Lawns are certainly one of the symbols of modern human settlements. Truly green and vibrant, lawns bring a precious touch of vegetation into our mostly grey urban landscapes.
Besides the visual appeal, lawns play a crucial practical role in many sports, from football to golf. Also, private and public lawns are great spots for leisure and family time, ideal for free child play and picnics.
This is the most comprehensive lawn care guide on the internet. I’m looking forward to shedding light on the lawn care best practices, supported by lawn science.
Table of Contents
Lawn Definition & Types of Lawn
What did you know about lawn? How many types of lawn? And what are the classification of lawn and the varieties of grasses you often run into?
We'll go in-depth about these in this chapter
What is a Lawn?
A lawn is a patch of soil seeded with suitable grass species or other low-growing non-grass cover plants.
Lawns are maintained in a specific way. A classic lawn is regularly mown to keep it at a desirable height. Measures such as watering and overseeding are used to maintain the lawn surface evenly green. For the same reason, lawns are often subjects of weed and pest control.
In the recent years, environmental concerns, as well as the modern man’s need for nature, have given a rise to organic lawn practices and alternatives to lawns, which consist of various, non-grass plant species.
Types of lawn
Based on what elements we are considering, we can create several classifications of lawns.
Lawns by Climate and Grass Varieties
There is a huge number of grasses and grasslike plants that are used for lawns. They all have different visual and textural characteristics, but that is not all.
Different types of grass are adapted to different climatic conditions, and they can tolerate variable temperatures, precipitation, sun exposition, and other parameters.
When choosing the grass variety for your lawn, your local climate (and also the way it will change in the upcoming years) should your main concern. Your practical and aesthetical affinities come right after.
According to grass variety, the three main categories of lawn grass are:
- Cool season grasses
- Warm season grasses
- Grass alternatives
We will discuss some popular grass varieties in the next section, and grass alternatives near the end of the article.
Lawns by Location and Purpose
The grass type you will choose for your lawn and the following maintenance will often depend on your lawn’s location and purpose.
Front Yard Lawns
The main purpose and value of front lawns are their neat aesthetics, which contributes to the community.
In some cities and municipalities, there are relatively strict community rules on how the front yard laws should look like. The classic all-grass mowed lawns are usually the norm.
If you are planning to plant some of the lawn alternatives in your front yard, make sure that it is allowed by your community standards to do so.
Backyard lawns have more than one purpose, and they can be designed according to the needs of your lifestyle.
For example, if you have children always playing in your backyard or you host frequent hangouts and parties, you will want to make your lawn as foot traffic resistant as possible by choosing a sturdy, coarse grass variety.
On the other hand, if your backyard is intended for calm and relaxing activities without much foot traffic, you have much more freedom to choose what you visually like. That can include not only grass but also various ground-cover plant species, including the flowering ones.
Sport Field Lawns
Besides looking nice and green, sport field lawns have a purpose of holding soil erosion and preventing dust from forming, as well as cushioning players that may fall in contact sports such as football, rugby or soccer.
The pressure and foot traffic that these lawns endure is great, so the fields need to be sowed with coarse types of grass, and repaired often.
Decorative Garden Lawns
Decorative lawns that are incorporated into gardens offer a lot of freedom in landscaping since foot traffic is usually not the main concern.
In this iteration, a classic lawn may be just one part of the arrangement which may include other types of plants and grasses. For example, drought-resistant ornamental grasses are ideal for no-mow areas since they are highly attractive and give more levels to your arrangement.
Public or Park Lawns
Depending on the rules and planned uses, public lawns can be treated and maintained in the manner of sports fields if there is a lot of foot traffic, or like decorative garden lawns in the cases when foot traffic is forbidden.
Types of Lawns by Lawn Care
Lawns can also be categorized by the type of maintenance and chemicals used to treat them.
- Conventional lawns, with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides used regularly.
- Integrated pest management (IPM) lawns, where using pesticides is only a last resort.
- Organic lawns, which are treated with organic fertilizers and organic-approved pesticides only.
There are many varieties and sub-varieties of lawn grasses - probably thousands of them. Plant scientists are constantly hybridizing them to create better and prettier plants.
