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Lawn Care
 
Go to Ratings of 37 Boston Area Lawn Care Firms

Checklist 

What are your expectations? Can you live with a few weeds in your lawn? Are you willing to wait a year for your lawn to reach the condition you desire? Two years? How much chemical treatment will you accept? 

Communicate your expectations to the lawn care services you deal with. If you can be patient, you may save money and minimize chemical use by limiting treatments to the most important times of the year, targeting only problem areas, and relying heavily on techniques like core aeration to build a fundamentally strong lawn. 

Be aware that more treatment—at least in the short term—is not necessarily better treatment. Any company can produce a quick flash of green growth with quick-release fertilizer that weakens your lawn’s root systems. A company that treats your entire lawn with herbicides and pesticides may be less effective than one that targets limited areas and specific problems—and subjects you and your surroundings to the least possible chemical exposure. 

Whatever professional lawn treatments you get, you still must water properly—typically a single watering of about one inch per week during summer dry spells—and mow properly—using a mower with sharp blades, not too short, removing about one-third of the leaf on each cutting. 

To choose a lawn care service, you can use the ratings of area companies on our Ratings Tables. At the time of our last full, published article, 6 of the 35 companies were rated “superior” overall by at least 80 percent of their surveyed customers. But nine failed to receive “superior” ratings from even half of their surveyed customers. 

Get proposals from several companies. Tell them what you expect your lawn to look like and how soon you want it that way. Get companies to commit to meeting your expectations and to an overall cost. For average-size lawns, price differences of more than $300 per year are common. 

Try to get the company to guarantee in writing that it will refund your money for an entire year if you are not satisfied that it has met its commitments; some companies will offer this guarantee. 

Once your lawn is established, you will probably need fewer professional treatments than during the first year or so when you are building up a weak lawn. 

Maintaining a lawn is for some people a source of pride and satisfaction, and a great reason to get outdoors. For the rest of us, well, there are lawn services. 

Even if you hire help, you’ll need to do some work to realize your fields of green. To choose the right company and level of service, you need to find out the range of services they offer; potential risks of lawn treatments to your family, neighbors, and the environment; costs; and the tasks you may still have to do yourself. 

How They Green Your Scene 

Lawn care services work with different products, tools, techniques, and schedules, but the results they promise are similar from company to company. 

Companies usually offer customers a selection of “packages” that include specified treatment plans to take place over the course of a year. Some lawn care services also offer one-time treatments, some automatically renew the contract each year, but almost all allow you to cancel a contract at any time and pay only for the visits you have received. 

Aeration 

Most lawns benefit substantially from core aeration. In this process, a device with metal tubes about one-half inch in diameter is rolled over your lawn, penetrating several inches into the turf to remove plugs of turf and soil, and deposit them on the surface. The resulting holes admit water, air, fertilizer, and humus-creating organic matter to the root systems. The holes give the soil room to loosen, permitting easier root growth and better air and water circulation throughout the turf. In addition, the plugs of soil deposited on the surface contain microbes that cause grass clippings, dead roots, and stems to decompose, preventing the buildup of thatch (see below) and returning nutrients to the soil. 

Compared to most other lawn care treatments, core aeration is labor-intensive and likely to cost at least $30 or so per 1,000 square feet of lawn. But in heavily compacted areas, core aeration once a year is advisable, and most lawns benefit from core aeration about once every three years. 

But don’t confuse core aeration with an aeration process in which a lawn is simply penetrated with spikes. While a spiking treatment delivers water, air, and fertilizer access to plant roots, it compacts the soil around each hole and doesn’t deposit microbe-bearing soil on the surface. 

Core aeration is a relatively simple job that you can do yourself. You can get an aeration unit—which looks like a cross between a lawn mower and a tiller—from a tool/equipment rental shop. If you’ve never operated a core aeration machine before, get some instruction before you leave the shop. 

Dethatching 

Lawns typically develop a layer of dead grass roots or stems at the base of the grass plants. This layer, the “thatch,” serves as a mulch, keeping moisture in the soil. 

But thatch that becomes too thick prevents water, air, and nutrients from reaching grass plants’ roots. If grass is regularly allowed to grow excessively high before it is cut, and if clippings are allowed to remain on the lawn, an impenetrable organic matter can form. 

