Get Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Nobody's yard is exactly like yours; but no matter what your question, chances are you aren't the first one to ask. Here are a few of the most common ones.

Soil

Q. What does 'organic' really mean?

A. The term "organic" has two different meanings when it comes to yard care products: Most people apply the term to products created through a process of nature, without the addition of synthetic chemicals. However, petroleum and its byproducts also fit the chemical definition of organic compounds. Both have their place in responsible yard care. The best way to get what you want is to read the labels, look for warnings, and learn as much as you can about the benefits and possible hazards of anything you put on your yard.

Q. Aren't some pesticides okay to use?

A. Native and adapted plants in healthy soil, alive with beneficial organisms are much less likely to need your help to resist harmful insects, invasive plants, and plant diseases. There are also a variety of simple strategies and natural products listed in the YardWise Problem-Solving section to help your yard deal with pests. Synthetic chemical pesticides can be effective at wiping out pests, but rarely provide long-term solutions, and can even create additional problems by wiping out beneficial plants and animals along with the pests. If you decide to use pesticides,

  • -Look for the least toxic products that will do the job, and is targeted to the particular pest you're facing.
  • -Always read the label first, including all precautions and restrictions, and then follow the directions carefully.
  • -Check for "signal words" on the labels to also give you an idea of how hazardous a product can be: Products labeled with "Danger" are the most hazardous, followed by "Warning," and then "Caution". Some pesticides contain irritants, neurotoxins, reproductive toxins, and carcinogens. Only active ingredients and others proven to be toxic must be listed specifically on the package.

Q. What can I do about compacted soil?

A. Soil beneath most lawns can become hard and compacted; even if you prepared it well before planting. The more you walk on the lawn, the faster the soil compacts. Once soil is compacted, water and fertilizer can't reach the lawn's roots, weakening them and allowing weeds to grow. Composting combined with aeration is the best strategy to keep the soil loose and alive with beneficial insects, worms, and microbes that work continuously keeping the soil well-aerated and healthy year round.

Q. What can I do if my soil is bad?

A. A soil test is the best way to find out what your soil lacks, and your county AgriLife Extension agent can help you get one. In most cases, compost is the best soil amendment you can use, improving soil texture for water retention and plant growth, balancing both acidic and alkaline conditions, increasing soil fertility, and adding beneficial microbes for continued health and vitality. When starting a new lawn, spread a 2 inch-thick layer over the area and till it into to a depth of 4 — 6 inches before seeding or sodding. For existing lawns, aerate the soil, apply ¼ - ½ inch of compost and water it in twice a year, ideally in April and October.

Grass

Q. What type of grass should I plant in shady areas?

A. Most lawn grasses don't like shade, even "shade-tolerant" varieties. Replace lawn beneath trees with a shade-tolerant ground cover as the tree grows and creates more shade. Then use shade-tolerant grasses at the edges of the area.

Q. What can I do about burn spots on the lawn caused by dog urine?

A. As carnivores, dogs require protein (high nitrogen content) in their diets. When a dog urinates, the target spot receives a dose of nitrogen that can act as a fertilizer. But repeated high doses of nitrogen can burn grass, especially if a high-nitrogen fertilizer has already been applied. Grasscycling and feeding your lawn with compost instead of synthetic chemical fertilizer can help to prevent this condition. If the problem persists, try:

  • -training the dog to urinate in a less obvious location;
  • -make water readily available to the dog at all times, or add water to its dry food to dilute the nitrogen in its urine; or
  • -reduce the amount of protein in the dog's diet. Although dog owners often think that high protein equals better food, in fact moderate to low protein foods are often adequate for all but the most energetic, working and hunting dogs.

Q. How do I know what is the best grass for my lawn?

A. Choose the right grass for your region. This is the first step to a healthy lawn, since a well-chosen grass will form a denser turf that requires less water and is better able to resist pests, diseases, and weeds with less fertilizer and pesticide.

Q. Should I use store-bought fertilizer?

A. First try to create natural fertilizer by grasscycling and applying compost or other natural organic fertilizers. A soil test is the best way to determine exactly what your yard needs. When applying synthetic chemical fertilizer, be sure not to exceed the recommended application level.

