Tips for a beautiful Lawn

Basic advice on how to grow the lawn you always wanted

By: Sandy Feather 2011
Penn State Extension

Q. I have never had any success achieving that lawn in the picture on the front of the grass seed box, so what can I do to have a beautiful lawn?

A. A soil test will help you design a fertilization program that provides what your lawn needs for optimum health and growth. Inadequate or excessive fertilization can limit turf growth and/or make it more susceptible to insect and disease problems. An over-fertilized lawn is more susceptible to attack by insects that feed with piercing-sucking mouthparts, such as chinch bugs.  A soil test will tell you what type of fertilization program is required to provide your lawn with the nutrients it needs to perform well.

Be sure to use fertilizers that contain at least 30 percent of water insoluble nitrogen (WIN) that provide an even level of nutrients for your lawn for eight to twelve weeks instead of cheaper, fast-release fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulfate.


Quick release forms of nitrogen have an acidifying effect on the soil and do nothing to stimulate microbial activity in the soil. It will also tell you what you have to do to get your soil pH (acidity or alkalinity) into the optimum range of 6.5 to 7.0 that most turfgrasses prefer. Soil test kits are available from your local Penn State Extension office for a nominal fee. In Allegheny County, consumer soil test kits cost $12 each, and come with detailed instructions for taking a good soil sample and information to help you understand your soil test results. Customers ordering multiple kits at one time pay $9 each for the additional kits. Send a check made payable to Penn State Extension to Penn State Extension, 400 North Lexington Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15208. Write Attn. Soil Test Kit in the lower left corner of the envelope.


Typically, late spring (mid- to late May), late summer (late August to mid-September) and late fall (mid-November) are the best times to apply fertilizer. Avoid applying fertilizer too early in the spring, because the lush growth that results is much more susceptible to disease when we get into hot, humid weather. Liming a lawn is best done in fall.

Ugly lawn!
We all know an ugly lawn
when we see one!

Limestone moves through the soil very slowly and takes time to effect the desired change in pH. If your soil test reveals that your lawn needs 100 pounds or more of limetone per thousand square feet, break it into two applications, half in the fall and half the following spring.


You should also check your lawn for thatch. Thatch is nothing more than a layer of organic matter between the soil surface and the crowns of the grass plants that forms as grass plants slough off dead leaves, stems and roots. Dig up a small square of turf so you can look at the soil profile. The thatch layer is easily visible. A thin layer of thatch - one-half inch or less - is desirable. It acts as a mulch, moderating soil temperature and maintaining soil moisture. More than that creates problems, though. A thick layer of thatch can keep water from reaching the soil, so your lawn is constantly drought-stressed. And that creates more thatch as roots die when they dry out completely. Thatch is a breeding ground for insect and disease problems. Even worse, if your lawn does develop a problem with white grubs (soil dwelling-insects that feed on turf roots), a thick thatch layer can make it very difficult to get an insecticide down to where the grubs are feeding.

The causes of thatch include the variety of grasses in your lawn. Bluegrass and creeping red fescue are the worst thatch formers of the cool season grasses. If your soil pH is lower than 6.5, the microbes that live in the soil and break down thatch are unable to function. If you overfertilize your lawn, or if you water shallowly and infrequently, you encourage thatch buildup. Allowing your grass to grow too long, then cutting it too short and leaving the long grass lie on the lawn will also contribute to thatch buildup. If you stick to the one-third rule or use a mulching mower, the grass clippings are small and break down quickly, and do not cause thatch to build up.

A moderate layer of thatch - between one-half and one inch - can be removed by dethatching your lawn with a power dethatcher.


Dethatching is very stressful and should only be done in fall. You can rent dethatchers, or hire a lawn service to do it for you. Run the dethatcher in one direction, and then go over you your lawn in the perpendicular direction. A good detatching job should make you want to cry when you look at your lawn.

Overseed with varieties of turfgrass that match your existing lawn to help it recover.

If you have over one inch of thatch, consider a total renovation - removing your existing lawn and starting again from scratch. The knives of most dethatchers will not go deep enough to get through the thatch and down to the soil, which is important for a good dethatching job. A good dethatching job is a lot of hard work, but will not be very effective if you have over an inch of thatch.

If you do not have a thatch problem, but the soil is compacted, rent a core aerator. Again, they are available from many tool rental shops, or you can hire a lawn service to do the aerating for you.


Soil plugs pulled by a core aeratorCore aerators pull three to four inch plugs of soil out of the ground and leave small holes behind. This helps aerate the soil (yes, roots need air!) and alleviate soil compaction. Fall is ideal for core aeration, but it can be done in the spring as well. If your lawn does not have a lot of activity on it, core aeration every three years or so will keep the soil aerated sufficiently. If all the neighborhood kids play in your yard, consider yearly core aeration in late fall to keep soil compaction to a minimum.

It is good to leave the cores on the soil surface, where they will break down during winter's freeze-thaw cycles. If the cores are creating too much of a muddy mess (when children and/or pets play on the lawn), you can rake them up and put them on the compost pile. You can also leave them on the lawn and break them up with a rake to create a seedbed to overseed your entire lawn. Fall overseeding is a great way to introduce new varieties of grasses to your lawn that have improved disease, resistance, drought tolerance and/or aesthetic qualities like color and texture. Once you break up the soil cores, topdress with a quarter or an inch of compost and rake it into the soil from the cores.

Then broadcast the seed over the seedbed and rake lightly to barely cover the seeds. Keep the newly seeded area moist (not sopping wet!) until the seed germinates.


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