When I lived in a one-bedroom, 500-square-foot New York City apartment without so much as a balcony, I fantasized about a yard every day. The things I would do! Sprawl out in the grass. Adopt a puppy. Build a perfect English garden.
And then I bought a home with a yard—and my expectations quickly went south. So much goes into lawn care, we learned—from weeding to choosing the right fertilizer to honing a proper mowing technique. And I can’t forget about the money involved: Lawn care is absurdly expensive.
Quite simply, our long-lusted-after lawn was a pain right from the start.
Fortunately we’re in good shape now—three years later. But it took some hard-knocks lessons along the way. And that English garden? It definitely hasn’t happened yet.
If you, too, dream of owning a home to cultivate a lush, green expanse outside, we won’t deter you. But just know what you’re getting into. Here’s what we learned from having a lawn for the first time, plus some tips we got from the pros.
1. You practically need a degree in soil science
When we purchased our house, the lawn, which covers a little less than a quarter-acre, was in shambles. The previous homeowners had installed a new sewer line, tearing up the grass in the process. But no big deal—we could simply throw down new seed and, bam, new lawn, right?
Nope. Our Colorado soil is 95% clay, and getting anything to grow required “amending” the dirt. Before we could put down seed, we spent many back-breaking weekends dumping new soil and compost into the yard, and then integrating it into the existing soil using a rototiller.
Then, we learned, you can’t just throw down any grass seed—you have to pick the perfect grass seed for your soil and your hardiness zone. (Do you know your hardiness zone? Check here.) For instance, if you’re in the Northeast, you might want Kentucky bluegrass, whereas Gulf Coast homeowners might choose centipede grass.
“Lawns in warmer climates can be subject to heat stress, which can require special care and more water,” says Coulter Lewis, the CEO of lawn care company Sunday.
So your home’s unique soil conditions will affect that choice, as it did ours. Our local garden store sells a dozen different grass blends designed for specific soils.
Not sure about your soil? Pick up a soil-testing kit at your local gardening center. The staff there should be able to guide you on needed amendments once you know the details.
2. Maintaining a lawn requires a lot more than mowing
Even if your lawn starts out in good shape, you’ll have to juggle a lot of weekly tasks to keep it that way.
“Many first-timers look at mowing like it will be fun—and it might be,” says Bob West, a real estate agent in Las Vegas. “Lawn maintenance includes a lot more than mowing, though.”
When you have a lawn—no matter how big or small—you can add the following to your to-do list: trimming, fertilizing, picking bugs, weeding, raking, and dethatching.
“Know that you will need a lot of equipment and a regular commitment of your time,” West says.
So say bye-bye to spontaneous Sunday Fundays—unless you want to be the bane of your block.
“To cut costs, it’s best to try to do as much as you can on your own,” Lewis says. “If your goal is an almost perfect lawn, expect to be spending a lot of time in the spring and summer.”
3. Lawn equipment gets expensive
Speaking of lawn maintenance, each of those regular tasks requires specialized equipment. From sowing the seeds (you’ll want a spreader) to mowing, edging, and trimming, prepare to quickly blow your new home maintenance budget on lawn care tools.
“The new owners will likely have to invest in these items,” says Jana Angelakis, a real estate salesperson at Citi Habitats. Yes, you can rent all of these items from most home improvement stores, but that’s still money you didn’t have to spend when you were an apartment dweller.
4. Prepare to pony up for professional help
When we were first dealing with our sad, destroyed lawn, we considered going the professional route. We were astonished to get quotes of $2,000-plus just to level our front lawn. We had no choice but to do the tedious work ourselves.
5. You will have to mow much more frequently than you think…
If only you could cut your grass as infrequently as you cut your hair.
“In summer in Florida, the grass can grow inches in just one day, especially after the rain,” West says.
That means, depending on where you live, you might have to mow twice a week in the burning-hot sun.
6. … but you can’t cut your grass too short
On that note, we have bad news: You can’t just hack your grass short to reduce how often you need to mow. Lawn pros advise you to never chop more than one-third of your grass at once, otherwise you might risk letting it burn in the sun.
Different grasses have different ideal mowing heights, too. To get a lush lawn, make sure you know the proper height for your grass.
7. You will face an eternal battle against weeds
Weeds never completely go away, no matter how much effort you put into your lawn. Three years after we planted our grass—which looks, for the most part, awesome—we’re still dealing with rogue weeds. (One caveat: You don’t have to murder every weed. Dandelions, in particular, are great for the bees.)
8. Sprinkler systems are a pricey hassle
Grass needs water, and a sprinkler system will help hydrate your lawn with efficiency and consistency.
But installing a sprinkler system can easily cost thousands of dollars. Typically, these custom solutions start at $2,500, and can run much, much higher. Even if you’re handy, taking the DIY route to install a sprinkler system in most states requires a permit and a licensed plumber to sign off on your work.
Don’t let lush, green lawns fool you when you’re buying a home: You’ll need to dedicate several hours a month to keeping them that way.