Thrifty Lawn Care That Keeps You in the Green

How to Water Your Lawn Without Going BrokeThough Joni Mitchell once warned us in song about the perils of suburban status-seeking in "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," many of us still pursue a soft, grassy carpet with unrelenting zeal.

Is it because the verdant lawn represents some precious reflection of nature's perfection? Could it be that it throws us back to the pastoral parks of our childhood? Or is it merely satisfy that primal urge to make the Joneses turn greener than grass with envy?

No matter what your reason -- or whether you're growing Kentucky bluegrass, red fescue or annual ryegrass -- we hope to shed some light on your lawn, and give you the tools you need to make your lawn grow thicker than the Irish sod with this installment of the Savings Experiment.

In the summer months, lawns need two basic ingredients: sun (often too plentiful) and water (often too scarce). And let's face it: At some point you're going to have to make up for the amount of moisture Mother Nature doesn't provide via rainfall. Then again, you don't want to sop your lawn so that you get the equivalent of a turf lake.

Good thing there's a rule of thumb--as in green thumb--that will help you determine just how moist to keep that grass. That is: Grass generally requires an inch of water per week. And it should saturate 3 to 4 inches deep to promote root growth and make your grass more drought resistant. Looking for a catchy way to remember? Try: "Deeply and infrequently."

The formula is simple: slightly more than 6/10 of a gallon for every square foot of lawn space. To find out your square footage, simply multiply how wide your lawn is by how long it is. A lawn that measures 20 ft. by 20 ft., for example, is 400 square ft. And it would need about 240 gallons of water.

Keep in mind that if you only water with a light sprinkling each day, your roots will grow shallow. Enter the weeds, which will take over your lawn and gardening life. (Where pesticides are used, up to 90% of those soil-helping good guys, the earthworms, die.)

If you buy a rain gauge at a hardware store, you can easily measure how much rain your lawn gets each week, and add the rest. (We found one for under $5 at Ace Hardware.) There's also a cheaper but still fairly effective way to measure how much moisture your lawn gets: Use an empty coffee can.

Now, how much it costs you to water your lawn for a summer depends on where you live. And its arguable that Americans spend way too much in money and resources on lawn watering: 30% of water used on the East Coast goes to watering lawns; 60% on the West Coast, according to the U.S. National Wildlife Federation.

While city water systems usually give separate prices for water and sewer services on your bill, in most cases both are based on the number of gallons of water you use. In Mobile, Ala., for example, it costs $2 per 1,000 gallons for water plus $4.26 per 1,000 gallons for sewer, for a total of $6.26 for every 1,000 gallons of water out of your tap. That means that to supply a 100 ft. x 100 ft. yard with one inch of water costs more than $12 if you have a separate meter for irrigation or $39.00 if you don't. If you water your yard every week during the summer, the cost will add up to close to either $50 or $156 a month.

One great way to conserve water and save money: Buy a rain barrel. Home Depot, for example, sells a 105 gallon rain barrel that collects rain fast, straight from your gutter spout. It will cost you about $110, and cheaper options exist: this 74-gallon model costs $50 and works in the same exact way.

Your lawn's soil should read between 6.5 and 7.0 pH, which is slightly acidic. You can buy a pH testers for $40-$60. You can also have your soil tested professionally; your local extension office will often provide soil testing as a free service. Just type the word "extension" and your state's name into a search engine, and you'll find your nearest office at your state's web page.

Remember that lawns grow best in loamy soils that have a mix of clay, silt and sand, and you're best off growing a grass type that is adapted to your local area. If you have no idea how to find this out, the extension service can help, or tap the expertise of a local gardening center.

With fertilizers, organic is preferable to chemicals. The advantages of organic fertilizers include:

  • Better for the soil: provides organic matter essential for microorganisms. It is one of the building blocks for fertile soil rich in humus.
  • Nutrient release: slow and consistent at a natural rate that plants are able to use. No danger of over concentration of any element, since microbes must break down the material.
  • Trace minerals: typically present in a broad range, providing more balanced nutrition to the plant.
  • Won't burn: safe for all plants with no danger of burning due to salt concentration.
  • Long lasting: doesn't leach out since the organic matter binds to the soil particles where the roots have access to it.
  • Fewer applications required: once a healthy soil condition is reached, it is easier to maintain that level with less work.
Now, do keep in mind your pets may want to roll around in organic fertilizer, and that it's slower to release its nutrients--and less common--than the chemical variety. But chemical fertilizers draw roots to the shallow end, and also kill off valuable microbes your grass needs. And by our calculations, organic fertilizer will cost you 5 cents per square foot, pre season. Compare that to the cost of the most popular chemical fertilizer, known as 15-30-15, which costs 15 cents per square foot, or three times as much.

