5 Beginner Steps to Maintaining Your Lawn

Creating the perfect lawn is not an easy task. Even a decent-looking lawn requires some work to maintain.

But it’s not tough.

Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t have a perfect lawn. It has some blemishes, but I am happy with the overall look and most importantly, its health.

I put in the right amount of effort to give me a great result, and you can too.

Which is why I created this guide.

This guide is designed to teach you the 5 basic steps to maintaining your lawn. It is not a step-by-step guide on what to do from start to finish, but rather a resource on what is important and why it leads to a better lawn.

Use this guide as a foundation to start growing a greener, healthier, lawn today.

A Quick Look at My Lawn

The 5 steps below were used to make my lawn go from what you see in the Before on the left, to what you see in the After photo on the Right.

Mowing

The perfect length to keep your lawn is between 2 ½ and 3 ½ inches. While a shorter lawn may seem appealing, it is also an invitation for aggressive weeds to quickly take over.

When it comes to frequency, I like to follow the ⅓ Rule. This means I mow my lawn frequently enough so that I cut off no more than ⅓ of the total grass height each time I mow. Cutting long grass too short can damage or kill it.

Mowing my lawn while following the 1/3 Rule.

This practice also allows me to avoid scalping my lawn, which can easily occur when mowing a lawn that isn’t long enough yet.

It’s entirely up to you if you want to leave your grass clippings on your lawn or bag them to add to your compost.

Leaving your grass clippings on your lawn will not add to the amount of thatch built up over time. We’ll cover the cause of excess thatch later in this guide.

In fact, leaving grass clippings on your lawn can save you money by decreasing the number of fertilizer applications your lawn needs each year.

More on this in a bit.

Keeping your lawn mower in proper working shape is another important part of mowing.

Get your lawn mower serviced towards the end of every season or right before the upcoming season. You can either take it to a professional shop or do it yourself.

Replacing the lawn mower blade on my Toro lawn mower.
I service my lawn mower myself every year, which involves sharpening or replacing the blade.

Servicing your lawn mower is an essential process to ensure all components, like the spark plug, are functioning properly. It’s also a great time to change the oil and sharpen or replace your mower’s blade.

A dull blade will not cleanly cut your lawn. This will lead to improper growth in the long run. Ragged cuts made by dull mower blades can also invite unwanted grass diseases.

Fertilizer

Adding the right fertilizer to your lawn at the right time will help create a much denser turf, which will naturally prevent weeds from taking over.

Man using a Scotts lawn spreader to apply Milorganite fertilizer to his green lawn.
Applying Milorganite to my lawn with my Scotts spreader.

I fertilize my lawn between 3 and 4 times per year, but this can vary based on grass types, climate, and other mowing practices.

The goal with each fertilizer application is to evenly spread 1 pound of nitrogen for every 1,000 sq ft. of grass.

Here’s the fertilizing schedule I follow every year for my cool-season grass. There is also a schedule for warm-season grass.

Cool-Season Grass

Application NumberAround this Date
1Memorial Day
24th of July
3Labor Day
4Thanksgiving

Warm-Season Grass

Application NumberAround this Date
1Easter
2Memorial
3Labor Day
4Early October

It’s important to note that I don’t always fertilize on these exact dates, but rather use them as my guide for how to space out fertilizer applications. Due to frost potential, I may do the Thanksgiving application towards the end of October.

I also mentioned before that I do 3 or 4 applications per year, which means, if I do 3, I skip one of the applications.

Here are a few reasons why I would skip a fertilizer application:

  1. 4th of July Application – If my lawn has gone dormant due to drought conditions, I will skip this application. If the temperature is hot, but my irrigation has kept my lawn from going dormant, I will do this application.
  2. Thanksgiving Application – I will skip this application if I left my grass clippings on the entire season. Leaving clippings on your lawn will contribute to roughly 1 pound of nitrogen per 1,000 sq. ft., which is the target goal for each fertilizer application. Doing this application while leaving my clippings will result in too much nitrogen, leading to thatch buildup.

On the flip side, be careful doing fewer fertilizer applications than this. The nitrogen in fertilizer is what leads to new leaf growth. Without new leaf growth, your grass will start to thin out and weeds will eventually take over.

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You can maintain the new growth with the mowing practices discussed earlier.

When it comes to the specific fertilizer, use something with slow-releasing nitrogen. This ensures a gradual nutrient supply while reducing the risk of burning your lawn.

I personally use Milorganite, which is an organic fertilizer made from heat-dried microbes that have digested the organic matter in wastewater.

