6 Lawn Care Mistakes to Avoid

6 common lawn mistakes

As temperatures warm up and lawns grow again, folks across the country dust off their lawn mowers, head to the backyard and start this year’s lawn care regimen. But many will be making some common mistakes that can keep those lawns from doing their best.

Steve Pettis Jr., an agriculture extension agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, laid out a handful of common lawn care mistakes he sees people make and offered some ways to make sure that this year you keep up a beautiful, healthy lawn.

And if you’re not sure on the specifics of caring for your lawn, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

According to the National Association of Landscape Professionals, more than three out of four Americans has a lawn or tended landscape at their home and of those, 81% do the lawn work themselves.

But, 69% say their lawn could use some improvement and 31% admit they don’t know how to grow a healthy lawn. Here are some common mistakes to avoid and make sure you end up among the percentage looking out over a lush, green lawn this summer.

1. Cutting too short

Mowing a lawn properly is trickier than it seems, and the first common mistake Pettis mentioned was cutting grass too short, leaving too little of the grass blade to ensure the plant gets enough nutrition.

“Plants need leaves to produce food,” he said. So if you come in week after week after week removing leaves, eventually the plant’s not going to have anything to generate food to keep growing.

Remember the one-third rule: Never cut off more than one-third of the grass length in any one mow. If you have fallen behind on mowing, do not be tempted to catch up by mowing it all at once. You or your lawn service should mow multiple times, taking off one-third at a time. 

Recommended Mowing Height by Grass Type
Grass speciesRecommended mow height (inches) Mow when it reaches this height (inches)
Annual ryegrass1.5 - 22.25 - 3
Bermudagrass (seeded) 1 - 1.51.5 - 2.25
Buffalograss1 - 21.5 - 3
Centipede grass23
Colonial bentgrass0.5 - 10.75 - 1.5
Creeping bentgrass0.5 inch or less0.75 inch or less
Dichondra0.5 - 0.750.75 - 1.125
Hard fescue1.5 - 2.52.25 - 3.75
Hybrid Bermuda0.5 - 1 0.75 - 1.5
Kentucky bluegrass2-33-4.5
Kikuyugrass1 - 1.5 1.5 - 2.25
Perennial ryegrass1.5 - 2.5 2.25 - 3.75
Red fescue1.5 - 2.5 2.25 - 3.75
St. Augustinegrass2.5-33.75-4.5
Tall fescue1.5 - 32.5 - 4
Zoysiagrass0.5 - 10.75 - 1.5
Sources: University of California-Davis Integrated Pest Management program, University of Georgia-Augusta Richmond County Extension

2. Soil compaction

Many people inadvertently compact their soil through foot traffic or machinery as well, Pettis said.

Some of the larger mowers can weigh upward of 1,000 pounds, pressing the soil particles together and hampering root growth, as well as the root system’s access to oxygen and water.

“If your soil is compacted, you need to aerate the soil,” he said. If you have high-traffic areas in your lawn, it should be aerated annually. Otherwise, do it as-needed.

3. Overwatering

“Overwatering is another thing that people always do too much,” Pettis said. “Grass only needs the equivalent of one inch of rainwater per week.”

An easy way to measure the water you’re putting on the grass is to install a small rain gauge on the lawn somewhere and measure out that inch of water, he said, either through irrigation or rainfall. Each spring, it’s a wise idea to conduct a sprinkler audit and review the time of day you sprinkle so you don’t add too much water.

Confusion about the amount of irrigation a lawn needs is a common problem and the National Association of Landscape Professionals also report that one in three Americans admit they aren’t sure how often a lawn should be watered.

4. Dull mower blades

Another mistake that’s easy to avoid but can make a major difference for your lawn is the maintenance of lawn mower blades. Old, dull blades hurt both the health and look of your lawn.

The University of Massachusetts Extension Service Turf Program emphasizes the importance of getting a clean cut and keeping mower blades as sharp as possible regardless which type of mower is doing the cutting.

“Dull mowers tear the grass blades rather than cut them. This results in excessive injury to the plants as well as a brownish cast to the turf,” says the program’s fact sheet giving lawn care tips on mowing.

5. Too much fertilizer

Adding too much fertilizer, or adding it at the wrong time is a common mistake Pettis sees people make and one that can lead to some unintended lawn problems including increasing diseases.

While some fertilizer packaging may show the right amount of fertilizer to apply, Pettis recommends checking in with your local extension service on how much to use on your lawn, saying like grass height, it can vary from region to region. The high levels of nitrogen in quick-release fertilizers may give a quick green-up, but are easily washed away and can cause water pollution.  In addition, they can leave your lawn dependent on chemical fertilizers. Lawn care experts advise that you should opt for slow-release fertilizers that do not need to be replenished as often.

Over-fertilization of a lawn is one of the most-common mistakes
Lawns need fertilization, but too much in one place will burn the lawn and has the potential to cause water pollution.

Another potential solution is to mulch your grass clippings, which returns nutrients like nitrogen to your lawn and can improve soil conditions over time, according to the UMass Extension Turf Program.

One more lawn fertilization mistake to avoid: Never mow the lawn right after fertilizing. You should mow the lawn a few days before you fertilize it, but you can even mow and fertilize on the same day, as long as you still mow first.

6. Too much herbicide

The final mistake Pettis mentioned is on the other side of the spectrum: using too much herbicide.

Some states, like California and New York, restrict the use of herbicides by private homeowners so it may not be an issue for everyone, but in any case, weed killers should be used minimally.

“If you do need an herbicide, use it sparingly and use it only where you need it, don’t apply it to the entire lawn,” Pettis said.

A better option is to simply tolerate more weeds or to remove weeds by hand or by hoe.

“People’s home lawns don’t need to look like golf courses,” he said. “We put enough chemicals into the environment, so the less we can put on home lawns the better.”

Derek Lacey

Derek Lacey

Formerly the agriculture writer for the Hendersonville Times-News, Derek Lacey’s articles have appeared in U.S. News & World Report, The Charlotte Observer, News & Observer, and The State. He has won 15 awards from the North Carolina Press Association and GateHouse Media, for pieces ranging from news features and investigative reporting to photography and multimedia projects.