LESLIE: A beautiful lawn and garden really is the envy of every neighborhood. And while you might think an expensive landscaping service is the only way to get that lush, green look, you can have that great-looking yard while being thrifty at the same time.
And Roger, one of the simplest tips that you have is just to create a smaller lawn. I mean you’re not an advocate of blacktopping the yard, I’m sure, but what else can we do?
ROGER: No. Well, it depends on the use of the lawn. If you’re having football games in the backyard, then you need a big area. If it’s just for social gatherings and your own enjoyment, you don’t need that much lawn. So, a great thing to do is create beds and add more plant material for added attraction and not have the maintenance you would of a lawn.
TOM: Yeah. Less lawn, less maintenance.
ROGER: That’s right. Plant beds go in and they’re pretty well – grow in and they don’t need a lot of fertilizer or water, where the lawn does need that extra care, plus mowing.
LESLIE: Yeah. But I think when people sort of have this American dream of what the perfect house and property looks like, you imagine this big, green, lush lawn. So if that’s something you want, can I do something with the watering to help?
ROGER: Absolutely. The first thing you can do is water it on a not-every-day schedule. People have an expensive irrigation system, they think it has to run every day. It doesn’t.
ROGER: A lawn can exist on 1 inch of water a week here in the Northeast. And I usually do that in two applications so that the water is getting on the lawn, soaking down into the ground where the roots will go get it.
TOM: Now, a little trick of the trade for figuring out what 1 inch of water a week is – can you put a can out or something like that?
ROGER: Simplest thing is just put a can out on the lawn and run your sprinkler system and then measure the amount of water. If you have a ½-inch after 15 minutes, that means you want to water the lawn for a half-an-hour; it’ll give you an inch.
So you split it up. Water one day, skip three and then water a fourth day.
TOM: Now, another thing I think that’s counterintuitive: people try to save money by – when they cut the grass, they cut it right down to the nubs, figuring, “Ah, I won’t have to cut it nearly as frequently. I won’t have to pay to have it cut nearly as frequently.” But if you do that to the grass, the grass doesn’t survive very long or at least it doesn’t look very good, does it?
ROGER: Well, you have to remember that grass is one – the one plant that grows from the tip.
ROGER: So that keeps growing up and up and up. But when you cut it back that low, you’re cutting back past the green part: the good growing part. And the lawn sometimes can get diseased or it’ll take a really long time to bounce back and look good. So, no, a great height is 2 to 3 inches.
LESLIE: What about the clippings? Do you want to leave them in there to sort of help thatch anything with the lawn itself or get rid of them?
ROGER: They found that if you leave the clippings on the lawn, that it takes away one fertilization a year you have to do. So that’s actually saving some money and helping the soil.
TOM: Oh, interesting. And today’s mowers can actually sort of mulch those clippings to the point where you’re not really seeing them around, right?
ROGER: Right. A lot of them have either a door that opens if it’s going to get bagged. You shut the door and that way, the clippings get recycled underneath and cut into a really small particle so that they break down. The one thing you have to remember: that is the grass is really long and really wet, it’s going to be hard to mulch it.
TOM: Now, one other point that you make is about fertilization. You really don’t want to over-fertilize, because that’s going to make the grass grow really excessively and you’re not really helping the plant, are you?
ROGER: No, not at all. You’re forcing it to grow artificially fast. That’s why I’m not a big proponent of putting down fertilizer early in the spring.
ROGER: That grass is going to grow fast enough from the fertilizer you put down late fall. And if you put more down, you could have 6 to 8 inches of growth in a week and that’s just bad for the grass and bad for you mowing it.
TOM: And bad for your back, for sure.
LESLIE: And I think there’s so much confusion over which fertilizer is right for the type of lawn. How do you sort of make that easy decision when you’re in the home center?
ROGER: Well, the first thing you need to do is do a soil test on your soil and find out what your soil is and how much fertilizer it needs. Many times, we just go grab a bag of product and bring it in and throw it on the lawn. And it may have too much nitrogen for the soil and not enough phosphorus and things like that.
And it’s very easy to do a soil test. Send it off to a state lab and they’ll come back with recommendations on exactly what type of fertilizer and how much you should be putting down.
TOM: Absolutely. Now, Roger, we’re talking about ways to save money on a lawn. What about other plants that really can help you cut costs if you’re not doing grass? Are there any types of plants that you might recommend?
ROGER: There’s all sorts of groundcovers and they range from the things you see every day, like Vinca and ivy and Pachysandra. But there’s a whole bunch of native groundcovers that when they grow in will perform splendidly with little or no water or fertilizer.
TOM: Great advice. Roger Cook, the landscaping contractor on TV’s This Old House, thanks for helping us save some money on our landscape.
ROGER: My pleasure.
LESLIE: Alright. Catch the current season of This Old House and Ask This Old House on PBS. For local listings and step-by-step videos of many common home improvement projects, visit ThisOldHouse.com.
TOM: And This Old House and Ask This Old House are brought to you by GMC. GMC, we are professional grade.