Striking the balance of care needed for a successful lawn takes a bit of research and some practice. More than 6,000 online subscribers nationwide told us about how they mow, water, and fertilize, and how happy they are with their lawn's looks. Then we spoke with lawn-care experts to learn which practices work best and why.
We also asked those of you who use lawn services to rate them. And we even checked up on the neighbors. It turns out the grass is not always greener next door: More than 40 percent of you had complaints—neighbors who don't mow their lawns, let their leaves pile up, or let trash, leaves, or other debris blow onto your property.
Here's what our experts recommend:
Mow high and regularly
Mowing high produces stronger, healthier grass with deeper roots and fewer weeds and pest problems. Most grasses are best mowed to 2½ to 3½ inches high. Check with your cooperative extension service for the ideal height for your type. That means you should probably cut your grass every 5 to 10 days on average, as 76 percent of you do. You might need to mow more often during the peak growing season. Our experts also suggest you make sure your mower blade is sharp and you choose grass that is hardy in your region. In Phoenix, that might mean Bermuda; in Tampa, St. Augustine; in Omaha, buffalo grass; in Albany, Kentucky bluegrass.
Mulch when you mow
Leaving clippings returns useful nutrients, cutting the amount of fertilizer the lawn needs by about 30 percent. About half of readers surveyed say they mulch at least some of the time. Mulching is also good for the environment because the clippings won't end up in a landfill.
Water early and deeply
About 4 of every 10 people in our survey water at the wrong time, and almost half are probably watering too often. Early morning is best. Night watering promotes mold and fungus. And no mature lawn needs watering every day or every other day, as 47 percent of those surveyed water. Watering once a week—long enough to apply 1 inch of water over the lawn—is the old rule of thumb. But your lawn might need more or less. It's best to wait until the lawn needs water, say the experts. How can you tell? If you leave footprints on the lawn when you walk on it, the lawn needs water. Water thoroughly and slowly until the water soaks at least 1 inch below the lawn's roots, or 4 to 8 inches into the soil. Check by sticking a shovel into the ground after watering.
How long your sprinklers must run depends on how quickly they apply the water as well as how quickly your soil absorbs it. Sprinklers that apply ¼-inch of water every 20 minutes must run for 80 minutes to apply 1 inch. Measure yours by setting empty containers around the lawn, running the sprinklers for 20 minutes, and measuring the depth of the water inside.
If water is running off the lawn, the sprinklers are applying water faster than the soil can absorb it. You'll need to water in cycles. Turn the sprinklers off at the point of runoff, wait a half-hour for the water to soak in, and then run the sprinklers again. Repeat until a full inch of water is applied to the soil.
Only 32 percent of you fertilized as often as you should. The goal is to apply 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn per year. The percentage of nitrogen in a fertilizer is indicated by the first number on the bag, so with a 20-10-10 fertilizer (20 percent nitrogen), you should apply 5 pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet. Figure on applying slow-release fertilizer three times a year if you mulch and five times a year if you don't. Fertilize northern lawns once in the spring and then two or three more times in the fall, one month apart, with the final application just before the final mowing of the year. Fertilize southern grasses in the spring after dormant lawns are revived and green, then again in July or August. Avoid spreading fertilizer before a heavy rain, and sweep any fertilizer that ends up on driveways and walkways back into the lawn. Both will help minimize fertilizer in the runoff.
Test your soil
No matter where you live, a soil test is the best way to know what your lawn needs. Pros often do it yearly, but every few years is probably fine unless your lawn looks bad. "Soil analysis is a small investment that pays big dividends; it doesn't take much work," explains Peg Hoovler of Lynchburg, Va., a Consumer Reports online subscriber who was recently certified as a master gardener by her local cooperative extension service.
Search the Internet using the words "soil testing" and your state, look in your telephone directory under county government for "extension agent," or check with your local nursery. Generally, you'll get more accurate test results and better recommendations from a professional lab. But you can test your soil's pH yourself using an inexpensive kit or meter. Lawn grasses grow best in a soil pH between 6.5 and 7. Use limestone to raise the pH of acidic soil, sulphur to lower the pH of alkaline soil.
Don't let leaves pile up
Raking only once or twice each fall, as 57 percent of those surveyed did, just isn't enough. It's important to clear leaves off the grass frequently. Leaves block sunlight. Wet leaves are heavy and promote disease. Instead of bagging leaves, use your mower to mulch them or add leaves to your compost pile.
Consider local lawn services
Almost half of you hire others to fertilize, mow, apply chemical treatments, aerate the lawn, or do spring and fall cleanups. Readers overwhelmingly chose local companies over regional and national ones, 65 vs. 19 percent. And they were glad they did: 62 percent of readers were completely or very satisfied with local companies, compared with only 46 percent for regional or national firms.
Supervise lawn services
It's important to keep an eye on whomever you hire. Roughly a third of readers reported some problems with their lawn services. Not doing everything they were supposed to do was the biggest complaint (12 percent), followed by not showing up when promised (9 percent), and damaging the lawn or other parts of the property and not cleaning up (7 percent for each of those issues).