Updated on 09.17.14

The Lawn Care Dilemma

Trent Hamm

I had been considering writing a post about lawn care for a while now, but I had decided to wait until early spring to face the topic. That is, until a reader wrote to me with the following question:

I am curious about your opinion concerning lawn care. The weather in Indiana was a killer and my lawn suffered pretty bad. Not bad enough that I have to redo the whole thing, but there are lots of dead patches. As I was mowing my lawn this afternoon and muttering about the dead grass I wondered what you would do in this situation. How much time and money are you planning on putting into your grass? While I am not interested in having the best grass in the neighborhood, I do want it to be presentable. Thanks for your time.

My Personal Philosophy on Lawn Care

First, ask yourself: how important is a gorgeous lawn to you? Some people may value it greatly; others might not care at all. Still others may have some rules set by their homeowners’ association (which should overrule anything I write here). The big question you need to answer is how important your lawn is in your life. Reading the above question makes me think that we’re in the same boat – we want a decent yard, but it doesn’t need to be gorgeous. My top priority, personally, is to have enough soft, green grass that my son can run around barefoot on it like I used to do in the summer (and still do, on occasion).

If you don’t really care about your lawn, most of this stuff won’t even apply to you. Just keep it mowed and that’ll be good enough. If it gets too bad, hire someone to do a one-time treatment. That will take care of many people’s yard needs.

Beyond that, the first thing I recommend is spending a weekend preparing your lawn in the early spring. This is something that my parents used to do in the front yard every single year.

Step 1: Dethatch it

I like doing it manually, myself. Just go to a hardware store and buy a dethatching rake, then go around and dethatch the yard. Thatch is that dead organic stuff that most yards have lower than the level of the grass, but higher than the dirt – you’ll see it if you spread the grass apart and see what looks like dead grass underneath. A dethatching rake is designed to pull that thatch up and expose the dirt. This gives the grass roots plenty of room to grow and form new blades.

The best way to dethatch is to do it in a group of two or three people, where one person runs the rake (the hardest manual labor part) and another person gathers up the thatch and disposes of it. Thatch makes for perfect stuff for a compost bin, by the way – another topic I’ll cover in the future.

Step 2: Fertilize it

Basically, just grab a bag of fertilizer and spread it on your grass – you can use a spreader if you wish. Finely-sifted compost will work okay, but it’s often not rich enough in nitrogen to make for great grass fertilizer, so you end up having to use quite a lot of it to get a good effect. Either way, once you’ve spread the fertilizer, rake it in. I fertilize about three times a year.

Step 3: Seed it

I usually seed the whole yard pretty thoroughly and especially in spots that are known to have weak grass.

I usually then water it with a sprinkler after seeding.

The whole process takes about a weekend for most yards, but when you’re done, the grass will look spectacular.

Step 4: Sprinkle the yard with water

I don’t just have one that turns on at a certain time every day. I keep track of rain, and if it hasn’t rained (or I haven’t sprinkled) in three days, I’ll run the hose into the yard and attach the sprinkler to it. I move it about every fifteen minutes until the yard is covered (it’s a good thing to do right after a mowing, actually, when you’re doing other trimming).

Also, I use a mower that automatically mulches the grass, then I just leave it on the yard. It’s not noticeable and the clippings naturally improve the yard’s health. This is much more effective in early spring than in late summer, though, as by late summer usually a bit of thatch has built up.

I haven’t started this routine at my own home yet as we’ve lived there just about a month and a half, but this is the routine that I’m following and I’ve seen others use to great success. I consider it to be pretty inexpensive while also creating a nice lawn (and the thatch will fill up a big composter – in fact, I’m pretty sure our current composter will be filled two or three times with the thatch). This means that the grass is recycled and can save some money later on on garden fertilizer.

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  1. I enjoy yard work, so for me it’s a treat, heh.

  2. FIRE Finance says:

    Thanks for the tips. Will try and see how it works out.
    FIRE Finance

  3. Justin says:

    You may have mentioned this before, Trent, but so far I’m a fan of reel mowers. I just bought a Scotts Classic 20″ for our 3/4-acre yard, and we’re loving it. There’s an appeal that almost can’t be expressed in words.

