As COVID-19 puts most beach getaways on hold, lawns are reclaiming their role as America’s quintessential summer escape—one of the few places you can freely gather among handsomely masked friends. With more time than ever to devote to that swath of green just beyond your door, now is your chance to achieve the most enviable lawn on the block.
But before you start arbitrarily dumping fertilizer, you need a road map. Start with a soil test, said Peter Landschoot, professor of turfgrass science at Penn State. Just like the panel blood work your doctor consults during a physical, soil tests detail what’s going on below the surface. DIY tests purchased online can be dicey, so find a link to a soil testing lab in your state (nifa.usda.gov). You might also find there a primer from the agronomists and horticulturalists who study grass in your region.
Once you address how to help your blades grow, you’ll need to tame them. Push mowers have seen staggering advances in recent years; battery-powered versions bear little resemblance to the anemic early attempts that stalled out in tall grass. The beefy Ego Power+ 21” Select Cut ($649, egopowerplus.com) can shave clippings for about an hour and has enough muscle to power two blades, which you’ll want to keep sharp, said Andrew Ziehler, president of Ziehler Lawn and Tree Care outside of Dayton, Ohio. Dull steel rips the grass tips off—like hacking through a steak with a butter knife—leaving ragged ends that brown quickly and invite disease. A sharp blade cuts cleanly like a surgeon’s scalpel.
High-tech horticulturalists might gravitate to robotic mowers, like the Husqvarna Automower (from $1,200, husqvarna.com) and Stihl iMow (from $1,500, stihlusa.com) which work like a Roomba for your lawn. But these gadgets often trade convenience for aesthetics. A lawn done well has pleasing stripes, like the grill marks of a perfectly charred burger. These pricey mowers can cut overly random patterns and require a perimeter guidewire, which can quickly become a trip hazard.
While mowing is important, any professional landscaping crew relies on additional tools to ensure a tidy turf. A string trimmer, like the Ryobi 40 Volt Brushless Expand-It ($199, ryobitools.com), helps finish the perimeter of a lawn with crisp edges, important when it borders a sidewalk or patio. When you’re done, disperse the clumps left behind with a leaf blower. The Greenworks 60V 610 CFM Cordless Axial Leaf Blower ($179, greenworkstools.com) is far quieter than older gas-powered models.
The smartest new tool is a controller that efficiently orchestrates the buried lines and sprinkler heads of an irrigation system. Modern versions like the Rachio 3 (from $229, rachio.com) sync with your smartphone and offer a simple user interface you can adjust without fussing with confusing buttons and dials. It also uses your ZIP Code to get local weather, then tailors your watering schedule accordingly.
Riding coattails on all this tech is the simple plastic flap that hangs behind a mower’s rear wheels—the unlikeliest of lawncare MVPs. Like rubbing your hand on a new carpet as a kid, the flap changes the bend in the turf. When you alternate directions with each calculated pass, the grass bows toward and then away from you, and a pattern forms. For turf that looks like a MLB outfield, do a final pass with a Brinly-Hardy lawn roller drum ($129, homedepot.com), to expertly bend the blades.
Even a garage filled with tools won’t help a starved lawn. Underperforming lawns tend to be nutrient deficient, say landscape pros. “Grass looks its best when properly fed throughout the season,” said Mr. Ziehler. “And fertilizer is not one of the scenarios where if some is good, more is better.” Follow the label’s guidelines, he said; a healthy turf resists weeds and disease, making maintenance infinitely easier. Don’t worry, you’ll still get the credit.
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