I figure now that the mowing season has gotten underway, it’s a good time for a post on saving money while still maintaining a great-looking lawn. The short answer is to do all the work yourself. It will still cost you some money up front to get all the supplies you need, but you can use them from year to year. Based on what I’ve seen, hiring out the results gets lower quality work at a higher price. Nobody cares as much about your lawn as you do, and it’ll show in the results. I’ll give you everything you need to know to have a great looking lawn, and not pay anyone else your hard earned money to do it for you.
A few of my neighbors pay to have their lawns taken care of, and I’ve seen some of the people working on their lawns. They just don’t care. I’ve seen a couple of the companies aerating lawns, and one of my neighbors borrowed the aerator I rented to redo it afterwards because it was so poorly done. So here’s your complete guide to maintaining your own lawn, and actually making it look good, all in one article.
Believe it or not, it all starts with fertilizing. You should fertilize your lawn four times a year. Once early in spring (usually right after you mow the first or second time) with a crabgrass preventer, once in mid spring (typically early to mid May, but at least 4 weeks after your first feeding) with a weed killer, again when the summer heat starts to disappear, and finally in late fall to get your lawn ready to take off next spring.
I use a drop spreader so I can accurately measure how much fertilizer is put down. I prefer to use Scotts brand of products, and have seen good results from them. I buy the biggest bag, which costs more up front, but I put any remaining into a 5 gallon sealed bucket with the label cut so I know what type of fertilizer is in there and what the instructions are. Just duct tape it to the bucket, and reuse the fertilizer next year.
Other than fertilizing the four times per year, you might need to spray for weeds a few times. In mid spring, if you see just a few weeds, get a big spray container of weed killer you can spray directly to the weeds. I have had decent luck with the Spectracide brand, which isn’t quite as expensive as Ortho. It just takes a few weeks to kill the weeds, but it works. I do use Ortho Weed B Gone Chickweed Clover killer for the non broadleaf weeds though. In my lawn, I spot treat the broadleaf weeds, since the fertilizer seems to keep them at bay, and spray the entire lawn with the Ortho Weed B Gone in mid spring to get rid of the clover that seems to want to grow in my lawn. This combination seems to work for my lawn, but you might need to test it out and see how it works on yours.
The cheapest thing you can do to make your lawn look good is to make sure you’re mowing at the right times and right heights. Most grasses should be kept at 2.5 to 3 inches tall. Grasses stay healthier if they are taller, so I lean toward the 3 inches height. Just put your mower on a flat surface and measure from the mowing deck to the ground. Adjust that to be just under or right at 3 inches, and you should be fine for the height. Keep it that way all year, until your last mowing. Drop it down to about 2 inches for your final mowing of the year.
As far as how often you should mow, it depends on your lawn. You should always try to cut 1/3 of the grass blade when you mow, and ideally you’ll mulch it so the grass gets the nutrients. No matter what you hear, mulching all the time will not cause thatch build up. Mulching breaks the blades into tiny pieces that decompose relatively quickly. Ok, back to timing. In the spring, you’ll probably need to mow every 3-4 days. But when summer comes, you can cut back to around once every week or two, depending on how much rain you get. In the fall, you’ll probably be back to mowing once a week or so.
As far as watering your lawn goes, just make sure you get at least 1 inch of water a week. Your lawn can handle less for a short time, but you’ll probably need to water it during some of the dry summer months. Just get a $3 rain gauge that you can stick in your lawn, and put it in the middle of the range of your sprinkler to see how much water it takes to get to one inch. Water your lawn that much once a week during the dry times, and don’t worry about it the rest of the time.
If you have bad spots in your lawn, or the summer heat kills some areas (which it probably will to an extent), plant grass seed right after the summer heat dies down (temps start hovering around 80 or below for the highs). I also recommend overseeding almost every year, just to maintain the grass. Plant grass seed, and fertilize for the third time on the year. Make sure you water your new seeds every day for two weeks. You don’t need to give much water; just enough to keep the seeds wet. After two weeks, you should start to see grass growing, and you can cut your watering back to once every two days for a couple more weeks. Once you fertilize one last time for the winter, the grass should start growing thick next spring, and look good by the end of May.
Once every 2-3 years, you should rent a lawn aerator and aerate your lawn. I’ve done it the past three years on my lawn, because it’s a new lawn. It doesn’t hurt to do it more often. I’ve coordinated with my neighbors, and it can be really cheap that way. Aerate right before you overseed/fill in bare spots, and your seeds will have the perfect home.
Sharpen your blade at the beginning of each mowing season, and you should be all set. Just buy a gigantic hand file to do the filing. You don’t need anything fancier than that. The blades are soft, so they are easy to sharpen. If you have a push mower, turn the mower on it’s side (with the air filter side up) and stick a scrap piece of 2X4 under the blade so you can loosen the bolt. I just hold the blade up against my workbench with a couple clamps and one hand while I file down the blade with the other. I’ve used the same blade the past 7 years, and might finally have to replace it next year (we’ll see if that happens).
So there you have it – everything you need to know about how to maintain your lawn. It’ll take a few years to get it in great shape, but eventually you’ll be the envy of the neighborhood if you follow everything in this post. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below. I’ll try to clarify anything I said, or help you with your individual situation. Doing all the work yourself will save you a ton of money, and you’ll still have a great lawn. Good luck!