Planning a Lower Maintenance Lawn

by Erin Hynes

Lawn’s started out as a status symbol for landowners wealthy enough to hire servants to clip it by hand. But after the invention of the lawn mower in 1830, less affluent social climbers could have lawns too. Forty years later, the lawn got another boost from renowned landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead. Most famous for designing New York’s Central Park, Olmstead also designed the Chicago suburb of Riverside, where he gave the town a park-like feel by using lawns in front of homes instead of more typical fenced-in gardens.

Mow Less

Clearly, if you have less lawn, you spend less time mowing it. Replacing a chunk of lawn with a flower garden won’t save you work — they need plenty of care — but replacing it with a groundcover will. So will replacing parts of the lawn by adding wide paths of mulch, fieldstones or pavers. Gravel paths are a maintenance nightmare, because gravel tends to scatter into the lawn and be lobbed at playmates. Major lawn-replacing projects include adding a deck or patio.

Experiment with different mowing patterns to find one with the fewest time-consuming turns; for example, try mowing a rectangular lawn on the diagonal, rather than straight across. Minimize the number of obstacles to mow around, such as plant islands, swing sets, garden sheds and bird baths.

Finally, keep your blade sharp and your lawn mower tuned up, so the mower doesn’t have to work harder than necessary to do its job.

Edge Less

Spend less time with the line trimmer by having fewer places where the lawn abuts a vertical surface, such as a tree, or fence or the house.

  • Surround trees with mulch (which also cuts down on the competition for water and nutrients, and protects the bark from line-trimmer damage.)
  • Next to a fence, house or garage, cover a strip with heavy landscape fabric and an attractive mulch, such as bark or river rock. Or add a garden bed — you can plant a row of small shrubs or ornamental grasses or a groundcover if you don’t want to tend flowers.
  • To edge garden beds less, install edging or a mow strip of pavers on top of landscape fabric.

Feed Less

Overfeeding your lawn not only wastes money on fertilizer, it makes the lawn grow faster, so you mow more. Overfeeding also makes the grass blades more succulent, which encourages lawn insects and diseases. Instead, fertilize once a year, in autumn. Fall fertilizing encourages the roots to stock up on food for the winter, rather than produce a flush of green growth like spring fertilizing does. If you do fertilize in spring, use a half dose of a slow-release fertilizer to encourage steady growth, and apply the other half in autumn.

Feed your lawn naturally by mowing with a mulching mower, which returns the nutrients in grass clippings to the soil and saves time on bagging clippings. If you don’t have a mulching mower, you can outfit your mower with a mulching blade. If you wish, supplement by fertilizing in early autumn, before the grass stops growing.

If you live in a region of the country with acidic soil — you know your soil is acidic if azaleas and rhododendrons are widely grown in your area — you can make your soil more fertile by spreading limestone every few years to counteract the soil’s natural acidity, making some nutrients more available to plants. It’s critical to have your soil tested before you lime so you know how much to apply — you can get a free soil testing kit from a local garden center or the local office of your state Cooperative Extension Service. Don’t add limestone in regions with alkaline soil, such as the upper Midwest and dry regions of the western US.

Erin Hynes is the author of The Weekend Gardener: Create a Low-Maintenance Landscape to Enjoy Year-Round(1998, Rodale Press).

 

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  1. Very helpful. I was never quite sure when to feed the lawn. Now this fall I will be on top of it, and at the same time save money! Thanks

  2. Great advice. Going to start the different mowing patterns. The lawn is green and thick, but grows crazy. Doing a Craftsman mower tuneup this weekend.

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