Natural lawn care
Achieving and maintaining a healthy and beautiful lawn is easier than you might think. By following these natural lawn care practices, you’ll help build a stronger, healthier lawn that chokes out weeds, naturally resists pests and remains vibrant all season long.
Don’t water in spring or fall
- Normally, spring and fall rainfalls provide more than enough water for your lawn.
- Brown lawns in the summer are normal: grass goes dormant or inactive during drought. When the rain returns, so will the green on your lawn.
Water 2.5 cm (about 1 inch) a week, including rain
- Watering deeply, once a week for clay soils and twice a week for sandy soils, encourages deep, strong root growth. This will help your lawn cope in periods of summer drought.
- Watering more frequently can weaken grass, making it vulnerable to disease, pests and drought.
Use a rain gauge
- A rain gauge can be used to measure the amount of water that has fallen, so you know how much more water you need to add to meet the 2.5 cm (1 inch) minimum.
- A rain gauge can also be used to measure how long your sprinkler needs to be on: simply put the rain gauge beside your sprinkler, turn it on and note how long it takes for the rain gauge to meet the 2.5 cm (1 inch) mark.
Do-it-yourself project: Make your own rain gauge: simply use tape to draw a line 2.5 cm (1 inch) from the bottom of any clear container (e.g. empty bottle).
Caring for your lawn to minimize additional water
- The best way to ensure a healthy, green lawn is to properly mow, aerate, fertilize, top-dress and overseed.
- The height of your grass is very important.
- Set the blade on your mower to cut at 6 — 7.5 cm (2.5 — 3 inches).
- Never remove more than 1/3 of the grass blade when you mow to avoid stressing the turf.
- Mow high to strengthen the roots and retain water and nutrients.
- A short lawn leads to shorter, weaker root systems.
- Short root systems leave your lawn more vulnerable to drought, insects and weeds.
- Only mow your lawn when it needs it.
- Mowing should be more frequent during the spring and fall than in the summer when the grass grows slowly.
- Mow less during dry spells and try to reduce foot traffic during drought periods.
- Continue mowing through the fall until growth stops.
Mow when grass is dry
- To achieve the optimum height and an even cut, mow when the grass is dry.
- Wet grass clippings can clump and create problems for your lawn.
- Dry grass is less likely to clog mowers.
- Mow late in the day to avoid morning dew.
Use your clippings
- Grass clippings are 80% water and decompose readily, clippings will disappear within a day or two.
- Grass clippings are not collected as garbage or yard waste.
- Add a small layer of clippings to your compost.
- Using clippings as mulch around your trees or shrubs prevents moisture loss, adds important nutrients and provides weed control.
- Remember: leaving your grass clippings on the lawn does not cause thatch. Thatch is caused by adding too much nitrogen or using chemical pesticides.
Refer to thatch problems section
Keep your blades sharp
- Dull blades tear the grass, leaving it vulnerable to disease and heat stress.
- Dull blades shred leaf tips, causing the turf to lose moisture.
- Sharpen your blades twice a season, or every 8 — 10 hours of use.
- Keep your equipment in good working condition.
- Look for possible projectiles such as rocks before you mow.
- Avoid mowing steep slopes; consider replacing grass with ground cover plants or a garden.
- Easy-to-use push mowers can provide a quality cut.
- They offer a quiet, non-polluting, fuel-free alternative.
- For many small properties in Toronto, these mowers are good alternatives to noisy gas mowers.
Aerate in spring or fall to help water reach roots
Heavily used lawns can become compacted, preventing water from reaching roots. A lawn aerator removes small plugs of soil and turf from your lawn, to improve the flow of water, air and nutrients to the roots of your grass. Aeration is best done when the ground is slightly moist in either the spring or the fall. Aerating will help your roots grow deeply and produce a more healthy vibrant lawn. Perform aeration prior to top dressing and/or over-seeding for great results. Consider sharing the cost of renting an aerator with your neighbours — you can rent or purchase an aerator at most garden centres or equipment rental locations.