Thatch becomes a problem if it gets more than a half-inch or so thick. For such organic matter to decompose, microbes from the soil must act on it. But a thick layer of thatch creates a barrier that the soil microbes can’t penetrate. The problem most often occurs when soil is allowed to become too acidic or if excessive application of pesticides or fertilizer reduces the population of microbes or worms. 

One solution is mechanical dethatching, which can be performed in small areas by hand with a rigid garden rake and in large areas with a dethatching machine. While dethatching may remove piles of dead roots and stems, these generally represent just a small fraction of the total thatch layer. The main benefit of the process results from mixing of microbe-containing soil with the remaining thatch material, with microbes causing the remaining material to decompose. For most lawn care companies, dethatching is an expensive add-on service. Also, dethatching damages a lawn’s appearance for two or three weeks. 

In most cases, core aeration is a better way to eliminate thatch problems because the aeration treatment, as noted, brings microbe-bearing soil (from the removed plugs) into contact with the thatch and causes decomposition. Another alternative is to apply a top dressing of microbe-bearing topsoil or a natural fertilizer such as compost or composted manure. 

Seeding 

Many lawns benefit from seeding (or “over-seeding”). New seed can replace grass that has died or been removed, fill in thinned-out areas, or add a desirable grass variety to an established lawn. For example, fine fescue can be planted in an area with dense shade, where tall fescue doesn’t grow well. Seeding also discourages weeds and pests by creating a denser lawn. For these reasons, some companies recommend seeding every fall. Seeding can be expensive, however. Although some lawn care companies do limited seeding at no cost, most charge for major reseeding jobs. 

When applying seed to an existing lawn, make sure the seed comes into contact with the soil. Do this by stirring up soil through a dethatching process—and possibly applying a light topcoat of soil after distributing the seed. Some companies use a process called “slit seeding,” in which a machine penetrates the thatch layer and deposits seeds into the soil. And some companies follow seeding with aeration. 

Many modern grass varieties resist insect and disease better than older varieties, and considerable recent research has been devoted to developing turfgrasses even more resistant to insects and disease. The availability of more and better pest-resistant grasses provides an increasingly strong rationale for over-seeding older lawns. 

Fertilizing 

All lawn care firms apply fertilizer. Most recommend treatment three to six times per year, depending on the needs of the particular lawn. 

The three most important elements in a fertilization program are nitrogen (which is particularly important for green top growth), and phosphorus and potassium (which promote healthy root growth). Fertilizers are labeled according to the percentage of the weight represented by each of these elements. For example, in fertilizer labeled 20-5-10, the nitrogen portion (always listed first) accounts for 20 percent of the weight, the phosphate (always listed second) is five percent, and potash is 10 percent. Because runoff from lawns treated with fertilizer containing phosphorus pollutes waterways, some states limit its use on residential lawns. At the end of 2012, lawn care product giant Scotts stopped using phosphorus in its products. 

An important issue in lawn care is the type of fertilizer used. As a nitrogen source, there are three basic types—fast-release synthetic, slow-release synthetic, and slow-release natural (organic). 

Synthetic fertilizers may be applied in liquid form or in dry, granular form. Granular fertilizers only become available to plants, of course, after rain or watering. If too much fertilizer—especially fast-release fertilizer—is applied, your grass can become “burned,” since the fertilizer is really just a form of salt. 

A fast-release nitrogen fertilizer, such as urea, gives grass a quick shot of nutrition, resulting in fast leaf growth and greening. When applied by a lawn care service, these fertilizers produce dramatic effects. 

The burst of green leaf vitality from a fast-release fertilizer may divert energy from the formation of a strong root system. A lawn that gets fast-release fertilizer five or six times per year may look good when the weather is good, but its weak root system may cause it to dry up during dry weather. Consequently, many lawn care services do not even offer fast-release fertilizers. 