Q. How can I tell if my yard needs fertilizer?

A. Grass and other plants can be weak and unhealthy for a variety of reasons, including over-application of fertilizer. The best and only sure way to know if the soil in your yard lacks sufficient nutrients to support healthy plants is to get a soil test from a qualified soil lab. Just as importantly, a soil test can tell you just what your soil needs, and how much. A basic soil test covers soil pH (acidity/alkalinity) and the primary nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK). For an additional fee, testing can be done for micronutrients, organic matter, and soil texture. Your county AgriLife Extension agent can help you get an inexpensive soil test, go over the results with you, and advise you on the best course of action.

Q. How can I save money on my yard?

A. Consider alternative landscaping. The time and money (about $700 per acre annually) that most homeowners spend to maintain a lawn has led many to seek out alternatives, such as replacing a portion of their grass with other types of ground cover. One option is to incorporate native plants and wildflowers. A smaller lawn also means fewer emissions from your mower since you'll be using it less.

Mowing

Q. What are the benefits of a mulching mower?

A. Mulching mowers chop grass into small clippings, allowing them to sift down to ground level. The benefits are many. The clippings serve as a cushion for tender crowns (the grass' growth zones), insulate the turf from extreme temperatures, and help retain needed moisture, giving you a healthier lawn. The clippings decompose over time, slowly releasing the nutrients your lawn needs. You'll save time, because you won't have to stop to empty the mower bag and don't need to fertilize as often. In addition, you'll save money on both water and fertilizer costs. A mulching mower is a good investment, but putting a mulching blade on a regular mower and mowing before the grass gets too tall will give you good results.

Q. What are some tips for mowing?

A. Avoid cutting too short. Chopping off more than one-third of a grass blade's height at once can be detrimental. For example, if you want a 3-inch mowed height, mow when the grass is just over 4 inches tall. Avoid cutting below the green leaf blades into the brown grass stems, which weakens the grass plants and leaves it vulnerable to aggressive weeds or pests. See the table on Recommended Mowing Heights in the YardWise Mowing section for the ideal height for your type.

Q. What difference does a lawn mower make?

A. Your mower matters. A mulching mower or lawn tractor that cuts cleanly and distributes mulched clippings evenly is one way to help keep healthy lawns thriving. Check out the YardWise Mowing section for more information on "grasscycling."

Q. Does grasscycling cause thatch build-up?

A. No! The most common causes of thatch are frequent, shallow watering and over-fertilizing, which keep the roots from growing down into the soil for water and nutrients. Thatch is composed mainly of roots, runners, and stems, not grass clippings. These plant materials contain large amounts of a hard, woody material called lignin that decomposes slowly. Grass clippings are approximately 80-85 percent water with only small amounts of lignin, and decompose rapidly. Some grasses such as St. Augustine and (to a lesser degree) bermuda grass are more thatch-prone than others.

Q. Does grasscycling spread lawn disease?

A. No! Improper watering and fertilizing are the primary cause of disease spread. If an accommodating environment for turf grass disease is present, infestation will occur whether clippings are collected or not.

Q. Will grasscycling make my lawn look bad?

A. No! If a lawn is properly mowed, watered, and fertilized, grasscycling can actually produce a healthier-looking lawn. It is important to cut the lawn frequently enough to produce small clippings that will fall between the standing blades and decompose quickly. However, if big clumps of long clippings are left on the lawn, it might look like a new-mown hay field - if that's the case, you can rake up the clippings and use them as mulch or put them in a compost pile. Golf courses and parks have practiced grasscycling for years. Ninety-eight percent of the residential participants in a grasscycling study conducted by Texas A&M reported that they will never bag their clippings again!

Q. Are there alternatives to grasscycling?

A. Yes! Grasscycling is not feasible in every situation. Prolonged wet weather, mechanical breakdown of mowers, or infrequent mowing are situations where grass clippings should probably be bagged since an excessive volume of clippings may be generated. But do not throw the clippings away! Grass clippings are an excellent addition to a backyard compost pile. Clippings can also be used as mulch to provide weed control and prevent moisture loss around flower beds, trees, and shrubs. Mulching and composting with clippings should be avoided, however, if herbicides have been applied recently to the lawn.