In recent years, a great focus has been on lawn sustainability, so many novel types of turf are more pest-resilient, and needless fertilization and watering.
Warm Season Grasses
St. Augustine Grass
- St. Augustine grass has a light to medium green color and coarse texture.
- It grows vigorously by creeping - spreading its stolons - and establishes rapidly
- It is highly adapted to hot, tropical regions, and hot coastal regions.
Zoysia is well adapted to the hot and humid climate and is exceptionally drought-tolerant - probably the most of all turfgrasses.
Its color ranges from light to medium green, and the texture is medium to coarse.
Zoysia tolerates heavy traffic well, but it recovers slowly from severe thinning.
Cool Season Grasses
- Kentucky Bluegrass is the most popular cool-season grass. It has a trademark dark green color; its texture is medium, and it has excellent density and leaf uniformity.
- It is one of the most common lawn grasses in various climatic zones - adapted to cool or temperate regions, humid or semi-arid.
- Kentucky Bluegrass is often used in sports fields, public spaces, roadsides, and yards.
- As its name implies, Fine Fescue is characterized by the finest grass blades of any type of turfgrass.
- It grows upright and uniformly.
- It germinates rapidly and establishes itself quickly.
- Fine Fescue has excellent drought tolerance for a cool-season grass variety. It can go dormant in summer if there is no water with no issues, and will become green again when rains arrive.
- Ryegrass has moderately dark green leaves with fine leaf texture.
- It is known for good density, rapid establishment, and formation of stable turf.
- As for the climate, Ryegrass prefers mild winters and cool moist summers, but it is highly adaptable and used in other conditions as well.
- Ryegrass is often used in mixes; it can be mixed with Bluegrass and Fine Fescue to create a hardier turf suitable for sports and rough play.
Lawn Irrigation and Watering Tips
In England, where lawns originate from, there was always enough rain and moisture in the air to keep the lawns fresh and green throughout the year.
However, lawns are now everywhere, and climatic conditions around the globe vary drastically. Chances are you will need to water your lawn in order to keep it fresh and green. Let's go into more details
Lawn Watering Tips
The drier the area you live in, the more you will have to water - especially in the summer, except if in the case you can let your lawn go dormant.
Here are some practical watering tips:
- On average, lawn grass needs about an inch of water per week - from rain or watering.
- In the period when rains become scarce, water only when the lawn first shows signs of water stress - a bluish-grey color of the blades and footprints that remain visible after walking across the lawn.
- When watering your lawn, the key is to water not often, but deep. Lush lawns have deep roots, and the deep roots will only develop if you water deeply. Water that is always available near the surface creates “lazy” plants with shallow roots, susceptible to drought and other issues.
- Whatever is your preferred watering system, you should always aim for minimizing your water usage. Specialized sensors that monitor moisture in your lawn can help you save water and optimize watering.
- Always aim to water your lawn or turn on your sprinklers early in the morning to avoid evaporation.
- Watering in the evening is riskier since it promotes the development of pathogenic molds.
- If you want to save water and let nature take its course, you can let your lawn go dormant - turn brown - during the hot summer months. Grasses do not die during droughts, they only pause their metabolisms. Once the rains return, your lawn will gradually regain its green color.
- To avoid thinning of the lawn during dormancy, apply 1/2 inch of water every 3 to 4 weeks after the lawn has turned brown.
Watering and Irrigation Methods
Watering via a hand-controlled garden hose with a spray nozzle is the cheapest and the most readily available way of watering.
However, while a hoose works well for garden patches and containers, it is not ideal for watering lawns. It is unlikely you will be able to distribute water evenly as a sprinkler would, which can result in differences in growth over time. Also, you will not know when you’ve watered enough.
Watering by hand also means that you will probably have to trample on wet grass (unless you have a patio running through the middle) which doesn’t have a good impact on the soil below, and will probably result in wet feet as well.
Still, if no other methods are available, or you live in an area when you get a lot of rain, watering by hand can work just fine. Also, it is ideal for gentle watering of small patches with freshly sown grass seeds.
