Living Smart: How to get a lush, green lawn your neighbors will envy

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Many homeowners strive for the perfect, emerald green lawn, but it takes more than regular mowing.

Lawn care requires a dedicated effort consisting of fertilization, regular maintenance and the ability to troubleshoot problems as they arise.

How low should you mow?

Often the first decision homeowners need to make is how short they should keep their grass so that it will look both manicured and lush.

Although it might seem natural to cut the lawn as short as possible, experts recommend letting it grow longer and mowing it more frequently.

Eileen Michaels, founder of A Yard and a Half Landscaping in Waltham, Mass., recommends setting the mower blades to at least 3 inches tall as "taller grass will shade out weed seeds."

Cutting a lawn short also puts stress on the grass and reduces its ability to resist weeds and pest infestation. Cutting a blade of grass too short reduces the amount of chlorophyll, which the grass can use for energy.

Short grass blades tend to put considerable strain on the roots, and that makes your lawn more susceptible to drying out and turning brown in warmer weather.

Once youíve decided on lawn height, itís time to make the grass as green as possible without pesky weeds popping up.

Fertilizers promote healthy lawn

Organic and synthetic lawn fertilizers are good tools for maintaining a healthy lawn. Fertilizer promotes a lush growth, strengthens roots, and helps to prevent invasive weeds and pests.

There are many varieties of lawn fertilizer available, but most consist of three key nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen is the most important for growth, but too much can lead to excessive growth, yard burn and discoloration.

The most popular types of lawn fertilizer are granule and liquid, which come in synthetic and organic forms. You can also choose between fast and slow-release fertilizer, or blends that contain pre-emergent controls for fighting crabgrass, weeds and other invasive plants.

Granule fertilizer should be applied with a broadcast spreader, a device that can be pushed or pulled around the yard to evenly distribute the fertilizer. A spreader is necessary because large concentrations of fertilizer in a small area can kill the grass.

"A balanced fertilization with a pre-emergent for control of annual grasses, (e.g. crabgrass), should be applied during the month of April, since crabgrass begins to emerge in May," says Michael Van de Bossche, owner of Earth-Wood Arts in Indianapolis. "Nitrogen should be a 50/50 split of fast and slow-release forms."

His advice applies to lawns in the Midwestern region of the United States. For additional fertilizer information, check your local  university extension.

Van de Bossche says too much quick-release fertilizer combined with spring rains can create too lush of a growth, which increases turf and fungus problems.  

Is there a green option for lawn care?

Organic lawn fertilizer is a popular option for homeowners with a green thumb. Itís made up of living organisms, such as plant and animal matter. It releases nutrients at a slower pace and over a longer period of time than synthetic fertilizers.

Michaels says the organic approach doesnít provide immediate results like a synthetic fertilizer, but over time, it improves the overall quality of the lawn, reducing the amount of future applications.

"Synthetic fertilizers throw quick-release nutrients at the grass, but whatever they canít use up quickly runs off and can potentially pollute water sources," she says. "Slow-release nutrients found in organic sources like corn gluten, alfalfa meal, fish emulsion and compost become available gradually as the plants need them."

Lawn maintenance and repair

Some of the most common lawn problems include bare spots, dead patches and areas that have been infested by dandelions and weeds.

Bare spots are the most noticeable lawn problem, but they can be repaired with a little patience and persistence.

Michaels says sod is an option for large patches, but it can be hard to blend with the rest of the lawn.

"If you have full sun for six or more hours in the area, sod can be an instant-gratification fix," she says. "Depending on the overall quality of the lawn, however, it can give a patchwork appearance."

For smaller patches or areas that receive less sun, Michaels recommends grass seed.

"Rough up the soil, premix seed with a little compost, and throw down the mixture," she says. "Run the back of a rake over it to get seed in contact with the soil, and keep it evenly moist."

For bare spots around flower beds or in areas that receive little sun, she says one option is to expand an existing bed or create a new one altogether. It fixes the problem and adds new landscaping to the yard.

Dead spots form from too much sunlight, a lack of water, concentrations of pet urine or the overuse of fertilizer. To repair these unsightly brown spots, remove the dead grass down to the bare soil and apply grass seed.

If granule fertilizer was the culprit, you will be able to see collections of the small pellets and remove it.

How to battle stubborn weeds

Invasive weeds and dandelions are problems you may have to combat.

Dandelions are a perennial weed, which means they have deep roots that survive the winter and come back the following spring. The best way to keep them out of your yard is to attack them as soon as they appear.

"The most effective, though time-consuming, thing is to dig out the whole root," Michaels says. 

You can also use a lawn and garden sprayer with an organic or synthetic herbicide to spray dandelions and weeds as they appear. Itís important to limit the use of these products because they can cause harm to the body and runoff can enter waterways and streams.

 óóó