Lawn Care for Beginners

Homeownership is an exciting experience, but it also comes with a lot of new responsibilities. It’s likely the biggest investment of your life, so maintaining it, along with your lawn and yard, is a must.

As a new homeowner, it’s hard to know where to start. How much water does a lawn need? What’s the best way to tackle pesky weeds? If you’re feeling overwhelmed, this guide has you covered. Follow these lawn care tips each season for a nice backyard you’ll enjoy for years to come.

Spring

1Rake and aerate your lawn and flower beds.

Rake and aerate your lawn and flower beds.

Spring lawn care is primarily about addressing any wear and tear caused by harsh winter weather, and setting up your lawn up for a healthy season ahead (read: with fewer weeds!).

While fall is usually the most popular time for raking, you’ll likely have a bit of cleanup to do in early spring. Some trees, such as oak and beech, shed leaves and broken branches over the winter and into spring. Get rid of heavy piles or layers of leaves as these are breeding grounds for mold and decay. Keep in mind that any strays or thin layers of leaves will likely go with the first lawn mowing of the season, or break down and add nutrients back into the soil.

As part of this first step, it’s also a good idea to aerate your lawn to help break up compacted soil. This involves making tiny holes by either pushing a rod into your lawn, or by extracting a plug of soil. These pockets in the soil help water, air, and nutrients reach grass and garden plant roots more easily.[1]

You’ll know you need to aerate your lawn and flower beds if:

  • The ground feels hard and compacted
  • Water pools and doesn’t seem penetrate the soil well
  • Thatch (an accumulation of dead grass, stems, roots, and leaves) has built up[2]

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2Tackle weeds while they are small.

Tackle weeds while they're small.

Small weeds can become a big problem if you leave them until summer, giving their roots a chance to strengthen and take hold deep in the soil.

To prevent weeds from emerging, follow these preemptive strategies:

  • Skip spring fertilization.
  • Apply an organic or “pre-emergent” herbicide once the temperature hits double digitals and stays there for at least a few days (usually in March or early April). Any later in the season and weeds will probably already be visible.[3]

Once you notice weeds emerging, tackle them with these tips:

Ultimately, the best defense against weeds is a thick and healthy lawn that doesn’t allow room for them to establish in the first place.[4]

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Quick Tip
Dandelions are difficult to completely eliminate and chances are, your lawn will have a few yellow flowers at some point. When removing, be sure to get the entire root or they’ll be back again next year.

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3Fill in lawn holes or bare patches.

Fill in lawn holes or bare patches.

The best time to seed grass is in the fall. That’s because, if you’re using a pre-emergent herbicide in the spring for weeds, it’ll make it harder for grass seed to grow, too. But, if you really want to fill in bare patches that might have emerged after winter, try to spot-seed those areas before you apply any pre-emergent herbicide.

To fill in bare patches effectively, follow these steps:

  1. Before seeding, scuff up the area with a steel rake to loosen the soil.
  2. Apply some compost and sprinkle grass seed on the spot.
  3. Keep the soil moist and cover with straw or grass clippings to hold seeds in place.

Of course, you could opt for sod if you’ve got large bare patches or want an instant fix. Keep in mind, however, that sod is more expensive than seeding and needs daily watering to make sure it establishes well.

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4Prune and trim trees and bushes.

Prune and trim trees and bushes.

In addition to giving trees and bushes specific shapes, pruning also has terrific health benefits for the plant: Removing dead or diseased stems and branches helps encourage new growth and foliage, and prevents the spread of disease to other areas of the plant.

You can remove:

  • Dead, diseased or broken branches
  • Branches that cross or grow inward or downward
  • Long shoots growing out of the base of a tree
  • Water spouts, which are shoots that grow straight up from the main branches of shrubs and trees[5]

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Summer

5Cut your lawn often and a little at a time.

Cut your lawn often and a little at a time.

Mowing has a big impact on the overall aesthetic of your lawn and, if done right, can contribute to a dense, healthy, and uniform-looking lawn. Not surprisingly, it’s also the most time-consuming yard maintenance task. Follow these best practices:

  • Mow frequently: This will depend on weather conditions and how fast your grass grows, which on average, tends to be about once a week. You want to avoid cutting more than 1/3 of the shoot length when you mow.
  • Mow high: Cut grass to a height of 6 to 8 centimetres (2.5 to 3 inches) to encourage growth, prevent weeds, and discourage insect pests. This height also helps the soil retain its moisture better.[6]
  • Mow when it’s dry: Dry grass cuts cleaner, and the clippings distribute more evenly.
  • Keep your blade sharp: Get the blade of your lawn mower sharpened or replace the blade entirely each spring. Grass that’s cut clean will recover (and grow back) quicker than when it’s torn.
  • Leave clippings: As lawn clippings compost, they slowly release nitrogen for the grass, encouraging healthy growth.
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TIME-SAVING TIP
Depending on the size of your property, you may want to invest in a riding lawn mower, which can make grass cutting easier (and less of a chore).

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6Fertilize grass, beginning in mid- to late summer.