Slow-release fertilizers give lawns a more steady and gradual supply of nutrients. Synthetic varieties are made in factories by chemical processes. Some synthetic slow-release nitrogen fertilizers, such as urea formaldehyde, become available to plants only after they have been acted on by microbes in the soil. Such action occurs only under proper conditions of warmth and moisture. Another form of synthetic slow-release nitrogen fertilizer is really the same as the fast-release type, except that nitrogen components are enclosed in a porous sulfur coating that slowly releases the nitrogen. Depending on the specific type, synthetic slow-release fertilizers can provide a steady (but diminishing) source of nitrogen for a few weeks or several years. 

The disadvantage of both liquid and dry synthetic slow-release fertilizers is that they don’t produce a quick burst of green vigor—and some formulations may produce no effects at all for weeks if weather conditions aren’t right. But the steady, lower dose of nitrogen these fertilizers provide allows grass to build strong roots without sudden diversions of energy to leaf growth—and may also spare you from mowing as often. 

The third broad category of fertilizer types—natural slow-release fertilizers—consists of all types that are not synthesized. Examples include dried blood, fish emulsion, manure, and processed sewage. These fertilizers are sometimes referred to as “organic,” a word used very loosely by lawn care companies eager to sell their product. In the language of chemistry, any compound containing carbon is “organic”—including many synthetic fertilizers. A more accurate term is “natural, nonsynthetic” fertilizers. 

All natural, nonsynthetic fertilizers, like some synthetic slow-release types, require action by soil microbes—under proper conditions of temperature and moisture—before the nitrogen becomes available to grass plants. The natural fertilizers offer all the advantages of the synthetic slow-release types and, in addition, provide various minor nutrients not found in synthetic formulations. And the bulk provided by natural fertilizers contributes modestly to the buildup of humus in the turf and fosters microbe activity near the surface of the turf, which helps control the buildup of thatch. Natural fertilizers made from wastes also help solve an environmental problem—disposal of solid wastes. 

But natural fertilizers tend to be expensive. A major contributor to cost is bulk: To get a pound of nitrogen from a good natural fertilizer, you may need to use four times as much product as a good synthetic, slow-release fertilizer. Bulk contributes to costs of distribution and the labor required for lawn application. 

Regardless of what type of fertilizer you use, timing is important. Most of the grasses grown in this area benefit most from late summer or early fall fertilizations. 

Maintaining Soil Acidity 

Generously fertilizing your lawn can have little effect if its acid balance—pH reading—is not right. Your grass simply won’t be able to use the nutrients if the soil is too acidic or too alkaline. Most grass varieties grow best when the pH reading is between 6.5 and 7.0 (slightly acidic). 

Maintaining proper soil acidity may also help control weeds, as many weeds thrive at higher or lower pH levels compared to turfgrasses. By keeping soil pH at ideal levels for turfgrasses, you give your grass an advantage in competing with weeds. 

Lawn care companies should test the pH level of your soil and apply lime, which reduces the acidity, as needed. Some companies include the lime in their basic packages; others add an extra charge. 

Controlling Weeds 

There are several ways to control weeds— 

  • Competition—The best way is to crowd out weeds with turfgrasses. Most weeds thrive in sunny, thinly planted areas. A thick, strong lawn will have few weeds because weeds can’t compete. Mowing high and often, and seeding every year or two, will help produce a virtually weed-free lawn. 
  • Pre-emergent herbicides—Another approach is to apply an herbicide that kills seed sprouts; it’s what lawn care companies most commonly do to control crabgrass and other undesirable grasses. They can’t apply an herbicide that kills fully mature crabgrass plants because such herbicides may injure desired grasses as well—although there are herbicides (such as fenoxaprop) that kill immature crabgrass plants without damaging desired grasses. After a lawn has been seeded, most types of pre-emergent herbicides must not be applied until the desired grasses have matured or the new grass will be killed or stunted. But one type of pre-emergent grass herbicide, containing the ingredient siduron, can be used over newly seeded grass. Since you can’t know in advance exactly where weeds will appear, pre-emergent herbicides must be applied generally to broad areas that seem likely locations for weed grasses. While many lawn care companies treat every lawn in its entirety, some limit treatment to lawns that have a history of weed problems or even to vulnerable portions of such lawns. 
  • Post-emergent herbicides—While no pre-emergent herbicides are in wide use for broadleaf weeds such as dandelions and clover, there are post-emergent herbicides that kill these plants without killing desired grasses. Some lawn care companies apply post-emergent herbicides all over every lawn to kill both visible plants and small not-yet-apparent plants, thus reducing the chances that plants will later appear and require special follow-up service calls. But many companies limit the application of these herbicides to lawns with a history of weed problems or currently visible weeds, and some treat only the portions of lawns where weeds are visible. 
  • Physical removal—In small lawns with few weeds, physical removal is a reasonable option; use an asparagus knife to cut the roots. Many lawn care companies don’t offer this labor-intensive service. 
  • Natural death—Weeds die off. If the problem isn’t too severe, just let nature take its course. In fact, that’s often the only practical option once the weeds have matured. 