Fertilize using natural fertilizers once a year, in the fall
Lawns should be fertilized once each year, preferably in the fall. All lawns require nitrogen for healthy growth. Synthetic or chemical fertilizers contain water soluble nitrogen, which is easily dissolved in water. Much of this nitrogen can be lost when it rains or when you water your lawn. Consider natural fertilizer as an effective alternative to meet your lawn’s needs. Most natural fertilizers contain insoluble nitrogen that doesn’t quickly breakdown in water. This means the fertilizer stays in the lawn and nutrients are released slowly providing the lawn with food for a longer period. Slow release also means there is little likelihood of over-fertilizing and burning your lawn.
Keep your grass clippings on your lawn
Remember to keep grass clippings on your lawn — an excellent natural source of nitrogen and moisture.
Add compost to your lawn once a year in spring or fall
Many lawns suffer due to a lack of organic material. Top-dressing (adding organic material to your lawn) is a great way to add nutrients to your lawn, reduce compaction, promote growth and help improve the lawn’s water holding capacity. Replenish your lawn by applying a 1.5 cm (1/2 inch) layer of organic material like compost to the surface of your grass each year in the spring or fall.
Add a mixture of grass seeds to your lawn to prevent weeds and improve its appearance and drought tolerance
Overseeding is spreading a mixture of grass seeds on an established lawn. If you want a thicker, greener, vigorous and stress tolerant lawn, then overseeding is for you. Most lawns in Toronto contain Kentucky bluegrass, a very high maintenance grass. In many cases Kentucky bluegrass might be wrong for your yard conditions.
Seed spreaders (hand-held or push) can be used to evenly apply seed to your lawn — always follow the seed package instructions. Seed spreaders are available for rent or purchase at most garden centres. For smaller areas you can choose to sow the grass seed by hand and then lightly rake to even it out.
Select the right grass seed
To choose the right seed for your needs, consider:
- How much sunlight does your lawn receive?
- How much do you use your yard?
- Is it for the front yard or backyard?
- Do you want a high or low maintenance yard?
When shopping for seed look for a high quality blend for our 'northern climate', which is virtually weed free. By using a blend of seeds, you are introducing a variety of grass types to your lawn which creates a healthier and more resilient lawn. Before you buy, read the product label and look for Canada Certified No. 1 seed — this provides assurances about the purity and percent germination rates.
- Mow your lawn and then rake away the clippings. You want to make sure the seed makes good contact with the soil. You can add a small layer of clippings to your compost or use the clipping as mulch around your trees or shrubs.
- Give your lawn a good rake. You want to rough it up to create a good seed bed.
- For small areas of lawn, spread the seed by hand over the entire spot and then lightly rake to even it out. For larger lawn areas, you can use a broadcast spreader (hand-held or push) to distribute the seed.
- Cover the seed with a thin layer of topsoil or compost up to 1.5 cm (1/2 inch).
- Keep the seed moist with a gentle sprinkling (do not over-water or wash the soil away) until the seed has germinated, this may take between 8 to 15 days. It is very important to not let the seed dry out. Remember to water in the morning.
- When the new grass emerges, mow before the grass reaches 12 cm (4 inches) — remember to keep your lawn between 5 — 7.5 cm (2.5 inches — 3 inches).
Mixes and Blends at Garden Centres:
Perennial Ryegrass Mix — Best for sunny areas
- Great for homes with a lot of wear and foot traffic.
- Grows quickly, drought tolerant, pest and weed resistant.
Tall Fescue Mix — Good for partially shady and dry conditions
- Great low maintenance grass.
- Excellent heat, drought and disease resistance.
Fine Fescue Mixes (Northern) — Good for shady areas
- Suitable for shaded, low-traffic areas.
- Less frequent mowing, especially in summer.
Low Maintenance Grass Seed — Generally, blends of different fescues
- No or very little mowing required.
- Very low water requirements, rain is usually all you need.
- Less vulnerable to pests and disease.
- Shade tolerant.
Kentucky Bluegrass Mix — Full sun to light shade
- Hardy and wear resistant.
- Very high maintenance — requires regular costly watering to maintain green colour through summer and more fertilizing and mowing than other grasses.
- Doesn't tolerate shade.
Having problems with your lawn?
