University of Illinois Extension

Cutting Lawn Care Costs

In today's tight economic climate, people are trying to save money at every opportunity. The good news is that lawns are no exception, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture specialist.

"You can make lawn care very expensive or quite cheap depending on your approach," said Matt Kostelnick. "There are many things you can do to cutback on costs, chemicals, and water on your lawn and at the same time improve the health of your lawn."

Watering (irrigation) is something many lawn owners spend too much time, money, and natural resources (precious water) on. Another factor to consider is water bans enforced by local governments, which limits water usage further and are expected to be enforced increasingly in the future.

"People often make watering lawns a very costly and misunderstood process that is repeated every summer," he said. "Many people notice their lawns turning a tan/brownish color when temperatures get warmer in June. By August, many lawn owners believe their lawn is either dead or on its way to dying because of this tan/brown color.

"Contrary to popular belief, this is almost never the case. In fact, the lawn is going dormant, which is expected and totally natural."

LawncareAlmost all grasses grown in northern Illinois are cool-season grasses. Kentucky Bluegrass, which is the most common grass in Illinois and found in lawns everywhere, is an example of a cool-season grass. Cool-season grasses grow actively in the cooler times of the year, primarily in the cool weather of spring and fall. The cool-season grasses go dormant during the hot summer months and the cold winter months. When the grass is dormant, it appears as though it is almost dead or dying.

"This dormant period during the summer is often misunderstood by many lawn owners," said Kostelnick. "The lawn owner thinks the grass is dying due to drought, and they end up watering daily, thinking they are bringing the grass back to life. More often than not, the grass is simply shutting down during the hot days of summer, a completely normal and healthy cycle.

"In fact, watering frequently when grass is dormant can be detrimental to the grass. Only in the driest time periods is the grass suffering from lack of water, and that is the only time it is necessary to water the grass during the summer months for the sake of the grass's health."

When does this happen? It only occurs during periods of drought, like the summer of 2005.

"A certain way to know if your lawn is suffering from drought stress is by walking on it," he said. "If you can see your footprints left in the grass after walking on it, the grass is suffering from drought stress and needs to be watered at that point. If the grass is suffering from drought, it is now beneficial to irrigate. Irrigate about a half inch of water, slowly and deeply in the morning, about every 10 days during periods of drought. Only during these conditions is watering your lawn actually necessary."

Because lawns go dormant during the summer, they are not actively growing. Many people put down a fertilizer during the hot summer months. This is a mistake and can actually hurt your grass and encourage more weed growth. If your lawn is dormant, there is no need to spend money on lawn fertilizer in the summer. In fact, you will be doing your lawn a favor by not fertilizing during the summer.

Lawn height (the height of the grass blades) is very important in growing a healthy lawn. "Many people often cut their grass too short," he said. "It is tempting to cut grass short, because it looks nice and manicured. However, cutting most cool-season grasses shorter than two inches is not recommended.

"Grass cut too short leads to stressed grass, shallow roots, increased weed encroachment and competition, and overall poor grass health. Preferably, grass should be mowed down to about three inches in height, especially during the hot summer months."

When mowing, it is also important to never remove more than one-third of the grass canopy.

"Cutting more than one-third of the grass at any given time stresses the grass," he said.

In summary, two ways to cut costs, improve lawn health, and be more environmentally friendly include minimal summer watering and no summer lawn fertilizing. Cutting grass at a higher height, which doesn't cost the lawn owner, also improves the health of the grass and reduces weed competition.

"Cutting back on summer watering and fertilizing can help save a lot of time, money, and resources," said Kostelnick.

"This does not mean, however, that you should cut back on all lawn care practices. It is always good to keep lawn mower blades sharp. Core aeration also benefits all lawns and should be practiced on all lawns annually, preferably in September."