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Closeup of the center and partial petals of a deep yellow sunflower.

Three reasons your lawn looks bad

Face it, your lawn is ugly and you know it.  You can pretend the front lawn looks lush and green as your lawn tractor creates a dust bowl similar to that of the great depression.  Unless of course your lawn is made up of more crabgrass than real grass?  The crabgrass will take a while to flourish, so this spring there will be more open prairie than visible lawn.  If that’s the case, at least you’ll have weeds to cut by late July. When did things go wrong?  Some lawns can die from catastrophic insect infestations and others a more gradual and slow decline. The most likely causes would be mowing abuse, poor soil care and a host of other circumstances.  So, let’s dig deeper.
Even if you had a lawn at one time, chances are you mow it to short.  I call this syndrome the “military style” mowing tactic. Short, clean, and improper.  With the mower deck only centimeters above the soil, the blade catches chunks of sod, soil and debris discarding the plume of devastation into the air or mower bag.  Like helicopters flying above the enemy, nothing survives and what is left resembles a parking lot in New York City left vacant for years.
Mowing short heats up the soil causing weed seeds like crabgrass and spurge to germinate.  Mowing short places tremendous drought stress on the grass itself as water loss evaporates from the cut leaf blade.  Mowing short creates a short leaf blade that means less surface area for the lawn to capture sunlight and manufacture food for survival.  Would you prefer all of your teeth or only the front two for eating?  Mow your grass between 2.5 and 3 inches most of the year and you will minimize most of the aforementioned issues.
Removal of grass clippings is another mowing related issue that deprives your lawn of valuable nutrients over time.  Mulching or discarding clippings directly back onto the lawn is a desired practice as opposed to removal while mowing.  Consider your lawn a crop. Each time you remove organic matter (clippings), you deny the soil and turf (your crop) a piece of the food it needs to flourish.
Like recycling, returning that energy and sunlight in the form of clippings is a very good practice and should be encouraged all year long.  That is not to say that on occasion after returning home from a vacation or a heavy lawn growth in the spring that clippings could not be removed to facilitate a better cut.
Neglected soil is perhaps one of the greatest mysteries to a home owner. It’s almost as mysterious as the creation of the great pyramids in Egypt.  You cannot see it; you walk over it, mow over it, and wonder why your lawn looks so horrible.  Unfortunately, soil should support healthy lawn growth or other landscape plants but cannot when there are poor conditions.
While some folks may understand that their soil is sandy or full of clay, what to do about it is another story altogether.  The good news is that changing your soil from unhealthy to healthy is possible with dedicated and diligent effort.  Good soil is like a nice cake or bread mix, it needs the right ingredients in the right amounts.  For instance, organic matter is highly desired in a soil setting as it supports a wide array of micro-organisms which in turn help create a wonderful relationship with turf roots and available nutrient uptake.
Organic content, along with fine clay particles also help retain moisture needed to get through dry periods.  On the other hand, too much clay in the soil can become compacted with smaller air pockets unable to support healthy root growth.  Too much sand in your soil means little water holding capacity but great drainage- ideal for septic systems or wet areas.
The corrective measures required to improve your soil could include annual liming with either calcium or magnesium, topdressing with organic matter in the spring or fall, adding compost tea to enhance microbial life, or even the introduction of mycorrihizae by coating grass seed.  Of course, mulching your clippings, proper mowing height, raking and watering will make a big impact long term.

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