Watering

Q. When and how often should I water my lawn?

A. Most lawns require about one inch of water a week. The best time to water is early in the day. Watering in the afternoon increases water loss from evaporation. Regular watering at night puts your lawn at risk for developing mildew and fungal disease.

Q. How much should I water?

A. Applying too much water to a lawn can invite disease, but too little can encourage crabgrass and other weeds that thrive in dry soil. Most lawns need roughly 1 inch per week through the growing season. Using a rain gauge or a small tuna can is the most precise way to see how much water your lawn is getting. When using a sprinkler, try to keep water off sidewalks, driveways, and other non-lawn areas to avoid runoff.

Q. What is the best time of day to water?

A. Water in the morning. That's when there's less wind to blow the water and less sunlight to evaporate it. Night watering promotes mold and fungus. Morning watering will also discourage pests and disease by giving your lawn the rest of the day to soak up the moisture.

Q. How long should I water the yard each time?

A. Water thoroughly. Deep but infrequent watering discourages pests and diseases by encouraging deep root growth, and letting the lawn dry thoroughly between waterings.

Composting/Mulch

Q. When should I mulch my yard?

A. Mulch as you mow with a mulching mower or a mulching blade on a regular mower. Returning mulched clippings to your lawn rather than bagging and disposing of them reduces the need for additional fertilizer and helps to maximize the lawn’s ability to trap carbon. Mulching your lawn in the spring (and fall, if needed) with 1/8 – ½ inch of compost is also a great soil-building strategy.

Q. Should I bag my leaves in the fall?

A. Don't let leaves pile up. A thick ground cover of leaves blocks sunlight, which makes them good mulch in planting beds because they suppress weed growth; but if left on the lawn, they can also suppress the growth of grass. Mowing fallen leaves creates good winter mulch for your lawn, or you can add leaves to your backyard compost pile.

Q. What do I do if I don't use all the mulch from mowing?

A. Use leftover grass clippings as mulch on your bedded plants, or compost what you don't mulch, so you can eventually use them to feed your lawn or garden.

Problem Solving

Q. How do I rid my lawn of Grub Worms?

A. Promote healthy roots in your lawn by mowing high and watering effectively. Only treat when more than 5-10 grubs per square foot are found. The most effective time for treatment is mid-June to late July. Apply beneficial nematodes, (tiny worms that kill grubs) to affected areas--be sure to water them in and follow the YardWise Watering guidelines.

Q. How frequently should I fertilize my yard?

A. The best times to apply fertilizer, if it's needed, are at the beginning and end of the growing season, which will vary according to the temperature range in your region of the state.

Q. What about alternatives to fertilizers?

A. If you're looking for alternatives to synthetic chemical fertilizers-which have been linked to water pollution and are typically derived from nonrenewable fossil fuels - there are several natural organic fertilizers available, including manures, composts, and agricultural byproducts. These contain relatively low amounts of nutrients, which are also released slowly, but they will promote the growth of beneficial organisms that take nutrients from the soil and deliver them to your plants in a readily useable form. This will reduce the need for repeated fertilizer applications.

Q. What should I do to control crabgrass?

A. A dense lawn is better able to resist an invasion of crabgrass. So be sure to properly water and feed your lawn. Crabgrass needs full sunlight, so another way to discourage its growth is by mowing your lawn at a higher setting (3 inches). If crabgrass has taken over the yard, the easiest solution is to let the winter frost kill it back and apply a natural pre-emergent like corn gluten or a low-toxicity pre-emergent herbicide before it re-sprouts in the spring.

Q. I have a problem with pests and weeds in my yard, what should I do?

A. Healthy plants and soils are the best preventatives for most pests and undesirable plants. Pesticides-which include insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides - can kill or adversely affect insect pests, weeds, and plant diseases, but they may also be harmful to you, your pets, beneficial organisms, and the broader environment. If you have a problem with pests or weeds, you may be able to address it with potentially safer alternatives, including physical, botanical, and biological controls. Corn gluten meal, for example, can prevent crabgrass and other weed seeds from germinating without threatening anything else, while ladybugs (formally called lady beetles) can be used to control aphids.