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The slacker’s guide to a great lawn

Get a lush lawn in less time with our expert tips

Consumer Reports magazine: May 2012
Photo: Antenna/Getty Images

How to save up to 65 hours a year

Americans love their lawns, but the work needed to keep them lush? Not so much. Maintaining a sharp mower blade is a must to keep from butchering the grass, but turf experts say other rules can be relaxed—and you’ll still have a nice-looking lawn for lazy afternoons.

It's human nature to want to water a browning plant. But in the case of grass, the color change is merely an indication that the plant is entering a natural state of dormancy designed to conserve nutrients. "From an agronomic standpoint, most grasses can easily survive a month without water," says Doug Soldat, turf scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If you can't live with brown grass, the time to water is when you leave footprints in the lawn after walking on it. But don't make the mistake of giving it a light daily watering during dry spells; that will encourage a shallow root system that does more harm than good. Instead, give the lawn a nice long soak, say, 30 minutes' worth (or enough to fill a tuna can), at which point it should be good for another month.

How do you know when your lawn is nearing the line between dormancy and death? "When the lawn turns from tan-brown to straw-colored, that's a sign it probably only has a few days left unless you water it or it rains," says A. Martin Petrovic, turf-grass professor at Cornell University.

Hours saved annually: up to 12

Fertilizer companies recommend as many as five applications a year—they're in the business of selling the stuff. But many lawns can thrive with no more than two annual applications. Memorial Day and Labor Day are the ideal times (a bit earlier in the Deep South). If you fertilize only once, do it in September using fall fertilizer. Most high-quality products contain slow-release nitrogen, which promotes growth in the spring. "Manufacturers have made it pretty mistakeproof," says Frank Rossi, a turf expert at Cornell University and private consultant whose clients include the New York Yankees and Green Bay Packers. "If you buy a product that says 'lawn fertilizer,' chances are it will have the right mix of ingredients."

Hours saved annually: up to 8

You probably know that cutting grass too short can compromise root development. But the long-held rule that you should never remove more than one third of the blade's total height has come under scrutiny. "It was inspired by research conducted in the 1950s by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture who were evaluating Kentucky bluegrass as a forage grass," Rossi says. "If you're feeding cows, the one-third rule will give you the most rapid leaf production. But if your goal is a good-looking lawn, we're now saying it's OK to take more off." Most domestic grasses can thrive with 50 percent or more of the blade removed.

So you can let the lawn grow to about 5 inches before mowing. That might result in a shaggier lawn than you're used to, but it will reduce mowing frequency by about 25 percent. Because most mower decks have notches, not inches, setting the right height often involves trial and error. Adjust the deck a notch at a time.

Hours saved annually: up to 10

You might not love the look of dandelions, but they don't actually harm the lawn, and their penetrating tap roots might even improve the soil structure. But you should probably cut off the heads before they go to seed. Clover, which takes nitrogen from the air and feeds it to the soil, also has benefits. Things such as moss and creeping Charlie should be left alone because they thrive in moist, shady areas where grass is unlikely to grow anyway.

Other lawn problems are worth trying to eliminate. Crabgrass, for example, usually dies off at the first frost, promoting soil erosion. You might try corn-gluten meal, an organic alternative to chemical herbicides. Grubs, small beetle larvae that live in the soil and feed on grass roots, can devastate a lawn, so it's worth consulting with a professional about preventive measures, especially if you've had problems in the past. And remember that thick turf is always the best defense against lawn problems. So seed bare spots to help build up turf.

Hours saved annually: up to 5

As interest in eco-friendly lawns continues to grow, the lawn-mower bag is becoming less necessary. "Ninety-nine percent of the time you're better off mulching," says Rob Golembiewski, turf-grass specialist at Oregon State University. He's referring to the process of discharging finely cut clippings back onto the turf instead of bagging them. In addition to saving time, that returns nutrients to the soil, reducing your lawn's fertilizer needs by roughly 33 percent. That will help limit your fertilizer applications to once or twice a year.

One of the few times you need to bag clippings is when the lawn has gotten very long, say, after an extended rainy spell or a long vacation. If that happens, consider composting the clippings. You should also bag clippings during a lawn-disease outbreak, in which case they might need to be taken to the landfill instead of being added to your compost pile.

Hours saved annually: up to 15

Instead of grabbing whatever seed mix is on sale at the local garden center, consider one of the newer slow-growth, drought-resistant species. Fine fescues, including creeping red, chewings, and hard, all qualify as low- maintenance. "They provide excellent curb appeal, with about 50 to 75 percent less care than a 'Yankee Stadium' lawn," Rossi says. But fine fescues don't tolerate traffic well, so if your lawn doubles as a Wiffle Ball field, consider tall fescue. It does better underfoot but is susceptible to damage from ice cover. Just remember that slow-growth fescues will take a bit longer to get established, so you'll need some patience.

You'll also find plenty of shade-resistant options, though trying to establish turf under the thick foliage of a maple or other shade tree can be a waste of time. "As much I love grass, it doesn't need to be in every situation," Golembiewski says. "It's OK to convert some parts of the lawn to gravel or perennial beds."

Hours saved annually: 15 or more

What would you rather do?

Mow the lawn or go to the dentist?
We asked more than 1,000 adults nationwide how lawn care compares with other chores. More men said they're primarily responsible for mowing the lawn than women (78 percent, compared with 39 percent, respectively), but the sexes are united in their aversion to the task. In fact, just 7 percent of respondents told us they prefer working on the lawn to other chores and activities. Extra lawn-care jobs they dislike the most are trimming and edging (25 percent dislike), raking grass clippings (23 percent), and cleaning the mower (13 percent).

So what would folks rather do than maintain their lawn?

Cook
62%
Grocery shop
49%
Do laundry
41%
Go to work
38%
Clean the house
38%
Visit the in-laws
33%
See the dentist
17%

Source: Consumer Reports National Research Center. Respondents could choose multiple options, so the totals exceed 100.

   

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