’s pretty dumb.
I think that removing the dog poop and watering the area is more effective than this. The water will dilute the excess
nitrogen in the soil. The surrounding grass will spread into the area using grass rhizomes. There is no need for seed.
If you put seed here, you will be saddling yourself with the responsibility of watering it every day for two weeks. Reading
the rest of this lawn care essay will tell you that that’s a great way to get weeds. Plus, it’s work!
Now let’s look at the compost: compost is wonderful, magical stuff. But in this case, you’ve just added nitrogen to an
excess nitrogen problem. Further, seeds don’t germinate well in a high nitrogen medium like compost. The germinate better
in something like pH adjusted peat moss. Or plain topsoil. The plants like nitrogen after they’ve gotten past the
Some people have written to me asking about what to do about their dogs pee “burning” their lawn. They explain that
female dogs have ultra acidic pee and it kills whatever it touches. I think the treatement is still going to be the same.
Leave it and let the tall grass hide it. If it still bothers you, use a little sawdust and/or water.
My grass is all thin and dead-ish, what is your advice on overseeding?
I mean it. Put overseeding out of your mind. Your “dirt” has such terrible issues that adult grass is struggling to survive and now you want to put babies there?
I am, right now, trying really hard to think of one case where overseeding will do any good for any lawn care situation …. nope – can’t think of a single case. Seeding bare patches that are are at least a foot or two wide makes sense – but that’s not “overseeding” (tossing seed onto an existing patch of grass).
Improve your soil and your existing grass will thrive. Then there is no need for seed.
Please take a look at this thread of discussion I’ve been in on overseeding in our lawn care forum.
Still not convinced? Here is a page called organic lawn care tips that I like.
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