When choosing a company or deciding which of a company’s programs to choose, keep in mind that weeds are for the most part just wildflowers and grasses that have sprouted up in the wrong places. If you can live with a little wayward flora (consider them pops of color!), you may be able to avoid some expense, trouble, and exposure to herbicides. 

Controlling Insects 

Although virtually all lawns have some harmful insects, the severity of the problem depends heavily on the weather and other factors. Even if insects are plentiful, however, a strong lawn can withstand a substantial insect attack. Like weeds, many harmful pests prefer sunny areas. A thick, properly maintained lawn discourages widespread insect problems, and most of this area’s turfgrasses are fairly resistant to most insect attacks. 

Many lawn care firms treat the entirety of all lawns with insecticides at times when insect damage is likely, an approach that may reduce a company’s costs. If all lawns are treated, a company doesn’t need to hire personnel skilled enough to recognize insect problems—which may not be easy to distinguish from problems caused by drought, disease, or other types of stress. Broad-scale preventive treatment also reduces the chances that a company will be called back between scheduled visits and reduces the risk that customers will be unhappy about losing portions of their lawns for the season. 

But insecticides may kill beneficial organisms that prey on harmful insects and other harmful organisms. Insecticides may also harm organisms such as earthworms, which contribute in other ways to the maintenance of healthy turf. As a result, broad-scale application of insecticides can make a lawn more vulnerable than before to attack by various pests. From a community perspective, broad-scale use of insecticides may pose an additional risk to lawns—the risk that resistant strains of insects will develop. 

Many lawn care firms have adopted Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs. Good IPM programs provide for reduced and better usage of pesticides, and rely on prevention, careful monitoring, and targeted control. In IPM programs, the natural enemies of pests are conserved by the use of only selective pesticides, timing applications properly, planting proper grasses, controlling thatch buildup, and proper mowing and watering. Lawns are regularly monitored for potential pest problems, keeping in mind the lawn’s history, weather, and behavior of specific pests. Chemicals are used only when necessary, and only to ensure that damage is not permanent. Lawn care firms that follow IPM principles limit use of insecticides to lawns—or portions of lawns—where potentially serious insect problems have been specifically diagnosed. Trained company representatives evaluate the lawn’s progress throughout the year, and use chemicals and controls only as last resorts. Because IPM practices demand trained, knowledgeable staff working constantly in the field, good IPM programs are labor-intensive and can be much more expensive than conventional methods of controlling insects, which rely simply on broad-scale use of pesticides at certain times of the year when pests are likely to pose problems. 

If you are concerned about a company’s practices in applying pesticides, ask a representative what problems he or she sees for your lawn in the future and why; how they will treat these problems; how often your lawn will be inspected and by whom; the inspector’s training and qualifications; and whether or not the company will notify and consult you throughout the year about suspected pest problems. 

Controlling Disease 

Most turf diseases are caused by fungi. Disease is most likely to occur in lawns that have been over-fertilized, improperly watered, cut too short, or otherwise subjected to stress. Weather conditions strongly influence the incidence of disease. 

In typical years, most lawns experience no serious disease problems. Diseases that do occur are usually self-limiting, with the full damage often done by the time a disease is spotted. Better fertilization and watering practices and other changes in turf care usually cure diseases that are not self-limited or prevent their recurrence. Over-seeding with a disease-resistant grass variety often helps, but if damage is still spreading, or there’s a compelling reason to reestablish a lawn with a nonresistant grass variety, fungicide treatment might be necessary. 