Sprinklers are probably the most commonly used watering systems for lawns. There are several basic types of sprinklers:
- Oscillating sprinklers, which shoot thin streams of water in the air back and forth in a way that makes the water cover large rectangles.
- Impact sprinklers shoot pulses of water in a circular motion.
- Stationary sprinklers spray in one pattern continuously, so they are useful for getting and soaking hard to reach places that don’t get much rain.
- Traveling sprinklers look like little vehicles, and they move along the yard as they water; that makes them suitable for large lawns.
On the downside, sprinklers waste a lot of water - the University of Colorado assessed the loss to be as high as 30-50 percent. The loss occurs because they don’t distribute the water to roots directly, but spray it all over the lawn, which makes losses from evaporation greater.
Drip irrigation is the most water-efficient irrigation system. That is why it is often used in agriculture, especially in arid regions.
With drip irrigation, a drip hose lets water ooze out slowly, drop by drop and soak the root area of the plants. With drip irrigation, only 10 percent of water gets wasted - meaning that 90% of it is used up by the plants directly. To compare that with sprinkler systems - as said before, they waste between 30 and 50 percent of water, which is a great water loss on big surfaces like lawns.
Besides water conservation, by leaving the leaves dry and soaking the roots only, drip irrigation prevents the development of pathogenic fungi.
Because it was originally designed to be used for rows of plants rather than large surfaces, drip irrigation was ignored by the lawn industry for years. However, concerns about water usage, especially in dry regions such as California, are bringing to life new designs - automated drip systems more adjusted to being used on to lawns.
Although they have their weaknesses, subsurface drip systems are considered more appropriate for lawns since there will be no piping or hoses on the surface of your lawn.
Built-In Irrigation Systems
Permanent built-in irrigation systems have all the pipes permanently buried beneath the ground and are usually automated. In recent years “water smart” systems have also been developed - they use weather and climate data from your area and spray water according to the information they obtain. That means they won’t water your lawn when it rains!
As it is probably obvious, built-in systems are the most demanding ones on the list, both in terms of installation and money. They also additional maintenance, such as winterizing, but other than that they are the most hassle-free and water efficient systems available.
Built-in systems can be equipped with sprinklers, or bring water directly to the root zone, such as with drip irrigation systems.
If you care about the visual look of your lawn as well as preventing the weeds from sprouting up in your soil and lawn, lawn edging is essential.
We'll learn more about it.
Edging is a crucial finishing touch on every well-maintained, neat lawn. Ragged or overgrown lawn edges can spoil the visual impression completely, no matter how much effort have you put into maintaining the central part of the lawn.
Fortunately, edging is usually easy to do. Use lawn-edging shears (the long-handled ones will save you from back pain) and cut away long, untidy parts that have started to grow over the lawn borders - ideally, after every mowing.
If you have a lot of edging to do, you could equip your trimmer with a head that can rotate through 90°, and therefore can be used as an edging tool.
For less work and an interesting visual effect, you can use special garden barriers on some of your edges.
Mowing is a vital part of lawn care. However, not all mowers and practices are created equal. Here are some tips on how to mow your lawn best.
Carefully choose your mower
There are many types of mowers available, and all have their pros and cons. You should consider which is the best one for your situation.
Many people think that it is best to keep their lawn really short - besides, that way you get more time until you have to mow again, right?
However, short trimming might do more harm than good. That is why experts recommend mowing as high as your mower will allow - about 3 inches is the best (though the best length may vary with different varieties of grass). That will enable your lawn to be more resilient to weeds, drought, sun exposure, and pests, and have that lush feel that many people prefer.
Keep the blades sharp
Dull mowing blades will rip the grass blades instead of cutting them. That can create unsightly grass blades and dry tips, and even worse - make your turfgrass more susceptible to disease.
Never mow over thick thatch
Excessive thatch can cause your blades to dive right into the ground, scalping your lawn.
Mow when the ground is dry
Never mow when the ground is soaked by rain or watering, as this is almost sure to cause scalping, scaring, or unwanted soil compaction.
In order to remain lush, lawns require fertilizsation.
There are many ways and tools to fertilize your lawn, but overall it's not hard to do the task.
Let's dive right in.