You might have the wrong grass for the location or conditions. Below are some common problems and solutions:
Grass won’t grow in shade
- Purchase drought-tolerant seed mixes: fescue grasses handle shade better than other grass types.
- Consider planting shade loving groundcovers.
- Plant a shade garden.
- Mow high and infrequently, especially in the summer, as grass needs blade surface to soak up sunlight.
Thick green lawns just won’t grow in deep shade. Ask your garden centre about groundcovers or mulches as your best solution.
Grass won't grow in sun
- Try mulch around the base of mature trees where grass won't grow.
- Reduce soil compaction by aerating your lawn.
- Add a light amount of compost to your lawn — no more than a 1.5 cm (1/2 inch).
- Try growing alternatives to grass, such as shrubs, perennials, ground covers and native plants.
- Speak with a lawn care professional or local garden centre.
Grass is Dry
Is your grass 7.5 cm (3 inches) tall? You need grass that has long roots to tap into soil moisture. Remember to mow grass at 5 cm — 7.5 cm (2.5 — 3 inches) to foster deep roots. For very dry areas, try tall fescue and fine fescue mixes as your best choice for drought tolerance.
Grass won't grow on slopes
Your best option is to replace the grass with a rock garden or ground cover. This will reduce the intensive and often ineffective effort to grow and mow grass in such a troublesome area.
Use a rain gauge to assess your lawn watering needs.
Only water 2.5 cm (1 inch) per week including rainfall.
Thatch is a layer of dead and decaying organic material located where the grass emerges from the ground. Thatch happens when organic material collects faster than it decomposes. Thatch can happen when:
- Your lawn has a high percentage of Kentucky bluegrass or creeping bent grass, which are the worst thatch formers. Turf-type grasses such as tall fescue and perennial rye grass are non-thatch forming. *
- Too much fertilizer was added to your lawn, which forces grass to grow faster than micro-organisms can break it down. Fertilize your lawn no more than once per year, preferably in the fall.
- Too much water was added to your lawn, limiting the oxygen in the soil, needed by grass decomposing organisms to survive. Watering deeply 2.5 cm (1 inch) no more than once per week, including rainfall, will allow the soils to dry sufficiently so air can replace water. Use a rain gauge to measure watering needs.
- Pesticides are added to your lawn. Stop using pesticides; they kill earthworms and micro-organisms that breakdown thatch.
- * (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the University of Guelph Turf Grass Institute; 2002)
Repairing trouble spots — patching
Lawn repair patching fixes small areas that are brown, damaged, bare or thin. Small problem areas can be caused by pets, pests, disease, over-watering, or heavy foot traffic. Patching is a simple way to keep your lawn thick and dense and prevents weeds from taking over.
Anytime is a good time to repair your lawn with seed, but patching works best between the end of April and the end of May. If you are patching in the hot and dry weather of the summer take extra steps to keep the soil moist, like adding a small layer of mulch, to cover the seed.
The first thing you should do before repairing a patch of lawn is to determine what is causing the problem. Was this a one time occurrence (dog or spill) or does this spot of lawn continually cause you problems? Speak with your local garden centre or a lawn care professional to determine if the problem can be corrected with patching.
For correctable lawn problems, follow these simple steps:
- Loosen the top 5 — 7.5 cm (2 — 3 inches) of soil with a rake to create a good seed bed.
- Spread the seed by hand evenly over the entire repair spot — if using a lawn patching/repair mix, follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the package.
- Cover the seed with a thin layer of topsoil or compost up to 1.5 cm (1/2 inch).
- Keep the patched lawn moist with a gentle sprinkling (do not over-water) until the seed has germinated, this may take between 8 to 15 days.
- Mow the new growth when it reaches 10 cm (4 inches). Once established, remember to keep your lawn at least 6 — 7.5 cm (2.5 — 3 inches) tall.
- Sometimes lawns are not suited for certain locations such as shaded areas, under trees, on steep slopes, or small and narrow patches.
- Lawn alternatives include woodland shade gardens, native shrubs, wildflower meadows or prairies, xeriscapes or flowerbeds. See section 7.3 for some landscaping alternatives to a lawn.