With heat punishing most of the country, lawns may be looking a bit sad and forlorn. But if your instinct is to throw on some fertilizer, stop right there. Fertilizer won’t help a dry or brown lawn. In fact you can damage your grass, especially if you use a fast-release fertilizer, which can even burn your lawn. Hold off on the fertilizer until the fall—and you may not have to do it again in the spring.

The time to apply fertilizer is when the grass is growing more roots than blades. In the Northeast and Northwest, that’s usually in the fall. In the South and Southwest it’s in the late spring. So in cooler climes, don’t even think about it until Labor Day. And if you only fertilize once a year, do it in September using fall fertilizer. Most high-quality fertilizers contain slow-release nitrogen, which promotes growth in the spring.

Fortunately, even slackers can have a lush lawn. Start by mowing higher, letting the grass grow to 4 ½  inches and cutting it to 3 or 3 ½. Tall grass helps promote deep roots, making your lawn hardier and more resilient. Another way to add nutrients is to use the mulch setting on your mower and leave the clippings behind. This also reduces evaporation.

And don’t over-water your lawn. A typical lawn needs no more than one inch of water a week, including rainfall. To promote deep roots give your lawn one long soak instead of several short waterings. In fact, a light daily watering encourages root systems that are too shallow, promotes weed growth, and leaves the grass susceptible to disease and insect damage.

Smart Lawn Care

A lush lawn doesn’t require excessive amounts of water. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Eric Hagerman explains how you can keep your outdoor space looking great.