The Washington Post

Fall is the time to care for your lawn, whether you do the work yourself or hire a service.

- BY KEVIN BRASLER Washington Consumers’ Checkbook locallivin­

That yard seemed like a big plus when you bought your house, but now, you sometimes want it dead — an end to continual mowing, weeding and watering. However, the responsibl­e part of you — the part your neighbors prefer — wants your lawn lush and green.

We’re approachin­g that time of year when lawn work can have a significan­t effect on your yard; in the D.C. area, the majority of the grasses grown benefit greatly from fall fertilizat­ion, seeding and aeration. Here is advice on doing the work on your own or choosing a service to do it for you.

Get the most out of mowing

The key is to develop a thick, healthy lawn that naturally crowds out weeds. Mowing properly is essential. Don’t mow too short; most local lawns should not be cut below a height of about 21/ to three inches. Mow when

2 grass is dry, and mow often enough that no more than onethird of the blades are cut at a time. Keep your mower’s blades sharp, and leave clippings on the lawn (but spread them out or remove big clumps).

Know your fertilizer

Applying fertilizer gives your lawn extra nutrients to improve its health. There are three basic types: fast-release synthetic, slow-release synthetic and slowreleas­e natural (organic).

A fast-release fertilizer gives grass a quick shot of nutrition, resulting in rapid leaf growth and greening. But this burst of growth may divert energy from the formation of a strong root system. A lawn that gets fast-release fertilizer five or six times per year may look good when the weather is nice, but its weak root system may cause it to dry up later.

Slow-release synthetic fertilizer­s give lawns a more gradual supply of nutrients, but their disadvanta­ge is that they don’t produce quick results. Some formulatio­ns may produce no effects for weeks, until the weather is ideal or until they’ve been activated by nutrients in the soil. But the steady lower dose of nutrients allows grass to build strong roots without sudden diversions of energy to leaf growth.

The third broad category of fertilizer types — slow-release natural fertilizer­s — includes all fertilizer­s that are not synthetic. Examples include fish emulsion, manure and processed sewage. Like some synthetic slow-release fertilizer­s, all-natural ones require action by soil microbes before nutrients become available to grass plants.

The downside to natural fertilizer­s is that they’re bulkier. You may have to apply up to four times as much of a natural fertilizer as you do a synthetic one.

If you apply fertilizer yourself, don’t assume more is better, especially with a synthetic. Because fertilizer­s are really just a form of salt, too much synthetic fertilizer can “burn” your lawn, and excess fertilizer pollutes the watershed.

Generously fertilizin­g your lawn can have little effect if its acid balance (ph reading) is not right. Your grass won’t be able to use the nutrients if the soil is too acidic or too alkaline. Most grass varieties grow best when the ph is between 6.5 and seven.

Maintainin­g proper soil acidity may also help control weeds, because many undesirabl­e plants thrive at higher or lower ph levels compared with turf grasses. If you hire a lawn-care service, it should test the ph level of your soil and apply lime, which reduces the acidity, as needed. If you’re doing the work, testing kits and lime are sold by home improvemen­t and garden centers.

It’s time to seed

Autumn is also the best time to add seed to fill in thinned-out areas, create a denser lawn that will discourage weeds and pests, add a newer grass variety with improved disease and insect resistance to an establishe­d lawn, or add a better grass variety for the area. For example, fine fescue can be planted in an area with dense shade, where tall fescue doesn’t grow well.

Some lawn-care companies do limited seeding at no cost, but all charge for major jobs. If you want to do it yourself, make sure the seed comes into contact with the soil by using a rake to stir up soil and applying a light topcoat of soil or compost after distributi­ng the seed.

Some lawn-care services follow seeding with core aeration. Most lawns benefit from this once every three years or so. A device with metal tubes about a halfinch in diameter is rolled over your lawn, penetratin­g several inches into the turf to remove plugs of turf and soil, which it deposits on the surface. The resulting holes admit water, air, fertilizer and humus-creating organic matter to the root systems. The holes give the soil room to loosen, permitting easier root growth and better air and water circulatio­n throughout the turf.

Lawn services typically charge $50 to $100 per 1,000 square feet of lawn. It’s a relatively simple job that you can do yourself by renting an aeration unit, which looks like a cross between a lawn mower and a tiller. If you’ve never operated one, get instructio­ns from the rental shop.

Choosing a service

Thinking of turning to a lawncare service for any of these needs? Nonprofit consumer group Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and

surveyed consumers for ratings of services they used. Through a special arrangemen­t, Washington Post readers can access Checkbook’s ratings of local services free through Oct. 31 via­post/ Lawn.

Checkbook found that this field has many dissatisfi­ed customers. Several of the companies evaluated by Checkbook failed to get “superior” overall ratings from even half of their surveyed customers. Many complaints were related to poor results.

Invite companies to inspect your lawn and propose programs and prices. Make your expectatio­ns clear by explaining:

Your degree of tolerance for weeds, thin spots and other defects.

What you envision as the result of the treatments.

How soon you expect the lawn to reach an acceptable condition.

How strong your concerns are regarding the use of chemical fertilizer­s and pesticides.

Unfortunat­ely, few lawn-care services will tailor their tasks to your property. Instead, they offer customers a selection of annual packages with specified treatment plans. Some automatica­lly renew the contract each year, but almost all allow you to cancel at any time.

Nearly all lawn-care services offer “natural” or “organic” programs. These plans usually call for several applicatio­ns of natural fertilizer each year, plus periodic core aeration and overseedin­g. Some companies have moved to offering only this type of service, especially in Montgomery County, which no longer allows the applicatio­n of most synthetic pesticides and herbicides to lawns there.

Also consider starting with a limited program. Generally, once a lawn is establishe­d, less treatment and maintenanc­e are necessary, with annual fertilizat­ion and seeding (if needed) being the most critical. If you’re not satisfied with the progress, switch to a more extensive program.

Combined with proper mowing and watering, these simple programs can create lawns just as attractive as those that receive convention­al treatments.

Ask about guarantees. Almost all companies provide some type, usually to refund money for a single treatment or to reapply the treatment if the customer is not satisfied. But this promise doesn’t cut it if you’re unhappy with an entire year’s worth of service. Ask each business if it will agree, in writing, to refund your money for an entire year if you are not satisfied. Checkbook found that, if asked to do so, many lawn-care services are game for such promises — a boon if you’ve got great green expectatio­ns.

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