A lush lawn doesn't just make a home look great. Along with trees and shrubs, healthy turf prevents soil erosion and lowers heat and noise levels. Best of all, it's not necessary to pump a yard full of expensive chemicals, water plants twice daily or mow like a maniac to keep a landscape in top shape.
The editors of Consumer Reports consulted with their lawn experts and came up with seven steps to take - as well as several to avoid - to get the greenest landscape ever.
1. Test the soil. Soil tests are essential to healthy lawns. The editors of CR advise doing one at least every three years to see if the soil has gone "sweet or sour," pro talk for acidic or alkaline, the two pH-imbalances that rob soil of nutrients.
CR evaluated six soil-test kits that ranged in price from the Rapitest 1612 ($4) to the Kelway pHD 82353 ($68). None of the kits CR tested were consistently accurate enough to rely on for pH readings. Private labs and local cooperative extensions are often a better choice; the latter charge as little at $15. Check out www.extension.org to find a local cooperative.
2. Fix the problems. Soil-test results indicate precisely how much lime to put down if the soil pH is acidic, a common condition throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Lime in pelletized form is easier to spread than powder, which blows around in the wind. If soil is alkaline, as in many parts west of the Mississippi and in Florida, the test results will indicate how much sulfur to put down.
3. Build up turf. Start a new lawn if less than half the lawn is covered with good grass. When laying down a new lawn, sod is better than seed at reducing soil erosion and needs less watering. If the lawn is thin only in spots, seeding can help make it thicker and more weed- and pest-resistant.
4. Mow methodically. It's tempting to cut grass short to prolong the time between mowings. But removing more than one third of the blade's total height shortens its root system and weakens it.
Mowing heights vary, from 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches, by grass type. But mower settings aren't always precise. CR recommends placing the mower on a level surface, such as the garage floor. Measure from the floor to the cutting edge of the blade and adjust the height of the mowing deck.
5. Mulch regularly. Save time and effort by using the mower's mulch setting. As clippings decompose, their soil-enriching nitrogen promotes turf growth naturally. Mulching can also reduce fertilizer needs by a third, saving money as well.
6. Water wisely. Half of all water applied to residential yards is lost to evaporation, wind or overwatering, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. According to CR's experts, the secret is to water deeply but infrequently. Once a week is often enough, provided it's done in the morning, when the winds are calm and the sun isn't so hot that the water will evaporate before it reaches the roots. Watering at night promotes mold and disease. Shoot for 1 inch of water (including rainfall) per week in the growing season, or check with the local extension for specifics. Use an empty tuna can to track volume.
7. Trim trees and shrubs. It's not all about grass. Properly pruned trees and shrubs add interest and variety to a yard. Mature ones are also pretty expensive to replace. When adding plantings, check with the local extension service for species that will thrive in a particular area.
Planting shade trees on the south and west sides of a house, for example, can help reduce energy bills by blocking solar heat gain.