Fertilization can be done either by synthetic or organic fertilizers. Additionally, action (or rather non-action) like leaving grass clippings or leaves on your lawn to decay are ways of natural fertilization.
Although many lawn care companies will routinely fertilize lawns four times per year, the recent studies have shown that this may be too much for mature lawns - in fact, it will only cause overgrowth of the grass blades and not long-term benefit.
Fertilizing well-established lush lawns twice per year - especially in the autumn - is enough. When you fertilize outside the period of maximum growth, the plant’s roots will slowly take up and use the nutritious compounds. That means stronger and healthier overall growth - roots included - and not just turning everything instantly into new blades.
Some sources even claim that once a year is enough, which is especially true in the case you are applying other methods of ensuring enough nutrients, such as leaving clippings to decompose naturally.
For newly established lawns, you will have to fertilize more often - at least twice a year, in the spring and in the autumn, and probably provide additional fertilization in the summer. When the lawn gets to its desired look, you can go back to your regular fertilization schedule.
Of course, if you notice your grass needs a boost, you can resort to additional summer fertilization.
There are tools that can help you calculate how much fertilization do you need, such as this practical Fertilizer Calculator by Purdue University.
Some alternative ground cover species such as white clover do not require fertilization, as the plants are capable of fixing the nitrogen from the air themselves.
To make the lawn fertilization process more hassle-free, there are some specializd lawn spreaders on the market. You should have at least one of these for your lawn.
There are many species of resilient annual and perennial plants that will compete for space, food, and light with your turfgrass. We call them weeds. If you want to keep your lawn neat, you will, at some point, have to take measures to control them.
Some of the most common weeds are dandelions, daisies, clover, crabgrass, and others.
There is one thing I want to point out right from the start. Weeds have a notorious reputation, but they are not really dangerous to you in any way. They will compete with your cultivated grass, but in well-kept, high-mown lawns, they usually don’t run out of control and can be handled manually.
In fact, some people are completely fine with a dandelion, a clover or a daisy here and there, and will even let them display their bright flowers. If there are no specified rules on how your lawn should look like in your area, you can relax and do as you please.
Well-kept lawns have consistent density and will seldom have serious weed issues - weeds take advantage when there are dead patches or weak, thin growth.
However, all lawns have their good and bad years, and it is possible that at one point you will have to resort to weeding. Here is how to do it.
- You can resolve smaller weed issues manually.
- Most broad-leafed weeds such as dandelions do not handle it well when you nip their fresh spring leaves right at the start. Simply mowing regularly when their leaves are developed but still young, may kill them.
- When pulling out dandelions or other perennial weeds, be careful to pull out the entire root - if enough of it is left in the ground, the plant will grow back. There are special tools to help you with the task.
- Organic lawn sources recommend spreading corn gluten meal across your lawn in the autumn to kill the weed seeds. Since corn gluten contains nitrogen (9%), using it will cover your fall fertilization as well.
If things have really gotten out of control or if you are starting fresh, you may need to use herbicides to treat weeds. There are two common options:
- Using broadleaf herbicides for non-grass weeds such as dandelions.
- Using non-selective herbicides which kill all vegetation.
When using herbicides or any other pesticides, read all of the instructions carefully and follow through the procedure exactly as it says on the packaging.
Lawn Care By Season
The climate and season change do have a great effect on your lawn. If you want to maintain your lawn best, you must learn what these changes are and the best tips to care your lawn with each season.
Well, that's what this chap covers.
- Fertilizing. Springtime is a standard time for fertilizing lawns, which is done by using spring and summer type of lawn fertilizer. Do not do apply it to early in the spring though, because this may “force” the grass to grow when it still should be relatively dormant, resulting in unhealthy growth. The practice may also give an unwanted boost to the early sprouting weeds.
- Weeding. Spring is the prime time for weed growth. Since most weeds are fast growing, they are at their weakest when they have just established their leaves - they had to spend a lot of energy to do it. Mowing them or treating them at this point is the best way to get rid of them.
- Over-seeding. Although springtime is less ideal for seeding than autumn, it may still have to be done after substantial removal of weeds or moss, or in the spots where grass has become thin.
- Mowing. Once per week in spring.