A bag of Milorganite fertilizer sitting next to a Scotts TurfBuilder spreader.
Milorganite is my favorite fertilizer to use on my lawn.

Click here to learn why I love using Milorganite on my lawn.

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Irrigation

When it comes to watering, most people do it the wrong way.

The best way to water your lawn is long, deep, and infrequent. You do not want to water your lawn every day.

Instead, water your lawn once per week, long enough so that it gets 1 to 1.5 inches of water. Skip watering your lawn entirely if it gets this amount or more in rainfall in a week.

I put a few small plastic rain gauges throughout my yard to help me track how much water my lawn receives in a week.

If no rain is in the forecast, I water my lawn once per week, until the rain gauges in my yard are 1 to 1.5 inches full.

When rain is in the forecast, I still leave the gauges in to track how much water my lawn receives. If it’s less than 1 inch., I water the difference with my sprinklers. If it’s far more than 1.5 inches. I take note of the total and track this, if necessary, for the following week’s watering.

If your lawn doesn’t get enough water, and the temperatures get too hot, your grass is going to go dormant.

You know your grass has gone dormant when it turns brown, but still retains its structure and feels normal to the touch.

A lawn with patches of dormancy after a long summer drought without water.
This is my lawn during the summer after a long drought and no water. You can see the areas where it has gone dormant.

It’s important to note that dormant grass is not dead grass. Dormancy is just your grass’s survival response to extreme heat conditions and lack of water. It does the same thing when it gets too cold in the winter as well.

To conserve water and energy, your grass will focus less energy up top, and more energy on the roots below. This is why the color changes.

As soon as irrigation is properly applied, dormant grass will start to green up.

A sprinkler watering a brown dormant lawn during a hot summer day.
Using a sprinkler to give my lawn a deep soaking to alleviate the dormant brown patches you see.

This is why you see so many brown, dormant yards turn green so quickly after a much-needed rain.

Now, just because grass has the ability to survive drought conditions doesn’t mean you should let it.

Your grass uses a lot of energy bringing itself in and out of dormancy. This energy is better served building a stronger root system below the surface.

An automated lawn watering timer by RainBird attached to a residential house.
This watering timer by RainBird is a life saver for making sure my lawn gets enough water without me needing to think about it.

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Core Aeration

Core aeration removes small soil plugs in your yard. This helps alleviate compaction, allowing water and air to move more effectively towards the grass roots.

When you core aerate, the small holes you make in your yard create the optimal place for organic matter to work its way into the soil. Adding a thin layer of organic compost at this time is a great idea.

A core aerator being used during the fall on a lawn.
Using a core aerator on my lawn.

Right after aeration is also one of the best times to spread grass seed on your lawn. The holes facilitate better soil-to-seed contact, leading to better germination rates.

In terms of timing, aerating your lawn is not something you have to do every year, but if you have a newly sodded lawn, or it’s been a while, it’s best to add this to your lawn care schedule this year.

Fall is the best time to aerate your lawn, but if you are reading this during the winter, you can aerate during the early spring when your grass starts actively growing.

DO NOT aerate your lawn during the summer.

Aerating puts a lot of stress on your grass. This, combined with the extreme heat of the summer, is too much for your lawn to handle.

Because aeration doesn’t happen that often, I recommend you rent an aerator vs. buying one (they are quite expensive to buy).

I rent my aerator from Home Depot, but Sunbelt is another option.

A core aerator rented from Home Depot to be used on a residential lawn.
I rented this aerator from my local Home Depot.

When renting an aerator, keep in mind that timing is everything with aeration, and most people rent. That means availability could be tough.

I once made the mistake of waiting until the last good weekend to aerate my lawn in the fall. I got lucky and got the last rental at Home Depot, but 5 different people called in for an aerator while I was filling out the paperwork. They were all turned down.

Organic Compost

Adding a thin layer of organic compost to your lawn will help improve the overall soil.

If you have sandy, porous soil, organic matter will act like a sponge and help your lawn retain water and nutrients.

If you have heavy, clay soil, organic matter will create small holes within the soil structure to allow water and air to move more freely, ultimately creating better drainage.

I mentioned above that adding compost after aeration is a great idea, but you can also add a thin layer even if you aren’t aerating. It will work itself into the soil.

Just be careful not to add a heavy layer as this could easily suffocate and kill your grass.

Your New Green Lawn Awaits

As you can see, a nice lawn is not overly complicated. Just a few products and a little scheduling and you can easily enjoy fresh green grass for as long as the season permits.

A soil test is one of the mot important steps of a new lawn.

Why Should You Get a Soil Test for Your Lawn? [5 Reasons]

Pollinators on a purple coneflower.

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