    Lawn work is no longer isolated: it’s so quiet, I can carry on a conversation with my wife across the yard. The other day, while mowing, we smelled honeysuckle that was growing on our back fence. Had we been using a traditional gas-powered mower, we would have missed out on “together time” and spent the afternoon in gas fumes instead of honeysuckle aromas.

    If these sound like hippy ideals, they certainly are. But on a practical note: this mower cost $110 from Amazon (with free shipping), uses no gas or oil, only requires sharpening once a season, can be repaired/maintained at home without a trip to a repair shop, and is as quiet as a bicycle.

    On the downside, it has trouble with long grass (so returning from vacation might require a borrowed gas mower), and chokes easily on tiny twigs (so a pre-mowing lawn preening is necessary). But my fears about effectiveness and ease of operation have been proven entirely wrong. It’s a great method of mowing.

  4. RT says:

    You’ll want to be careful of fertilizing and seeding at the same time. Fertilizer is often too strong for seed and/or newly emerged seedlings. It will burn it and thus reduce the effectiveness of seeding.

    If you are seeding or overseeding your lawn, you’ll want to use a fertilizer that’s made for seeding. You will also want to water your lawn lightly everyday (unless it rains) for the 3-4 weeks it is establishing. You’ll probably also want to wait until the high temp of the day is be 85 degrees or you’ll want to get a seed that is resistant to heat.

    Indiana summer this year was bad. However, just because its brown doesn’t mean its dead. Usually it will go into a hibernation until it rains. I’d water my lawn maybe twice a week, and it would always come back soft and green for 2-3 days.

    Shout out to my fellow Hoosier! =)

  5. pam says:

    I also use the mulching lawn mower to mulch leaves in the fall. Up here in the North, the leaves will be starting to fall in 2 or 3 weeks. :(

  6. Debora says:

    Actually, the best time to seed a lawn is in the fall, not the spring.

  7. Lisa says:

    I live in scenic Michigan, where the soil has a lot of clay in it. I am a firm believer of getting the lawn aerated in the fall. Aeration lets water and air and nutrients get way down into the roots of the grass.

    As a new homeowner, I have been looking for organic/ chemical free alternatives to feeding my lawn this fall. Sco**’s Turfbuilder and the like sure does green up the lawn, but man…the ingredient lists are scary!

  8. NCReader says:

    It depends on the area of the country you live in and the type of grass you’re growing. Cool season grasses are sown in the fall. The fall fertilization is the most imporatant fertilization for cool season grasses. Warm season grasses generally go dormant in the winter. They’re generally sown and fertilized in the spring.

  9. Mike says:

    I end up spending just a little bit more time than is necessary to keep the spouse happy.

  10. Debbie says:

    Look into native plants; they require very little care. I’m in central Texas. One native plant in my area is buffalo grass, one variety of which is so short that it never needs mowing (though it might need weeding).

    Another idea is to replace some or all of your lawn with perennials. These need much less care than grass. Deciduous shade trees near the house block sun in the summer and let it through in the winter; evergreen shrubs hide the fences year round. Flowers attract butterflies and other interesting insects, and that’s fun for kids.

    Turning some of your backyard into a food garden will also reduce the amount of lawn you need to maintain. And some food plants look good enough to go in the front yard (rosemary is a great evergreen shrub in my area).

  11. Bobby says:


    You do a great job of including disclaimers when writing about personal finance. You should do the same for other topics as well. Some types of grass should NOT be dethatched, St. Augustine being one.

    You may want to amend this posting to include some cautions to investigate what your lawn requires.

  12. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Bobby’s correct – don’t dethatch if you don’t see any thatch or if you know what kind of grass you have and it’s not recommended for that type of grass. If you know what kind of grass you have (and a lot of people don’t, so don’t sweat it if you don’t), follow the instructions for that type.

  13. Chris says:

    Amen on the reel mower. As Justin mentioned above, reel mowers don’t do so well when the grass gets long, which is why I still have a gas-powered mower around. But being able to mow the lawn without earplugs and not having exhaust fumes in my face is priceless. I can now look after my young boys playing in the yard while I mow if I want. The cut isn’t as even as with a regular rotary mower, but it’s a small price to pay. Supposedly reel mowers are better for the grass too, as they cut the blades instead of tearing them.