- Aeration for cool-season grasses (if needed).
- Watering. Summer is the season when you will have to resort to watering if you want to keep your lawn green and active. If you want to let it go dormant instead, you will have to worry much less, but still water at some point to avoid thinning (see Irrigation and Watering Tips).
- Fertilizing. If grass loses its vigor between late spring and late summer, repeat the application of the same fertilizer you used in the spring. If your lawn looks healthy and is well-established, you can skip the summer fertilization.
- Mowing. In the summer, mowing is done twice per week if your lawn is irrigated and is not dormant. If the growth is slow, you can mow once per week.
- Aeration. Aeration in the summertime (if needed) is done for warm-season grasses only.
- Weeding. Watch out for resilient summer weeds such as ragweed.
- Fertilizing. The autumn round of fertilizing is the most important one in the year.
- Weeding. Autumn is the time to dig out the weedkiller-resistant weeds. Re-seed right after.
- Weed prevention. Autumn is the time when weeds will establish their seeds, so it is a right time to take preventive measures such as spreading corn gluten meal.
- Reseeding. Autumn is an ideal time for reseeding your lawn. Of course, since corn gluten meal kills all seeds, these two activities cannot be combined.
- Aeration for cool-season grasses, if needed.
- Preparing your lawn for winter is done as a part of autumn care. Fertilization, overseeding and aeration are not done in the real wintertime.
- Mowing is only necessary if the weather is mild and the grass is still growing. Mow high and skip altogether if the soil is very soft or frozen, or when there are cold spells and drying winds.
- Make plans for the next season.
Other Problems & Solutions
Even though you do your best efforts to make the best lawn, it's inevitable to run into some troubles along the way.
Worry less! We'll learn more about these issues and how to solve them.
Thatch is common on over-fertilized lawns where grass blades grow rapidly and die quickly, and where excessive treatment with synthetic fertilizers causes the death of good soil bacteria that promote decompositions of organic matter. You know how some dog breeds won’t have their old hair fall off by itself, but needs to be pulled out manually? That’s how it is with thatch.
Besides the fact that it doesn’t look very attractive, thick layers of thatch can cause severe issues on your lawn, from disease to simply choking out healthy growth.
The solution to thatch is:
- Changing the management practices that lead to the creation of excessive thatch.
As with all vegetation, lawns are attractive to certain organisms, whether they feed on the grass blades or prefer the root zone. In either case, damage to the structure of your lawns is inevitable.
Here are the most common types of organisms that attack lawns:
- Molds and fungi will embed themselves in the plant’s body, sucking out nutrients and causing damage and collapse of the plants; they are usually an issue when the ground is waterlogged or when watering is excessive. Molds are treated with fungicides, natural or synthetic, but you can prevent them if you water correctly.
- Insects will feed on grasses directly. Some insects such as locusts and grasshoppers eat upper, green parts of the plant. Infestations by these insects are rare these days, so they are usually not able to cause significant damage. Others, such as June bug and Billbug larvae eat roots and may cause entire patches of the lawn to die out.
- If you find earthworms in your lawn, know that they are not pests. In fact, they are great indicators and promoters of soil health and aeration, so they are the friends of your lawns, not the foes. That is why it might be good to forgive them if you find holes with characteristic, worm-like earth castings somewhere in your yard. However, earthworms and other insects may attract some other unwanted guests.
- Mammals, such as raccoons, skunks, and armadillos can opportunistically dig out invertebrates they feed on from your lawn, causing instantly visible and sometimes massive damage.
The best prevention for all pests are the high quality and stable management practices. The healthier your lawn is, the less susceptible it will be to pests.
Integrated Pest Management
One interesting approach is gaining popularity in recent years, and that is integrated pest management (IPM).
Basically, the IPM system advocates using all the nurturing and preventive measures as a first measure of preventing pests, and pesticide use only as a last resort when all other strategies are spent. That differs radically from the past approaches when simply spraying the lawn with pesticides would be offered as a first solution to the problems.
The rise of IPM is a consequence of the raised awareness of the damaging effects of insecticides on the environment and non-target organisms.
Lawns and The Environment. Alternatives to Lawn?
