This article is the archived version of a report that appeared in May 2009 Consumer Reports Magazine.
Almost half of those who answered our latest lawn poll said they'd be spending more time in their outdoor spaces this year. Although entertaining and personal enjoyment are high on their list of activities, spending time and money aren't.
The good news is that a better lawn with less work and money aren't mutually exclusive. Our experts and turf specialists can help you trim an hour or more off the average 6 hours per week people spend mowing and gardening. You can also save $100 or more this season and get a better-looking lawn. But that's only the beginning.
Our latest mower and tractor test, shows that the easiest-to-use, best-mowing machines often cost hundreds and even thousands less than their competitors. Not in the market for new gear? Our insider's tips can help you keep the mower and tractor you own humming along. We also offer safety tips for riding mowers and tractors. And if you're one of the 27 percent of people who told us their yard is damaged or needs repair, our low-cost yard makeovers can make the neighbors green with envy.
Fight the urge to fertilize your lawn as soon as the weather starts to warm up. A strong dose of spring fertility will green up lawns quickly, but it also makes turf vulnerable to weeds, disease, and summer heat, says Martin Petrovic, professor of turf-grass science at Cornell University. It also means more mowing.
Instead of stocking up on fertilizer, clear out yard debris and test your soil. You'll find out your soil's pH, any missing nutrients and how much of each is needed, and when to apply them. A soil test could save an overeager feeder $50 or more in materials plus several hours of labor per year. It can also help keep phosphorous and other unnecessary chemicals from leaching into the local water supply.
Cheap, do-it-yourself soil testers, sold at garden stores and home centers, didn't deliver accurate-enough results based on our tests. You're better off paying $10 or so for your local cooperative extension service to do the analysis for you.
While you're waiting for your soil-test results, spend a few hours (or $50 to $150) getting your mower or tractor in shape (see Can This Mower Be Saved?). More than a quarter of the people we polled admit they've never even sharpened their mower's blade. Dull blades stress grass, making it more susceptible to diseases. A sharp, balanced blade also cuts faster and cleaner, so you'll get a nice, even cut and reduce mowing time. Along with oil changes and basic engine maintenance, sharp blades can reduce fuel costs by up to 25 percent.
Sharpen and balance blades three times during the growing season and invest in a second blade ($15 to $20) to use while the other is being serviced.
Nature abhors a vacuum. For lawns, that means weeds will quickly fill bare patches. Unless your lawn is filled with weeds or has huge bare spots, seeding over the existing grass will help build up turf. Choose grass suited to your climate, soil conditions, and lifestyle. Your local cooperative extension should have a list of recommended species and varieties, including those that need the least fertilizing and watering. For instance, tall fescue is a good, low-maintenance alternative to Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye in the Northeast. Buffalo grass is a hassle-free favorite west of the Mississippi, and zoysia and seashore paspalum are popular newcomers in the South.
Always check the seed label to see precisely which varieties you have. Also look for a germination date that's less than a year old. And buy "weed free" seed.
Cover seed with a fine layer of soil, compost, or peat moss. Add starter fertilizer and gently pack the soil down with the back of a hoe or shovel. Seeds do better in lightly compacted soil.
Cutting the grass short might seem like a time-saver, but it weakens roots. Never remove more than one-third of the blade's total height. Also be sure to raise your mowing height and mow less frequently as the mercury rises because that's when grass growth slows. You'll be promoting a deeper root system and preventing crabgrass and other warm-season weeds from emerging. "If you keep mowing cool-season grass during extreme stress periods, you're just asking to kill it," Virginia Tech turf specialist Mike Goatley says. Also leave the grass a bit long in shady areas to maximize the plant's photosynthesizing leaf area.
If your lawn develops a whitish hue, you're probably taking too much off the top.
Applying a quarter-inch of top-dressing compost once or twice a year promotes healthy turf by improving the soil and eliminating pests and diseases. It also saves money by reducing the need for fertilizer and water. Put it down after your lawn has greened up, ideally with lawn aeration to help mix the organic matter in with the soil. You can buy compost in stores, but you can sometimes get it free from municipal compost sites. Apply it with a tow-behind spreader attached to your tractor. If your yard isn't too big, sow it by hand.
A compost bin provides a ready supply of compost for your lawn and lets you recycle nonanimal food waste. Smith & Hawken's Biostack Composter, a CR Best Buy, was excellent for convenience and durability and cost $130. Or you could start a compost pile free.
Don't believe the myth that grass clippings lead to thatch. Mulching instead of bagging returns natural nutrients to the soil, saving time, bags, and as much as 30 percent on fertilizing costs. "Think of clippings as a slow-release fertilizer that doesn't cost a thing," Goatley says. But don't mulch if the lawn is in the middle of a major disease outbreak.
Hose down mower blades and the underside of the mower's deck after each use for better mulching and a neater cut.
Our surveys have found that most people overwater or water at the wrong time. That can waste more than 25,000 gallons of water per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Proper watering saves money and helps prevent disease and pests. Water deeply and infrequently: 1 inch per week is the rule of thumb, although you might need to water more heavily and often during hot spells. And don't be afraid to let the lawn go dormant during a dry spell; it will green up again once the rains return. To tell dormant from dead, tear a stem in half: It's dormant if it's fleshy white and strong, dead if the stem disintegrates.
Water in the early morning, before the hot sun and wind prevent water from reaching the roots. Evening watering promotes mold.
Irrigation systems save you the hassle of watering the lawn, but some are more efficient than others. For bushes and plants, drip irrigation systems earn the highest marks because they deposit water directly to the root system, where it can't be lost to wind, runoff, and evaporation. On existing sprinkler systems, install a rain sensor so that it will turn on only when the air is dry, or a soil-moisture sensor so that it will turn on only when the ground is dry. On new systems, advanced control technologies use local weather reports to determine hydration schedules.
Even if you're using plain old sprinklers, check for even distribution by placing plastic cups throughout the lawn while you're watering. And be sure you're not watering walkways or the driveway.
Lush, wall-to-wall lawns look great in ads but won't grow everywhere. Consider shade-loving ground covers, ornamental grasses, and plants instead. Don't forget about trees, flowers, and shrubs, which attract birds and other species, creating a balanced ecosystem. Choose native species if possible because they're already adapted to your area.
Put shrubs and plants with similar watering needs together. Also plant flowers and bushes susceptible to pests near plants that repel them. Most cooperative extensions offer companion-planting information through their Master Gardener programs.
If you leave footprints in the lawn, the grass needs more water. Keep an eye out for stressed plants and turf. They are the most vulnerable to pests and disease, which can then spread to healthy areas. Remove sick plants and transfer stressed plants to a more suitable location. Look for bare spots, which invite crabgrass and other weeds. Spot-weeding weekly can make the chore more manageable. Check for compacted soil with a screwdriver; if it won't go in easily, the soil is compacted and should be aerated. Rent a machine for about $65 to $75 per day.
Early morning is the best time to inspect. The dew in the grass will highlight signs of damage and stress.