Because most lawns won’t benefit from fungicide treatment and the chemicals are expensive, lawn care companies seldom apply fungicides—and only after a specific problem has been spotted by the homeowner or company personnel during a scheduled visit. 

What You Have to Do 

While you can expect any lawn care company you choose to provide various services to improve your lawn, many important tasks are still left to you—or to someone else you hire. A good lawn care service will, however, regularly advise you about how to do your part. 

How and when to mow the lawn is key. Make sure you don’t mow too short. Most grasses in this area should not be cut below a height of about 2 1/2 to three inches. Mow frequently enough so that no more than one-third of the leaf is cut off at any one time. Mower blades should be sharp, so that the cut ends of grass leaves aren’t torn, which makes them brown and vulnerable to pest attack. Mow when grass is dry. Leave clippings on the lawn so they can decompose and return nutrients to the soil; but if the grass grows too long between mowings, you might have to remove clippings or spread them out so they don’t form areas of matting on top of the lawn. 

Your second critical task is watering. Grass should be watered when leaves are just approaching the point of wilting; your grass has reached this point if you leave footprints when you walk on it or leaf blades develop a bluish cast. Another way to tell whether watering is needed is to use a spade to dig out (and then return) a plug of turf, going four to six inches deep to see whether the soil is dry. In general, to keep your grass green during the summer, make sure it gets about one inch of water per week; a rain gauge (or a tin can) will let you determine how much you’ll have to water to supplement natural rainfall. 

Watering should be thorough, so that moisture penetrates at least three inches into the soil to encourage deep root growth. Avoid short, shallow waterings. While one inch of water per watering usually provides adequate penetration, keep inspecting moisture penetration until you get a good sense of how much watering it takes for moisture to reach the proper depth. Again, you can inspect by digging out (and then returning) plugs of sod with a spade. If water begins to run off a sloping area before adequate penetration has occurred, stop watering for a while and then start again. 

The best time to water is early morning when there will be minimal evaporation. Avoid watering at night during hot weather because it may contribute to disease problems. But because the risk of disease is low in otherwise well-cared-for lawns, it’s better to water at night than not to water at all. 

Your third task is inspection. Thoroughly examine your lawn every two weeks or so. If you see problems, call your lawn care company and describe what you’ve seen. But don’t overreact; during long dry periods, in particular, browned-off areas may just mean that the grass has gone into a dormant stage to save its moisture and energy. 

Enlisting Help 

If you decide to turn to a lawn care service, you’ll have many choices. Our Ratings Tables provide information comparing area companies. 

Check Customer Feedback 

We survey area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) for their feedback on services they use. Our Ratings Tables report the percent of surveyed customers who rated each company “superior” (“inferior” and “adequate” were the other rating options) for the survey questions “doing service properly on the first try,” “starting and completing service promptly,” “letting you know cost early,” “advice on service options and costs,” and “overall performance.” Our Ratings Tables also show the percent of each company’s surveyed customers who rated it “adequate” or “superior” (as opposed to “inferior”) for “overall performance.” The table lists all the companies for which we received at least 10 ratings. (Click here for further discussion of our customer survey and other research methods.) 

As you can see, the lawn care field produces substantial numbers of dissatisfied customers. For example, at the time of our last full, published article, 9 of the 35 companies listed on our Ratings Tables failed to get “superior” overall ratings from even half of their their surveyed customers. Many complaints relate to poor work and/or poor results (see below). 

Fortunately, some area companies satisfy almost all their customers. Six of the companies listed on our Ratings Tables were rated “superior” for “overall performance” by at least 80 percent of their surveyed customers. 

Check Complaint Histories 

In addition to ratings from customers, for firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables show counts of complaints we gathered from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period, and complaint rates relative to the volume of work companies do. For more information on reported complaint counts and rates, click here

Compare Proposals and Costs 

To compare prices, you need to solicit bids. Because different companies will propose different combinations of treatments, you won’t be able to compare prices on the basis of the tasks that will be performed. Rather, you’ll have to describe the level of quality you want and any special constraints you wish to impose—for example, your tolerance for weeds and the types of fertilizers or pesticides they can use—and get prices for the service each company recommends to meet your objectives. 