Even though, there are a bunch of great things to talk about the lawn, we cannot ignore the downsides of it. And also let's uncover some lawn alternatives.
Lawns On The Environment
Healthy lawns have many environmental benefits when compared to grey infrastructure or brownfields. Healthy, well-maintained lawns:
- Prevent erosion by wind and water
- Improve flood control
- Create a cooling effect during warm weather
- Help the breakdown of organic chemicals
- Provide wildlife habitat
- Reduce noise
- Filter rainwater (if organic)
- Have aesthetical value
However, there are also some environmental issues with classic lawns. Most of them occur because of the type of management, not because of the lawns themselves.
- Are monocultures, which means they reduce natural biodiversity
- Unlike flower gardens, turfgrass does not offer any nectar to feed pollinators, contributing to the global pollinator decline
- Although lawns naturally create wildlife habitat, most lawn owners find insects undesirable; some of them are lawn pests which are regularly treated with pesticides.
- Using pesticides kills beneficial non-target species as well, including bees.
- Lawns demand large amounts of water, which is especially problematic in dry regions such as Australia.
- Using synthetic fertilizers which easily run off into the environment contributes to a range of environmental issues, including the creation of ocean dead zones.
- Mowing directly kills many beneficial, pest-controlling organisms such as ladybugs and spiders; mowing with an oil-powered mower contributes to emissions of health-damaging gasses and poor air quality in the cities.
Because of the environmental concerns you read about in the last section, but also because of the time and costs needed to maintain healthy classic lawns, many people are turning to lawn alternatives.
Plants that are used as an alternative to turf are usually low, resilient and create good groundcover. Many of them do not need to be mowed, creating a category known as the “No-Mow Lawn”.
Many alternative lawn owners pick flowering species, thereby providing food for pollinators.
Here are some plants commonly used as lawn alternatives.
White (Dutch) Clover
Clover is easy to care for, self-fertilizing lawn alternative to turf. It has the ability to fix nitrogen from the air, which makes it ideal for nutrient-poor soils.
White clover grows low and it requires no mowing (though it can stand it). Newly planted clover requires watering twice per week, but once it is established, you can literally forget all about it. It grows quickly and outcompetes weeds easily.
The cost of the seeds is quite low, so you will be able to get an attractive, flowering alternative lawn for very little money.
On the downside, while it tolerates some foot traffic, Dutch Clover is not resistant to being trampled all the time. Also, if you have deer in your area, they might be very attracted to graze on this nutritious plant, which can be fun but will create some bald patches in your clover lawn.
If you have a lot of foot traffic in your yard, creeping thyme might be an ideal solution for you. Creeping thyme requires no mowing since it grows only 2 to 4 inches, thrives with very little watering, and is tolerant to various lighting conditions - from full sun to shade.
Creeping thyme produces attractive small flowers - there are several varieties available, and they can turn your yard into an explosion of colors. And it's not just the color - thyme has an amazing fragrance as well.
Downsides to having a creeping thyme lawn are hard to find, although there are some. Thyme is one of the more expensive lawn alternatives, and it is not easy to plant - it requires a clear area to begin with. Fortunately, creeping thyme is a perennial plant, so all that effort will pay off in the years to come.
Chamomile was actually one of the desirable ground covers of original Victorian-era English lawns. It is low maintenance, drought-resistant, spreads quickly, can grow on slopes and other “difficult” areas, and releases a pleasant, calming fragrance with every step.
The only thing that chamomile requires is the sun. It will grow in shady areas as well, but won’t create a full cover. Some varieties of chamomile are toxic to dogs, so if you have one, be careful about choosing your variety.
There are many more lawn alternatives to discover.
I hope that our journey through the world of lawns was inspiring and that now you know much more about both basic and advanced lawn design and care.
As you see, lawns are not some dull green patches of uniform grass - each type has its own distinct features and qualities, and a lot of benefits to offer to its owners and users.
There and various, endlessly interesting options when it comes to designing and maintaining a lawn. One thing is certain - the more you know, and the more love and care you invest into your lawns - the more vibrantly green they will be.
Resources & Suggested Reading
Lawn care calendar (cool season grass)