Homeowners love their lawns, whether they are big or small. They like looking at them and walking on them. Some people actually claim to enjoy mowing them.

But almost everyone wishes his lawn looked better. I get more phone calls and emails from people asking how to improve their lawns than about anything else. People want to know environmentally friendly ways to get rid of weeds, how to get rid of grubs, and what to do about bare spots and moles and voles tunneling through the lawn. No one thinks their lawn looks good enough.

A large part of the problem is perception. There’s a reason the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence: you are seeing it from a distance. But when you walk on or mow your own lawn, you can’t fail but to notice up close the dandelions and other non-grass plants, the small bare spots and the spots where the grass is thin. Those details disappear when you are looking at your neighbor’s seeming swath of green.

Expectations are also to blame. People want the kind of lawn a home could only have with a sprinkler system and regular visits from a chemical-dispensing team of professionals. But they don’t want to pay the environmental or financial price of such care. One good thing, though: If communities like Portland and South Portland go through with proposed bans on synthetic pesticides, then we who don’t use them will no longer have to compete with the artificially treated lawns.

As long as the lawn is mostly green with no huge bare spots, for me that’s good enough. Much of the green in our lawn is violets – at least when they aren’t blooming purple and white – and my wife Nancy and I are fine with that.

But if you are unhappy with how your lawn looks, do a few things early this spring.


The first is – and I know I am beginning to sound like a nag – get a soil test. You will learn if you have the correct pH and whether the soil has enough nitrogen and organic matter. What you do next depends on the result of the test.

If the soil test numbers are good, look at compaction. For grass to grow well, the roots need both air and water. After 20 or more years of mowing, walking and playing on your lawn, you have packed the soil so much that air and water have trouble reaching the roots. If more than half the lawn is bare, till in the lawn, add compost and start over with new seed or sod. Get these done before Memorial Day or wait until late August or September. It will be too warm and dry over the summer.

If you aren’t starting over, rent a core aerator – a machine about the size of a mower – that pulls small plugs of soil from your lawn. This will allow your lawn to breathe again. You could also rake in a finely ground compost, but that’s not required and it’s a lot of work.

If you have a large patch of dead grass in the spring, grubs are probably at fault. The grubs aren’t doing anything now, but last fall they munched on the roots of the grass, making it look dead this spring.

Grubs are the early stages of Japanese beetles, European chafers and June bugs. In spring they are large and getting ready to turn into the beetles we see in mid-summer, but they don’t eat much and are hard to kill. State pesticide officials advise against spring grub treatments.

Instead, start treatment in mid-July, when adults are laying eggs and small, hungry grubs emerge closer to the surface. That is when treatments – traditional or organic – will work best.


Moles and voles dig up the lawn, but they do not eat grass. Voles make tunnels to reach the things they like to eat, such as tulip bulbs. Just tamp down the tunnels – or get a 5-year-old to do it – and your lawn will come back fine. Moles eat earthworms and grubs and make hills, which you should fill. The only way to get rid of moles and voles is with poison bait or traps, but they usually don’t do enough damage to warrant such radical action.

On to weeds. I have been using corn gluten meal for the past few years as a pre-emergent weed killer. You have to apply it just as the forsythias come into bloom and realize it is rich it nitrogen, so it is a fertilizer. We have had less crabgrass since using corn gluten, but it hasn’t worked on other weeds, and it is expensive. Many bloggers and horticultural experts say it isn’t worth it. I won’t apply it this year, but if the crabgrass comes back I plan to start using it again.

Flowering weeds in the lawn are good for bees and other pollinators. That is part of why we have the violets. I dig dandelions whenever I see them, because we don’t like the look of them. This year I am going to carry a mix of grass seed, fertilizer and mulch with me and reseed areas where I dig the dandelions. Such a mix is sold as a lawn repair kit in many hardware stores and nurseries.

Spring fertilization encourages weed growth, so you really should fertilize only in the fall – if at all. It is better for the grass and doesn’t encourage weed growth.

If you have a sprinkler system, don’t use it every day. Yes, I know the irrigation people tell you to set your system to turn itself on for 15 minutes every morning. But watering frequently and lightly encourages diseases and grubs. Water at most twice a week, putting down 1 to 1.5 inches a week of water.

Since I don’t have a sprinkler system, the grass has to look sick before I drag out the hose and water.

I think my laziness is actually good for the lawn.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected].

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