Your choice of a company and a lawn care program will have to be made as a single decision because you’ll have to choose a program that a company agrees is appropriate and efficiently fits into its work routines. You will also probably want a company’s help in designing your program (but see also the other information sources listed below, but be aware that the companies may not be well-informed and their advice should be received with a healthy degree of skepticism (see below). 

Start by selecting from our Ratings Tables companies that surveyed customers rated high. Invite several to inspect your lawn and propose programs and prices. 

Although most companies don’t require the homeowner’s presence during inspections, we recommend meeting with representatives in person. This is a good way to size them up and get answers to any questions you may have. Help the company propose a program that will satisfy you by explaining— 

  • Your degree of tolerance for weeds, thin spots, and other lawn defects; 
  • What you envision as the end result of the treatments; 
  • How soon you expect the lawn to reach an acceptable condition; 
  • How much work you are willing to take upon yourself; 
  • How strong your concerns are regarding the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides; and 
  • What kinds of notification and other precautions against possible pesticide risk you will expect. 

Also show the companies’ representatives what you don’t like about your lawn’s current condition, and ask them what they would do to solve these problems. 

Each of the companies is likely to see different problems with the lawn and recommend different solutions. You can validate the representatives’ findings and recommendations by consulting one of the independent sources listed below. Second opinions from one of these experts will provide a good indication of that company’s knowledge and skill. 

Also ask about service contract options. Make sure you get a price quote for the services that will be provided during at least one entire year. 

Table 1 shows the range of prices we found when seven CHECKBOOK shoppers asked lawn care services to propose the work needed, and the cost, to meet our shoppers’ quality expectations. You can see that there are big company-to-company price differences. When collecting prices, keep in mind that the specific services recommended to meet your expectations will vary from company to company—and that some companies might not be able to meet your expectations. 

Table 1—Prices Quoted by Companies to Provide Lawn Care Services

Prices Quoted by Companies to Provide Lawn Care Services Companies quoted prices to provide one year of recommended lawn care service
  Job A Job B Job C Job D Job E Job F Job G
Lowest price quote $335 $302 $301 $350 $448 $312 $647
  $420 $381 $360 $483 $483 $410 $660
  $427 $384 $360 $385 $540 $478 $740
  $450 $402 $381 $440 $575 $493 $819
  $458 $410 $397 $455 $1,717 $527 $905
  $460 $445 $445 $492   $825 $1,035
  $467 $460 $455 $567   $1,210 $1,045
  $550 $495 $460        
  $609 $580 $536        
  $646 $597 $555        
  $650 $614          
  $703 $702          
  $730            
  $795          
  $840            
Highest price quote $928            
Difference between lowest price quote and highest price quote $593 $400 $254 $217 $1,269 $898 $398

A large portion of the price differences exists because some companies recommend expensive treatments such as core aeration and seeding as part of their annual programs while others do not. Core aeration and seeding often cost as much as all other recommended treatments combined. Some companies quote a price for regular periodic visits for fertilization, weed control, and spot insect control; and later, if necessary, they recommend more expensive treatments such as core aeration, seeding, and dethatching. If a company neither recommends these expensive treatments nor includes them in its quote, ask how much these treatments would cost if they eventually become necessary. 

Ask About Guarantees 

Ask what guarantee the company offers on its services. Almost all companies provide some kind of guarantee, usually to refund money or reapply a treatment if the customer is not satisfied. This standard guarantee will provide little consolation if the company you hire for one year makes little progress with your lawn. 

But you may be able to persuade some companies to guarantee much more. Ask each company you are considering if it will agree, in writing, to refund your money for an entire year if you are not satisfied that the company has met its service commitments. We have found some companies willing to make such a guarantee. Alternatively, ask a company if it will agree, in writing, to continue service at no cost until you are satisfied or, at the company’s discretion, refund service payments for the past year. We find that, if asked to do so, about half of lawn care services will provide such a guarantee. 

Weigh Program Options 

If all the companies propose prices above what you are willing to pay, ask the lower priced bidders how they can cut back your service to reduce costs—and the possible effects on your lawn. You may be able to cut out a few treatments over the course of a year and still get similar results, although it might take an extra year or two for your lawn to reach the conditions you find acceptable. If service has to be very limited, autumn fertilization and seeding (if needed) are generally regarded as the most critical treatments. 

