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Update Your Lawn Care

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Concerns are growing about the impact of lawns.

Things to consider when using lawn care products:

  • Pesticides create health risks — especially for children and pets.
  • Fertilizers create algae blooms in ponds, lakes, and rivers.
  • Lawns can intensify the flooding that results from heavy rainfalls. 

If you are rethinking your lawn, consider if some of the below ideas might be a good fit.  

See below for eight approaches to lawn care and guidelines for Spanish speakers.

A great option is to replace part of your lawn with trees, hedges, ground cover, or a garden. When well-designed, these add beauty, privacy, shade, value, and habitat for songbirds and butterflies. With deeper roots, these also absorb more rainwater than grass and reduce flooding. Many people replace a bit of lawn each year.

A great spot to eliminate grass might be where rainwater leaves your property. A bed of shrubs or flowers there could absorb and filter large amounts of stormwater.

Another approach is to use mulch beneath trees instead of grass. Grass competes with trees for water and nutrients, and lawnmowers damage tree trunks. Mulch is healthier for the tree and adds beauty.

When you’re ready…

  • Use a rope, hose, or yarn to outline your new landscaping bed.
  • For large areas, rent a sod cutter or hire a landscaper to remove the grass.
  • For small areas, smother the grass with cardboard or a few layers of newspaper covered with mulch or autumn leaves. Let this area rest for several weeks or over the winter. Once the grass has died, and the paper has softened, you can plant directly into it.
  • Or smother the grass with black plastic or a tarp anchored by rocks. Don’t let water sit on this for more than a few days, or you will invite mosquitoes.
  • Or kill the grass with Roundup or similar. Pay close attention to the label before you buy and apply. Season and weather will impact which product to use, how to safely use it, and how long to wait before you plant.

Some companies want you to think your lawn needs steady doses of fertilizer and pesticides. It doesn’t. If you’ve regularly used such products, your soil probably supports very little of the microscopic life it needs to grow healthy grass.

Good mowing and watering creates a healthy lawn, saving you time and money on unhealthy fertilizers and pesticides.

  • The first and last mowing of the year should be short – about 2 inches. Otherwise, raise your blade to its highest setting. Grass roots will grow longer and healthier, surviving droughts. Grass that is 3-4 inches tall looks great and shades out many weeds. Never cut grass to less than 2 inches because the roots will be similarly short, and your lawn will then be more vulnerable to weeds and drought.
  • Leave clippings where they fall. They break down quickly, returning nitrogen to the soil. They do not create thatch. No need for special mulching mowers — regular ones are fine.
  • Sharpen mower blades once a year, on your own, or at the hardware store. Dull blades create a ragged cut that weakens the grass.
  • Mow on a regular basis, especially in spring when lawns grow fast. This keeps you from cutting off more than a third of the height in any one pass, which stresses the grass.
  • Don’t mow wet grass, especially if the ground is soaked, or you’ll compact the soil. Compacted soil is the main cause of weak grass and thick weeds.
  • If you water your lawn, do it once a week, deeply. Set out a dish and water until one inch has accumulated. This promotes deep roots. Water in the morning – not evening – to prevent fungus issues.
  • When the peak of summer heat arrives, it’s easier on your lawn to let it rest rather than repeatedly force it to break dormancy with occasional watering.

Healthy soil is your ticket to a beautiful lawn. By aerating and enriching the soil, you’re treating the cause – not the symptom – of most lawn problems.

Core Aeration: Most landscaping companies offer core aeration. You can also rent an aerator from a hardware store. Skip the spike aerators – go for the core aerators that pull up plugs of grass and dirt 2-3 inches long. This is best done in fall, but early spring is good so long as the lawn is not soaked because machinery compacts wet soils. Whether spring or fall, the lawn should be green and growing, not brown and dormant.

Compost: Compost is wonderful because it adds organic matter to your lawn. This increases airflow, water-holding capacity, and beneficial soil organisms – all of which are critical to soil health. Traditional fertilizers – including organic ones – don’t have the ability to do this and can harm beneficial soil organisms.

Fine-textured compost is best as it quickly sinks into the lawn. Fertilizer spreaders work well for this or rake it in. Aim for a depth of ¼ to ½ inch. For every 1,000 square feet of lawn, you’ll need ¾ to 1 ½ cubic yards of compost. Avoid coarse compost unless you’re okay with a lawn covered with black “dirt” for a couple of weeks.

Compost Tea: Compost Tea is sometimes available, or you can make your own. Fill a burlap sack with one-part compost and suspend it in five-parts water for several days in a large can or bucket. Aerate the water around the sack with a pond or fish tank aerator. Keep it cool and out of the sun. Spray it on the lawn with a pump- or hose-sprayer, full strength, or diluted with water. Apply in spring when the grass starts to green up, and then once a month.

If you use chemicals, it’s less expensive, more effective, and healthier all around to treat a specific weed rather than the whole lawn. Better yet, use healthy mowing and watering practices, aerate your lawn, and apply compost.

And if you’re so inclined, dandelion tools have come a long way.

Compost is best. See above.

Beware of “organic” lawn care, as it often contains phosphorus, which is terrible when its particles inevitably wash into lakes and ponds and cause algae growth.

Consider corn gluten, a fertilizer that – under exact conditions – also prevents weeds from germinating. It will not kill established weeds or grass. It’s usually sold as pellets or granules.

  • Never apply to newly seeded lawns – it will inhibit germination.
  • Apply with a spreader at 12–20 pounds per 1,000 square feet.
  • Hot weather or extended rains may require additional applications.
  • In spring, apply just as the forsythias begin to bloom. Once they’re done blooming, it’s too late, and the product will fertilize weeds.
  • Spread corn gluten right before it rains, or water it with a hose or sprinkler. If it doesn’t rain within the next five days, water it again lightly.
  • A dry period of a day or two must immediately follow this, or the application will fail.
  • Apply again in early fall while it’s still warm out. Just like spring, it must be watered by rain or a hose, and a dry period must follow.

 

You might have a spot where you can use low-mow grass instead of high-maintenance Kentucky bluegrass. Once established, low-mow grass consumes far less energy to maintain.

It takes some work to prepare a site for low-mow grass and then get it established. Thus, it does best in small areas, such as where a renovation has created a small need. Visit https://www.prairiemoon.com/eco-grass for information on how to select, prepare and grow a low-mow lawn. Low-mow grass does not tolerate wet soils (explore sedges for those sites) or heavy foot traffic.

More and more people are embracing a lawn that is a collection of curious green plants — grass as well as uninvited species. Mow high and call it a day.

If you take this approach, consider occasional core aeration to keep your soil from being compacted. Compaction leads to dense, lifeless soil that does not easily absorb rainwater.

If you embrace the dandelions and other plants in your lawn — but your neighbors do not — explore the idea of hedges on the property line to provide a visual barrier and prevent weed seeds from blowing next door. It’s nice to get along with the neighbors even when your approaches to lawn care aren’t quite the same.

Meet Our Expert Staff

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Landscaping Specialist
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Director of Lake County Programs
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Landscape Ecologist
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