  14. laura k says:

    Get some rain barrels to catch whatever rain you do get, then dunk a watering can and use that water on the plants. It’s probably not a great solution for watering an entire lawn (unless you had a bunch of barrels with drip hoses connected to them maybe).

    I also conserve whatever other water I can, for example, from cooking pasta – put the strainer in a dishpan, let the water cool, then use the water on indoor or outdoor plants. (One caveat: water used for cooking may start to stink after a day or so, so use it quickly!) I only have non-edible plants, so I don’t know how/whether this would affect the taste of plants grown to eat (herbs, veggies, etc.).

  15. Elizabeth says:

    A tip from the Texas Ag Extension Service:

    Most lawns receive twice as much water as they require for a healthy appearance. The key to watering lawns is to apply the water infrequently, yet thoroughly. This creates a deep, well-rooted lawn that efficiently uses water stored in the soil.

    To know when to water the lawn, simply observe the grass. Wilting and discoloration are signs of water stress. At the first sign of wilting, you have 24 to 48 hours to water before serious injury occurs. Apply 1 inch of water to the lawn as rapidly as possible without runoff.

    Watering only when needed and watering thoroughly produces a deep-rooted lawn which is more water efficient and drought enduring.

  16. Sid says:

    How much do you think it would be to cover the whole yard in Astroturf?

  17. Chad says:

    Mowing the lawn can be therapeutic for me some weekends. It’s guaranteed alone time where I can put together a few thoughts for the upcoming week. As for the cost of maintaining my lawn, I have Bahia grass, which doesn’t need watering (especially with the Florida rains), so my only expenses are the mower (which was paid for a long time ago) and the gas (which is nothing for a lawn mower).

  18. David Szpunar says:

    Good tips in the article and comments, thanks! My wife and I will be moving into a house we built in just a few weeks and they’re going to sod the front and sides, and seed the back. I’m looking forward to the yardwork next year! (The fact that I’m excited is probably due to it being a few years since I did my parents lawn, this one will be mine, and it’s a lot smaller!)

    Fortunately, since there’s no lawn yet, no problems for us with this year being dry, even though we’re in Indiana like the person in the post.

  19. Nicki says:

    You might want to mow it long – about 3 inches. I read recently (can’t find the article otherwise would have provided the link) that this is what golf course gardeners do. If I remember correctly, the shorter you cut the grass, the quicker it grows but if you cut it longer, it grows slowly and stays green. It is also mainly watered by the dew. As a final bonus, the longer grass kills off weeds (but I can’t remember why). I am a lazy gardener who’s motto has always been that a happy plant is a neglected plant – I was thrilled to read this article as this is pretty much what I have always done with my lawn and it is lush, velvety and emerald green (and now I know why).

  20. brent says:

    In Austalia, lawn care is easy.

    You just go out one night in September or October and say goodbye to it. Then suffer through the global-warming induced ‘drought’, and hope to buggery that it rains the following May.


  21. Kim Siever says:

    Be careful with watering right after mowing. It could lead to fungus and disease. Mowing grass injures the blades. Ideally, they should heal over before watering.

  22. haus says:

    I want to second the “cut tall” recommendation by Nicki. Grass height is related to root depth – the shorter you cut it, the less root the grass grows and the more susceptible it is to disease. It also opens up the soil so that weed seeds get more light and air. So cut tall, and your lawn will be greener, healthier, and less weedy.

    We cut our lawn tall, which sometimes means cutting more often, but we only weed/feed once in the fall and have had great results. We live in Michigan where rain is usually plentiful, so we don’t water. We don’t even own a sprinkler. If the lawn gets a little brown in July, it bounces back in August/September.

  23. vh says:

    Water must be reasonably priced where you live. Here in the desert Southwest, if you pour treated city water on the ground, you’re gunna pay for it through the petootie! Even with 100 xeriscapic gardens front & back, my water bills are often as high or higher than my power bills…which, as you can imagine, after this summer’s almost thirty 110-degree days are pretty bracing.