Again, for most lawns, proper mowing can reduce the need for other expensive treatments throughout the year. 

If you can be patient, try a very limited program for a year or two; if it doesn’t progress satisfactorily, switch to a more extensive program. Alternatively, start with an extensive program and then switch to a limited program once your lawn is established and healthy. Generally, once a lawn is established, less treatment and maintenance are necessary. 

In the past few years, virtually all lawn care services have begun offering “natural” or “organic” alternative programs to limit the environmental risks and preserve beneficial insects and other organisms. 

Although the labels are used rather loosely, most firms’ “natural” or “organic” programs simply call for fertilizing several times a year, usually with a natural nonsynthetic fertilizer, and possibly periodically aerating and/or over-seeding. Coupled with proper mowing and watering, these simple programs often create lawns just as attractive as those that receive conventional chemical treatments. 

Some companies offer more extensive organic programs that include specific controls for weed and pest problems, with emphasis on careful study and inspection by knowledgeable, trained staff. Many companies use natural herbicides, such as corn gluten, or insecticidal oils and soaps and other chemicals that are less toxic than traditional herbicides and pesticides.  

Some companies also offer biological control alternatives, such as nematodes. Use of these biological controls is fairly uncommon, however, mainly due to the costs for labor and materials and uncertainty about results. Nematodes, for example, are tiny worms that exist in soil. Some varieties invade grubs and other insects, and cause hosts to die. Nematodes can be applied in great quantities to lawns with standard spraying equipment, substantially reducing grub populations. But maintaining an adequate population of nematodes requires constant attention. If soil temperature and moisture levels aren’t right, nematodes won’t survive. 

Extra Advice:
Risks from Lawn Care Treatments 

Chemicals used in lawn care treatments can be transported from your hands to your mouth, or can readily enter your body through your skin or eyes, or through inhalation. Furthermore, children may actually ingest treated grass. (Pets and wild animals, of course, are also exposed.) For most chemicals, there is little evidence about the amount that actually gets into humans as a result of lawn treatments or the total accumulation that results from lawn treatments, other household uses, and use on food crops. 

The manufacturers of most controls use modern procedures to test their products for long-term risks and submit the results to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which reviews the tests and evaluates the findings. While some chemicals are known to cause allergic reactions in some individuals, evidence indicates that available pesticides and herbicides used in lawn care treatments pose little risk to most individuals as long as they are used according to the directions on their labels. 

On the other hand, some pesticides and herbicides have not been evaluated using the most advanced scientific procedures, and it is possible that current procedures cannot detect all possible risks of cancer, mutations, birth defects, reproductive problems, and long-term neurological effects. So you certainly want to make sure that your exposure to chemicals doesn’t exceed what the labels recommend. 

(Check out specific pesticides and herbicides with the National Pesticide Information Center by visiting www.npic.orst.edu or calling 800-858-7378; find out what testing data the agency has on possible long- and short-term dangers. The NPIC also provides guidelines for the safe handling and application of control agents—but it will not advise you on what chemicals to use.) 

It is unclear how great a threat chemical lawn care pesticides pose to the environment. It appears that most of the chemicals decompose by the time they work their way through lawn turf. Although there may be some runoff from areas with thin grass cover or from driveways and other hard surfaces where pesticides may be spilled or blown, there’s generally less of a runoff problem from lawns than from agricultural applications. But not enough hard data exists for a definitive assessment of environmental risks from lawn care treatments. 

Chemical pesticides are not the only potential environmental contaminant from lawn care treatments. Fertilizers can pollute waterways. 

To minimize health risks from lawn care treatments, read the warning label on the container; lawn care services will provide copies of labels upon request. Stay off the lawn for at least several hours after it has been treated, until the chemical is dry; some experts recommend 72 hours or more. Make sure your lawn care service posts signs warning that your lawn has been sprayed. But remember that young children and pets can’t read signs, so you’ll have to use other measures to keep them off a treated lawn. 

If a member of your household or a neighbor has a pesticide allergy, insist that your lawn care company notify the allergic person before making treatments. In general, risks from pesticides and herbicides are smaller if the chemicals are applied by a lawn care company rather than by a homeowner. An inexperienced homeowner is more likely to make errors in mixing concentration, adjustment of application equipment, use of safety measures to protect the applicator, storage, and disposal of containers and unused supplies. 