Fertilize grass, beginning in mid- to late summer.

Fertilizer is important to replenish essential nutrients needed for healthy grass and plants to grow. Compost is a great way to feed your lawn in between regular fertilizer treatments. Use a rake to spread a thin layer over your lawn. You can also leave grass clippings on your lawn after mowing, as they provide nutrients. (The exception would be if the clippings are excessively wet and heavy. In that case, rake them up and dispose of them.)

When buying fertilizer, look for these three main nutrients:

  • Nitrogen (N), which promotes leaf growth and overall lawn density
  • Phosphorus (P), for good root development
  • Potassium (K), which is essential for plant resilience and its ability to tolerate drought and winter elements[7]

Apply several treatments of lawn fertilizer, beginning in mid- to late-summer and through to early fall for best results. If a uniformly green lawn is what you’re after (who isn’t?) take care to apply the fertilizer evenly. Follow the directions specific to the brand and type that you’re using.

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7Water thoroughly about once per week.

er thoroughly about once per week

On average, you’ll want to water your lawn no more than once per week, and only if there’s been no rainfall that week. Overwatering can actually hinder grass growth and lead to disease problems.

Try and water your lawn in the morning to reduce water lost from evaporation and wind. Watering in the evening is OK once in a while, but could leave the grass wet for longer, increasing the risk of disease.

Hooking your hose up to a lawn sprinkler can help ensure an even distribution of water. The simplest way to figure out when you’ve watered enough (about half an inch of water), is to time the first session.  Here’s how:

  1. Place a shallow plastic container in the middle of your watering pattern.
  2. Turn on your sprinkler and make note of the time.
  3. Once the margarine container is filled to half an inch, check the time again. Say it took 20 minutes; In the future, you’ll just need to set a timer for 20 minutes and you’ll known you’ve watered enough.

Don’t panic if a heat wave has left your lawn wilted and brown. The grass is likely just dormant, not dead, and a healthy lawn can survive for several weeks in this dormant state. Once regular moisture conditions return, many common grass varieties will return to their lush, green state.

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Quick Tip
If you have large trees in your yard, you may need to water nearby grass more frequently. Tree roots tend to absorb a lot of the soil’s water.

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Fall

8Overseed to encourage a fuller, thicker lawn.

Overseed to encourage a fuller, thicker lawn.

Early fall is ideal to seed bare or sparse areas of your lawn, as the soil is still warm but there aren’t as many weeds for the new growth to compete with. Overseeding, as it’s come to be known, is a method involves seeding overtop of your existing lawn, with the goal of filling in areas that are thin, brown and patchy.[8]

Follow these steps for best results:

  1. Cut your grass shorter than usual to create easier access to the soil.
  2. After mowing, rake your lawn to loosen the topsoil.
  3. Spread your grass seed.
  4. Apply fertilizer for essential nutrients.
  5. Water lightly but consistently, keeping the soil moist until the seedlings are about as high as your existing grass.[9]

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9Aerate and apply a final treatment of fertilizer.

Apply fertilizer

If you didn’t get a chance to aerate your lawn in the spring, fall is a good time to do this as well. Aerating your lawn before applying a final treatment of fertilizer can help your lawn recover from the summer and give you a head start on a healthy lawn for the following year.

Apply this last treatment of fertilizer when the turf has stopped actively growing, but is still green, which is usually in mid- to late-October.

10Mulch and rake fallen leaves.

Mulch and rake fallen leaves.

Once the temperature drops, the tendency may be to pack things away and head indoors, but fall lawn care is important to ensure a healthy lawn emerges the following spring.

The first yard maintenance task for the fall season is to rake and remove fallen leaves before winter, and for a few good reasons:

  • A high volume of fallen leaves can smother the grass and inhibit growth in the spring
  • Fallen leaves can promote snow mold diseases (a cold-weather fungus)
  • Not doing so could lead to more extensive lawn damage from critters and pests like moles and mice.[10]

But raking isn’t your only option for leaf removal.

If leaves are just starting to fall, use the mulching function on your lawn mower and mow right over the leaves to turn them into mulch. This time-saving option has benefits for your soil as well!

Alternatively, a leaf blower can quickly move a high volume of leaves around the yard, where you can then rake them into piles for compost or disposal.  If you’re able to compost, your lawn can benefit from the nutrients the following spring. On the other hand, if you prefer to dispose of them, just be sure to use paper yard waste bags that will eventually compost, as opposed to plastic garbage bags.

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Article Sources

  1. Health Canada. How to have a healthy lawn.
  2. Health Canada. Maintaining a lawn.
  3. Almanac. 10 tips for maintaining a beautiful yard.
  4. Health Canada. Dealing with lawn problems.
  5. Almanac. Pruning 101.
  6. Landscape Ontario. How to maintain a healthy lawn in seven simple steps.
  7. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Lawn Maintenance.
  8. Health Canada. Maintaining a lawn.
  9. Scotts. How to overseed a thin lawn.
  10. University of Minnesota. Do you really need to rake all those leaves?