For CURB APPEAL the Asset is GRASS
By Donna Rosato, excerpted from Money magazine
You spent hours picking just the right granite for your countertops. You tested half a dozen paint colors before settling on the perfect hue for the living room. You even sat in several bathtubs before buying one at the home center. So why is your lawn a patchy mix of green and brown dotted by the occasional dandelion rather than a lush expanse that signals your impeccable taste to everyone who happens by? Unlike the interior of your home, which only friends and family ever admire, your yard is there for the entire world to see.
That's why good landscaping can increase your home's value by 5% to 11%, according to a Michigan State University study. And by far the biggest component of your landscape is the grass. Moreover, if you give the turf your personal attention, you won't have to shell out $500 to $1,000 or more a year for services that spray and fertilize. You can do as well as they do for a lot less money—and with a lot fewer chemicals. To improve your lawn's health, just follow these six simple steps.
1. MOW IT HIGH
You figure that if you give your lawn a buzz cut, you won't have to mow it as often, right? No, lazybones. Cutting the lawn short makes it grow faster—and stresses the plant, ramps up its need for fertilizer and water, and weakens its roots. "Most lawns should be cut between 2½ and three inches high," says John Stier, professor of horticulture at the University of Wisconsin's turfgrass extension program and playing-field consultant for stadiums in the National Football League and Major League Baseball. The highest setting on some older lawn mowers is barely two inches, which gives you the perfect excuse to buy a new machine ($200 to $500 for a walk-behind; $1,000 to $3,000 for a rider if you're dealing with an acre or more).
2. BAG THE BAGGER
A lot of people bag their clippings to prevent thatch, which is a matted layer of under-composed stems that can strangle the lawn. But clippings are not the culprits. Setting your mower to "mulch" grinds up the clippings so fine that they won't harm the lawn, and it recycles nutrients and moisture back into the turf, says Rusty Stachlewitz, a former golf course superintendent who's now program director at the Lawn Institute, a trade group. Collect clippings in a bag only if you're mowing tall or wet grass.
3. FEED IN THE FALL
Autumn is when grass plants focus on growing their roots, making it the best time to fertilize and water. Deeper roots can help the lawn withstand heat or a dry spell next year. You should also spread seed on the lawn in the fall because winter is easier on young grass than the summer heat that faces spring-planted grass. Be sure to purchase weed-free seed ($50 for a half-acre lot); if you use a "sun-and-shade mix," you'll get a blend of different grass types that helps ensure the right kinds will grow in the right places. Fall is also the best season to remove thatch or loosen hard turf with a power rake or an aerator. (Renting either from a hardware store or garden center costs $50 to $100 a day.) Weed seeds don't sprout in the fall, but grass seeds do, so the exposed soil will fill in with new lawn before weeds invade.
4. WATER, WATER, NOT EVERYWHERE
You've probably heard that lawns need one inch of water a week, but that much moisture can actually drown—or parch—your lawn, depending on such factors as the air temperature and the type of grass. Stier suggests a more, uh, grass-roots approach: Stick your finger about an inch into the dirt. If it feels damp, the lawn doesn't need water. If it feels dry, turn on a sprinkler for a good 20- to 40-minute soak, stopping if water puddles up on the lawn. Always water in the morning. There's less evaporation than at midday, and the grass has a chance to dry before nighttime, when dampness breeds diseases.
5. DON'T DROWN THE BROWN
During the dog days of summer, a few spots on your lawn inevitably turn brown. Soaking the brown spot with water can actually harm it. Brown grass isn't dead; it has gone dormant to ride out a period of heat and drought. And dormancy isn't harmful. What hurts the lawn is its repeatedly coming in and out of dormancy. So you need to either water your lawn consistently (which could prevent it from getting brown to begin with) or let nature take its course, which means it will turn green again on its own when the nights cool down and the fall rains come.
6. GO NATURAL—OR AT LEAST CLOSE
To limit herbicide and pesticide use, avoid fertilizer mixes that promise to kill weeds or grubs. Instead, use a straight fertilizer ($25) recommended by a local nursery and apply spot weed and insect killers ($10 to $20) separately to remedy specific problems. It may take two or three years of spraying, watering, fertilizing, seeding and mowing just right to make your lawn strong and vibrant—but once it is, you'll be able to reap a long-term boost in property value.