Extra Advice:
Do They Know What They’re Doing? 

To produce a high-quality lawn with a minimum of labor and materials, and minimal use of pesticides, lawn care service employees have to know what they are doing. Assessing soil needs, recognizing insects and diseases, selecting seed varieties, deciding on the timing of treatments, and many other tasks should be guided by extensive knowledge. Unfortunately, many companies lack such knowledge. 

When our shoppers get proposals from lawn care services, they usually receive a “lawn analysis.” If the lawn care services’ estimators know what they are doing, every analysis would contain similar findings and recommendations. Not so. In fact, the proposals rarely agree on identification of weed species, presence of disease, need to correct soil acidity, recommendations on core aeration, and even the dimensions of the yard itself. Worse, some companies propose service plans based on customers’ over-the-phone estimates of the sizes of their yards without ever seeing the lawns. 

If a company’s representatives can’t make informed judgments, the company may be forced to follow fixed routines—providing roughly the same treatment for every lawn and applying controls in a preventive broad-scale manner rather than treating specific identified problems. 

If you desire a more tailored program, you’ll have to find a company that employs knowledgeable staff. It won’t be easy to identify such a company, but you might get some insight by walking your property with an estimator, listening to his or her observations, and asking questions. Also, carefully read the company’s written materials to determine whether it coherently describes and justifies its lawn care practices. 

After each treatment by the company you hire, ask it to leave you a brief written explanation detailing what was done to which parts of your lawn and why. Also, arrange to be present during some service visits and ask questions of the technician—what you learn in this process will help you decide whether to continue using the company. 

Extra Advice:
Top Lawn Care Service Laments 

Below is a summary of the kinds of complaints we receive from area consumers. 

  • Poor work or results. Mentioned in 45 percent of complaints. 
  • Customer service—Lack of responsiveness by staff, poor communication or rude treatment by staff, or failure to deliver promised services. (34 percent) 
  • Overcharges—Company billed for charges exceeding agreed amount or for work that was not performed. (21 percent) 
  • Price—Too expensive. (14 percent) 
  • Promptness—Work took too long to complete, or company was late for or missed appointments. (11 percent) 
  • Incompetence, poor advice, or untrained workers. (10 percent). 
  • Selling practices—Company representative tried to sell extra services. (8 percent) 

Extra Advice:
Expert Advice 

Cooperative Extension agents will give you advice by phone or at their offices and will help you diagnose plant problems if you bring or send them specimens. Each Cooperative Extension office also offers a publications catalog listing guides you can send for (some of which are free) on plant-related topics. The addresses and phone numbers of the local agencies are listed below. 

Extension Offices 

University of Massachusetts Amherst
Stockbridge Hall, 80 Campus Ctr. Way
Amherst, MA
413-545-4800
www.ag.umass.edu

Boston
56 Rear Roland Street
Boston, MA
617-628-5607 

Brockton
34 School Street, Mezzanine
Brockton, MA
508-513-3475 

East Wareham
One State Bog Road, P.O.Box 569
East Wareham, MA
508-295-2212 

Fall River
422 Mariano Bishop Boulevard
Fall River, MA
508-675-7315 

Hanson
Box 658, High Street
Hanson, MA
781-293-3541 

Lawrence
430 North Canal Street #2
Lawrence, MA
978-689-4744 

Walpole
400 Main Street
Walpole, MA
508-668-9793 

Waltham
240 Beaver Street
Waltham, MA
781-891-0650 

The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University
125 Arborway
Boston, MA
617-524-1718
www.arboretum.harvard.edu

Boston Natural Areas Network
62 Summer Street
Boston, MA
617-542-7696
www.bostonnatural.org

Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources
251 Causeway Street, Suite 500
Boston, MA
617-626-1700
www.mass.gov/agr/gardening

Massachusetts Horticultural Society
Elm Bank Reservation
900 Washington Street
Wellesley, MA
617-933-4900
www.masshort.org

Tower Hill Botanic Garden
11 French Drive
Boylston, MA
508-869-6111
www.towerhillbg.org



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