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How to fix the 5 most common lawn problems

Make your lawn the envy of the block with Consumer Reports' expert advice

Published: April 2014

If the lawn outside your window is giving you the blues, join the club. After a brutal winter walloped much of the country, our Facebook and Twitter feeds have been buzzing with lawn care woes from exasperated homeowners (#moles #barespots, anyone?). Fortunately, many of the most common problems have fairly straightforward fixes, as you’re about to read. And just in case your yard is already the envy of the block, our experts have advice on money-saving tips, the right and wrong ways to fertilize, plus results from our latest tests of mowers, tractors, and more.

Problem: Lack of sunlight
Solution: Look for lawn alternatives

Even so-called shade-tolerant varieties of turfgrass won’t do well in dark corners of the yard. And pruning trees too aggressively to create sunlight can end up harming the tree. You’re better off cutting your losses and replacing the sun-starved patch of grass with a shade-tolerant ground cover, such as bishop’s hat or sweet woodruff. Or you might convert that part of the lawn with gravel or a perennial bed.

Problem: Crabgrass invasion
Solution: A multi-pronged defense

You’re smart to tackle this pesky weed. Besides being an eyesore, crabgrass typically dies off at the first frost, promoting soil erosion. Applying corn gluten meal, a natural alternative to chemical herbicide, in early spring can help contain the problem. Follow with a spring fertilizer. As the mowing season begins, don’t cut the grass too short, since this can open the door again for crabgrass. Set the deck on your mower or tractor to around 3½ inches. Most decks have notches, not inches, so getting the height just right can take some trial and error.

Problem: Persistently thin, patchy grass
Solution: Get a soil test

Chronic lawn problems are often about the soil, not the actual grass. Having a soil test done is the best $10 to $15 you can spend. Home and garden centers sell DIY kits, but we recommend working with your local cooperative extension (use the national directory listed at www.csrees.usda.gov/extension), whose experts will pinpoint your soil’s pH level and identify any missing nutrients. They’ll also prescribe the best course of treatment, for example spreading limestone if the soil is acidic or sulfur if it’s overly alkaline. It’s prudent to do a soil test every few years, though if you just moved into a new home, you may want to do one annually, at least until the desired results start to show.

Problem: Grub sightings
Solution: First assess, then addres
s

These milky-white beetle larvae feed on grass roots, which can lead to dead spots in the lawn. Grubs also attract moles and raccoons. But a few here or there might not be a problem, says Kyle Wickings, a turfgrass entomologist at Cornell University. Ten larvae per square foot is a common threshold for treatment, however, this can vary by species. A very healthy lawn can tolerate higher densities.

If there are signs of damage, say dead or wilting turf, ask your cooperative extension for the best treatment, which will depend on the species of grub. Preventive insecticides are applied in spring, and curative measures are done in the fall. In some regions, chemicals are illegal or must be applied by a certified pro. Organic alternatives, such as Heterorhabditis nematodes, are often effective.

Problem: Ugly bald sports
Solution: Start from scratch

Weeds love bare patches, so if you don’t act quickly, they will. Spring’s cool, wet weather is conducive to growing many types of turfgrass. Start by digging up the damaged section, plus 6 inches of surrounding, healthy lawn, cutting about 2 inches deep. Then level the soil and add a small amount of soil amendment, such as a plant-based compost, and starter fertilizer. If you’re using seed, cover it lightly with straw and keep the ground moist until germination. For sod, which is about 10 times more expensive than seed but tends to work better, cut a section to fit, press it into place, and water frequently until it takes root.

5 ways to save on lawn care

Add compost. This will improve your soil and eliminate pests and diseases, which means less money spent on fertilizer and water. Apply a quarter-inch of top-dressing compost once or twice a year, including right after your lawn has greened up. Going over the lawn with an aerator first will help mix the organic matter into the soil.

Water wisely. An established lawn needs about 1 inch of water per week in the growing season. A light daily watering will encourage shallow root systems. Instead, water thoroughly once a week, using a 1-inch deep empty tuna can as a makeshift measuring device. Early morning is best, say before 8 a.m., when evaporation rates are low and more water is absorbed into the soil. Also, don’t be afraid to let grass turn brown during dry spells. Most species can easily go a month without water. It’s time to water again when the grass goes from tan-brown to straw-colored.

Mulch, don’t bag. Your grass clippings are a free source of slow-release fertilizer, so let the mower discharge the clippings back onto your grass rather than bagging them. This can cut fertilizer costs by up to 30 percent. The only time to bag clippings is when your lawn is having a disease breakout, often signaled by irregular brown patches or rings in the lawn.

Try low-maintenance grass. Slow-growth, drought-resistant grass species save water, fertilizer, and time. Your local cooperative extension can help you find species that are right for your climate, soil, and lifestyle. Tall fescue is a low-maintenance alternative in the Northeast that can withstand heavy foot traffic, good for homes with active kids. Zoysia and seashore paspalum are easygoing newcomers in the South, while buffalo grass is popular west of the Mississippi.

Maintain your mower or tractor. Sharp blades cut cleaner and faster, and along with basic engine maintenance can reduce fuel costs by up to 25 percent. Dull blades also stress grass, making it more susceptible to disease. For best results, sharpen and balance the blade three times during the growing season.

The do's and don'ts of lawn fertilizer

Most lawns need extra nutrients, but there’s a right way to choose and use them, especially when kids and pets are present. Here’s what to avoid, and what to do instead.

What not to do

  • Don’t use fast-release chemical fertilizers. Though their high concentration of nutrients will green up your lawn quickly, they’re tough on the environment and putting down too much could actually burn your grass.
  • Don’t use bone meal, blood meal, and fish-meal fertilizers if you have pets. Dogs in particular find them very tasty, and ingestion can lead to vomiting and diarrhea. Some are also mixed with highly toxic insecticides.
  • Don’t use starter fertilizer with weed control when trying to grow new grass. The seeds will not be able to germinate.
  • Don’t ignore the instructions on the label, including the type of drop spreader it stipulates. That will help ensure that the fertilizer is appropriately dispersed over the lawn.

What to do instead

  • Do use slow-release fertilizers. They won‘t have an immediate impact, but that’s better for the long-term health of your lawn. And using too much won’t damage your grass. The same goes for organic fertilizers.
  • Do check the label. It will likely indicate how much nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are contained, in that order. Use fertilizers with a higher nitrogen content in the spring and summer. Use a fall fertilizer that is higher in phosphorous and potassium for better root growth.
  • Do limit your fertilizer applications to twice a year. We recommend once around Memorial Day and again after Labor Day.
  • Do keep fertilizers off areas where rain might carry them into storm drains and then into rivers and lakes.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
   

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