You thought you did everything right last year. You fertilized, you watered, and you mowed. So why didn’t your lawn turn out the way you had hoped?

It isn’t a curse. According to John Stier, an expert in horticulture with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “You may be challenged by weather and soil conditions, but you can still get great results by giving your lawn the right balance of nutrients and proper care.”

You may simply need to tweak your lawn care program to better serve the specific needs of your lawn. Here are a few common complaints and suggestions for making adjustments.


A healthy lawn is your best defense against weeds. As grass strengthens and thickens, it actually helps prevent crabgrass, dandelions and other weeds from growing by blocking out the sunlight and using up the moisture that weeds need in order to germinate.

The way to a healthy lawn is through its soil. The ideal soil for gardening contains a mixture of sand, silt, clay and organic matter. Also, the pH value, which indicates the acid or alkaline level, should be neutral, or around 7.0. You can test your soil with a pH kit available at garden centers.

To improve the health of your soil, use a natural organic fertilizer. “Many synthetic fertilizers release nutrients faster, while organic fertilizers are better at releasing nutrients at the rate plants need them and may add beneficial organic matter,” says Stier. “Microorganisms in the soil break down organic matter into a usable form by plants.”

A healthy lawn can take some time to develop. Until your lawn has reached this point, you can still fight weeds naturally by mowing your lawn no shorter than two to three inches and by removing any weeds you notice to prevent further damage.

“Burning” Your Lawn

Too little water and too much salt will cause your lawn to turn brown and, in severe cases, can kill the roots. Chemically-derived synthetic fertilizers can burn lawns if over-applied because they contain a high amount of salts. Applying more synthetic fertilizer than the label suggests can actually damage plants. Follow the directions on the package to avoid problems.

On the other hand, if you’re worried about applying too much fertilizer by mistake, go with one that has a low salt index. “The natural organic fertilizer Milorganite contains virtually no chemical salts, so it won’t burn grass or plants under any condition,” says Mike Archer, market development and research coordinator at Milorganite.

Heavy Clippings

Did your lawn grow so fast last year that you couldn’t keep up? Compared to fighting weeds and suffering from burned roots, a lawn that grows too fast may seem trivial. But a fast growing lawn is more work and not as pleasing to view in between mowings.

Lots of rain may cause your grass to grow faster than usual, but another viable suspect is the nitrogen in your fertilizer. Nitrogen, commonly the prominent nutrient in fertilizers, promotes quick growth and dark green foliage. It is a vital nutrient to plants, but too much can cause plants to grow prematurely.

“Synthetic, water soluble fertilizers tend to release nitrogen faster than organics, so the result is visibly green grass sooner,” says Stier. “However, forcing a burst of nitrogen is stressful to your lawn.”

A plant’s growth should determine its use of nutrients, not the other way around. Look for a “slow-release” or “water-insoluble” fertilizer that releases nitrogen at rates needed by the plant. Generally speaking, the higher the amount of slow release or water-insoluble nitrogen a fertilizer contains, the closer its rate of release to the rate the plant can use it.

Damaged Shrubs or Gardens

When fertilizing their lawns, homeowners often tend to spread the product too close to their shrubs and gardens. Many fertilizers high in nitrogen are not recommended for these plants. Shrubs and vegetables typically require even less nitrogen than your lawn.

If you have more than just a lawn to care for, you might consider going with a multi-purpose fertilizer that can be used on anything from lawns to shrubs to flower and vegetable gardens. Because natural organic fertilizers release nitrogen at a rate appropriate to plant needs, they can be applied to a variety of plants.

Milorganite, for example, contains 6 percent nitrogen by weight. “Milorganite is so safe,” says Archer, “the only way it could kill a plant is if you spilled a 40-pound bag on the plant and left it there for a week. Even then, the lack of sunlight would be what killed the plant.”

General Lawn Care Tips

Here are a few general lawn care tips to keep in mind.

  • Spread your fertilizer evenly. Streaks and blotches will give away the spots you missed.
  • Do not mow your lawn when it’s wet.
  • Keep your lawn mower’s blade sharp to cause the least amount of damage to the grass.
  • Set mower to correct cutting height (2 1/2 to 3 inches).
  • Mow often enough so you never remove more than one-third of the lawn height each time.
  • Do not allow clippings to “bunch,” suffocating the grass underneath.

If you didn’t get the lush green lawn you wanted last year, don’t give up. Do it right next spring and you have another chance to make your yard the envy of the neighborhood.