Keeping the grass cut properly boils down to two essentials: how close you cut your grass and the tools you use. As for the cut of your grass, experts tell us that giving your lawn a "Marine cut" won't do it any favors. Surface roots become exposed, the soil dries out faster and surface aeration is reduced. As a general rule, don't cut off more than one-third of the grass at any one time. Your lawn should be at least two inches high after you cut it--an inch higher for cool season grasses and shady lawns. So squat down on your haunches and use a ruler: Most turf grass species are healthiest when kept between 2.5 and 3.5 inches tall.

Now, how should you cut your lawn: gas mower, electric or manual push mower? As long as we're on the subject of grass, let's talk for a second about environmental impact. Did you know that per hour of operation, a gas lawn mower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as the typical auto? A weed eater emits 21 times more (and a leaf blower 34 times more). Hey, what are we trying to grow here--lush lawns or ozone holes?

Now that said, gas mowers remain immensely popular because they cut down the amount of time required to keep your lawn clean and green. And you'll probably want to consider a gas- or electric-powered rotary mower (cuts with a circular blade that rotates under a protective housing) if you have a large lawn made of grasses such as bluegrass and fescue that don't need to be cut shorter than 2 inches high. Choose a riding lawn mower if you have a really big lawn: 1/2 acre or larger. They can also seed and fertilize your lawn, big plusses in the time-savings department.

There's no consensus among reviewers about the best gas push mower, but among those reviewed at by owners, the highest owner-posted ranking goes to the 21-inch Craftsman 38901 at $200. (It's not available in California.) Cordless electrics have become popular as well, and the Toro e-Cycler 20360 is rated the best at Consumer Search. This 36-volt model has a 4-inch maximum cutting height, mulches well, starts easily and runs quietly. But it doesn't bag very well and is a heavy machine to operate. It runs $399 at and Home Depot.

For those who love economy and the environment, consider getting a reel mower. These push mowers used to be heavy, clunky contraptions that required great effort to use. But a new generation of reel mowers has been designed to operate much more effectively with a fraction of the effort. The added benefits include a good light exercise and quiet, pollution-free lawn care.

The Deluxe Light Push Reel Mower ($119.99) has an 18-inch cutting width, comparable to most electric and gas mowers. It weighs just 27 pounds. Compared to gas mowers (which can weigh from 80 to 100 pounds), that's feather light to walk behind. And it can be set for a variety of cutting heights from half an inch to 2.5 inches tall, making it ideal for people who like to keep their lawn very tall. (Most people keep their lawn between 1 and 2 inches.)

Things to keep in mind with any manual mower:

• Manual reel mowers don't cut tall weeds well (but they do great on grass). Because of the design, the reel will roll over tall weeds and dandelions without cutting much. So they aren't a good choice to mow a vacant lot, but they'll do superbly with a grass lawn.

• If you don't mow weekly, it's going to be much harder to push. You know how a gas mower will bog down when you try to mow grass that hasn't been cut in weeks? Well, it's like that with a reel mower--except you're the motor. Sputter, sputter.

How much more time does it take to cut the lawn with a reel mower? You'd be surprised. With the power mower it takes about 30 minutes to cut the grass; with the reel it takes about 10 minutes more (based on a 2500 sq. ft. lawn). Corner areas slow the job down because you have to push the reel mower forward, then back a couple times.

Now maybe you have other things to do besides monkey with the lawn, though you still want a green one. This is where lawn services come in. The helpful folks at tell us that a typical estimate will include prices for a weekly lawn cut, weeding beds, a spring cleanup, trimming hedges, a fall cleanup, and a chemical program. These items may be priced individually or lumped together as a monthly maintenance price. A discounted price is usually given when you sign up for several services or pay in advance.

  • Weekly Lawn Cut: $20-$40 per 1/2 acre
  • Weeding Beds: The more square footage beds have, the more it costs to maintain. You can eliminate the need to weed your beds by having them mulched in the beginning of the season. A high ranch house with a 3 ft. perimeter of beds on 3 sides will cost $25-$50 per month.
  • Spring Cleanup: Was there a Fall Cleanup? If not, or if the Fall Cleanup was not thorough, expect a high price. Otherwise, the price is based on what has accumulated over the winter: usually sticks and late dropping leaves. The average price for 1/2 with some trees: $200.

Taking care of your lawn should balance your lawns needs with those of the environment at large--but the good news is that you can easily do that and save money at the same time,without compromising a hair on how beautiful that grass of yours grows. Of course, it is possible that the Joneses have a lawn that drives you to envy, and not the other way around. If so, stroll on over, tip your hat to your neighbor's yard prowess, and ask how he or she did it. Take notes, thank them for their time, and then you'll be growing something even more precious than sod on the turf.

That is: roots in your community.
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