    Is there no low-maintenance, low-water, low-energy-consuming landscaping available in the Midwest? With the climate warming and water growing increasingly scarce in regons where once it was plentiful, maybe now is the time to look into alternatives to lawns.

  24. vh says:

    hee hee! That’s 100 percent xeriscapic, not 100 gardens! Eek!

  25. Eric says:

    I have fought this all summer with the drought we’ve had in the south east. My water bill went up about $100 and still most of my flowers died. I almost would have rather saved that money and bought more plants after the heat let up.

  26. Stacy says:

    I own a house in Arizona (where it is 112 degrees today) and am a single female. The amount of time, energy, maintenance, and water that goes into keeping a lawn not only looking good but alive is WAY more than I am willing to spend. I don’t have a husband to pawn the lawn duties off on and I don’t want to pay for landscapers every month. I live in a desert, how can the people here people expect to have natural grass without a lot of time and effort in the HOT SUN!? A lot of water can be saved if we would stop trying to maintain green grass in a desert! With that being said, I don’t like the look of all rock yards either. Taking all of this into consideration, I recently decided to go with plastic grass.

    Now, this is much different than the astro-turf of the 80’s, this product really looks like grass! It was a little more expensive on the front end ($8-9 per square foot), but it saves me so much time and frustration I think it was well worth it.

    When I had real grass, I would look out the window and see all of the things that needed to be done (mowing, weeding, trimming the edges, etc.) and it never really looked that great anyway since it only half alive and I only had weekends for yardwork. Now, when I look outside at my fake grass, it is green and perfect and there is nothing that needs to be done. Instead of my backyard being a source of stress, it is now a source of happiness, and well worth the extra few dollars.

  27. vh says:

    @Stacy– Plastic grass…gosh! It must have cost a ton of dollahs. How does it hold up in the sun? I’d love to hear how well you like it in a year or two.

    I also am not nuts about gravel, especially the type they dye weird colors & the white stuff. Did you know it’s possible to desert-landscape with NOTHING? That’s right: no junk on the ground at all. A friend did this, and it is killer gorgeous. Just landscape with plenty of native plants and use pre-emergent to keep the neighbors’ grass from seeding your yard.

    If you have a dog, that’s none too practical in the backyard, unless you enjoy scrubbing tracked-in mud off the floor. Crushed granite, however, is great: 3/4-minus in a sort of sand color packs down and looks like the desert floor, but it doesn’t turn to mud in the rain. Uhm…in the unlikely event that it ever rains again….

  28. Dana says:

    How do you know what kind of grass you have? I would love to throw some seed on it but don’t have any idea what it is?? Sorry…I’m a single Mom. Need to learn these things. HELP!!!!

  29. M.E. says:

    Nice article and fun reading all the comments!
    I learned a little too!
    Only problem I have are bare spots here and there every year, not sure why?? I have a lot of shade. Live in the midwest.

  30. Janet says:

    Just want to tell you I read this entire article, even the comments. What a great site and fun to read. As for the grass growing, no one mentioned moss. Too, perhaps you could do some research as to what kind of grass grows in different climates. Seems many don’t know for sure. We have so many pine trees due to living in the great Northwest that nothing will grow anyway. Our grass usually looks like it has an illness of some sort. Does anyone know of a fertilizer which can be used where there is a dog in the yard?

    Thank you for this column….to include all of the contributors with their blogs. Now to get George to read this………..which is like pulling teeth.

  31. Bigg Poppa P says:

    This site is GREAT!!! Alot of info…I like reading the comments section the best. We have St. Augustine grass and it is thick and lush. We live in the FL Panhandle and cut it high. Our yard lets us exercise about twice a week!!!

  32. Marion says:

    Hi Janet,
    I just found this article on the (wonderful) Simple Dollar and your question. This year I tried out a new organic fertilizer called Cockadoodledoo. It is chicken manure and made by http://www.purebarnyard.com/cockadoodledoo/application.asp
    It is one week later and just love it. The grass is lush and green.
    Hope this helps.

  33. Mule Skinner says:

    I don’t put too much effort and money into the lawn anyway, but this summer it will be less. My excuse is the poor economy. Any other excuse would have worked equally well.

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