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Closeup photo of St. Augustine grass blades in early summer, by Diane Rixon
Mowers, edgers, leaf-blowers. Sod, plug, aerate, de-thatch. Irrigate, seed, fertilize, weed.

Phew! Makes my head spin just thinking about the stuff you're supposed to do to maintain a lawn, at least according to certain yard-care experts. If you follow the recommendations of lawn-care service companies, you can spend hundreds of dollars each year on your lawn. Many people do exactly that, just because they think it's necessary for a nice lawn.

Well, guess what? It's not necessary. Okay, if you must have a picture perfect lawn that's smooth, flat and green year-round like a golf course... well, that's going to require some work. However, if you're like me and just want some nice, healthy grass, then the trick is to work... less. Yes, less!

In fact, everything you really need to know can be simplified down into three tips: 1. Mow less. 2. Lay off the chemicals and 3. Opt for low-maintenance landscaping. Need more detail? Read on!


Lawn-care: why less is more

Like the soldier who opts for a buzz-cut because he needs a no-maintenance routine, many people mistakenly think that buzz-cutting their grass really short will make for a low-maintenance lawn. Now, I know it seems tempting, but the secret to a low-maintenance lawn is to let it grow longer. Yes, really.

When grass is cut super-short, the thousands of individual little grass plants making up your lawn get stressed. They start working overtime to grow the blades back to a normal height. If the blades are repeatedly mowed short, the plant eventually devotes all its resources to blade growth. This makes for a weakened root system that's too weak to withstand normal environmental stresses like periods of drought.

Unfortunately, this is the point at which homeowners can inadvertently make matters worse. Seeing that the lawn is beginning to appear yellow or patchy, many reach for the weed-and-feed-type products. However, a good dose of fertilizer forces the lawn into yet another growth surge, exhausting it even further. At this point, it's easy to get stuck in a never-ending -- and costly -- cycle of mowing and fertilizing, mowing and fertilizing.

Want to stop the madness? Here are some simple lawn-care hints:

1. Mow less

Mow less often, maybe every couple of weeks in summer instead of every week. Second, mow high -- set the lawnmower blades to the highest setting you can live with. The rule of thumb is this: cut no more than one third of the leaf blade when you mow to avoid stressing the grass. This should guide you in choosing a blade height, depending on which type of grass you have.

For example, my lawn here in north Florida is St. Augustine grass, which should be mowed high at three inches or more. My neighbors all have St. Augustine grass lawns too, yet many of them cut much lower than three inches, stressing the lawn and creating bald, yellowing patches that become very visible when it's hot and dry. In comparison, my lawn looks fine year round and I do absolutely nothing to it other than mowing every couple of weeks during the summer months.

Can you live with a longer lawn? It takes a little getting used too, especially if you're concerned about bucking a neighborhood trend. That's because a longer lawn looks lush and lovely on its own, but when it's surrounded by ultra-clipped lawns it can look...well, a bit shaggy and unkempt in comparison. Keeping the edges neat goes a long way, as does mowing the grass verge closest to the street a little lower than the rest.

One task you should not neglect is lawnmower servicing. Get your mower serviced regularly to ensure you're mowing with a nice sharp blade. (Or sharpen the blade yourself if you know how.) This produces a clean cut on the leaf blade, which is good for the health of the lawn. Dull blades, on the other hand, shred the grass blades, stressing the lawn.

2. Lay off the Chemicals

Many suburbanites are guilty of over-fertilizing their lawns, which contributes to the pollution of our waterways. Please, please use fertilizer on your lawn only occasionally (once every one or two years is fine), and apply it conservatively. Fertilize only during the early growing season. Finally, use a slow-release product for maximum long-term lawn health.

Skip the giant sacks of "weed and feed" products, which are a blend of fertilizer and herbicides. Herbicides should be used sparingly, on affected areas only. It's a poison -- why spread it all over your property?

Just because your lawn mower came with a clipping catcher doesn't mean you have to use it! Leave grass clippings where they fall. The blade tips will will break down and fertilize your lawn naturally. Why go to all that trouble of hauling and bagging clippings when they can do so much good for your lawn?

Another handy hint: make peace with the weeds, and don't go looking for problems. A few weeds here and there are not as noticeable to the neighbors as you might think. In fact, they are invisible from a distance. Focus on encouraging healthy lawn growth. Weeds will never really take hold in a healthy lawn.


3. Low-maintenance Landscaping

Know when to give up on grass. Lawns will become high-maintenance when they're planted in unsuitable locations. Lawn grasses typically need bright light and great soil. Some areas of your yard may just not be the right place for lawn. If that's the case, consider simply replacing some of it with something else.

In shady areas, such as under large evergreen trees, opt for shade-loving groundcovers. What's not to like about English Ivy or liriope? They're pretty and never, ever need mowing! Clover is an option, too, if you're okay with lots of bees! You could also try turning part of your lawn into a wildflower meadow.

Hot, sunny slopes can be replanted with drought-hardy groundcovers like ornamental grasses, which come in many sizes from ankle-height (dwarf bamboo) to knee-high (fountain grass) to head-high (pampas grass). Ornamental grasses are highly drought-tolerant, love sun, and look fabulous planted in clusters. Another sun-loving, no-maintenance groundcover is juniper. Once established, it looks great and stays green through the worst droughts.

Here are a few more tips that reduce the need for mowing: First, replace lawn in high-traffic areas with paths , mulch, stepping stones, or a combination of all three. Second, mulch around trees to reduce the total area that needs mowing and raking, and to protect trees from mower collisions. Third, create rounded edges on your garden beds to make mowing less labor-intensive. Fourth, edge your garden beds and paths, so you won't need an edger.

Finally, remember that your county extension service may be able to offer free advice if you're having problems. Enjoy your low-care lawn!


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