What Do Lawn Care Services Do?
Last updated in May 2017
If you're thinking about hiring a lawn care service, to choose the right company and level of service, you need to find out the range of services they offer.
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.
Below, we describe the most common types of treatments, all of which you can do on your own.
Most lawns benefit from a core aeration process once every three years or so. 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 then 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.
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 it’s 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 one before, get some instruction from the shop.
Although it can be expensive, many lawns benefit from seeding (or “over-seeding”) each spring. New seed can fill in thinned-out areas, create a denser lawn that will discourage weeds and pests, add a newer grass variety with improved disease and insect resistance to an established lawn, or add a better grass variety for the area—for example, using a blend with a high ratio of fescues for areas of dense shade.
Although some lawn care companies do limited seeding at no cost, most charge for major jobs. If you want to do your own reseeding, make sure the seed comes into contact with the soil by using a rake to stir up soil underneath the lawn and applying a light topcoat of soil or compost after distributing the seed. Some lawn care services follow seeding with aeration.
Think of fertilizer as a vitamins and supplement program, giving your lawn nutrients for optimal health. Most lawn care services recommend fertilizing three to six times per year, depending on the needs of the particular lawn. But most of the grasses grown in this area benefit most from September and May fertilizations.
There are three basic types of fertilizer—fast-release synthetic, slow-release synthetic, and slow-release natural (organic).
A fast-release fertilizer gives grass a quick shot of nutrition, resulting in rapid leaf growth and greening. But this burst of growth 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 later on.
Slow-release fertilizers give lawns a more steady and gradual supply of nutrients. Some synthetic slow-release nitrogen fertilizers become available to plants only after they have been acted on by microbes in the soil under proper conditions of warmth and moisture. Synthetic slow-release fertilizers can provide a steady (but diminishing) source of nutrients for a few weeks or several years.
The disadvantage of 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 (yeah, eww!). These fertilizers are sometimes referred to as “organic,” a word used very loosely by lawn care companies eager to make sales. 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 before nutrients become available to grass plants. The natural fertilizers offer all the advantages of the synthetic slow-release types plus minor nutrients not found in synthetic formulations. Natural fertilizers made from solid waste also help solve an environmental problem.
But natural fertilizers tend to be expensive. This mainly is due to bulk: You may have to use up to four times as much of the organic variety as you do a synthetic.
If you apply fertilizer on your own, don’t assume more is better, especially if you apply synthetic fertilizer. Since it’s really just a form of salt, too much synthetic fertilizer can “burn” your lawn, and excess fertilizer pollutes the watershed.
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. Although most grasses in Puget Sound area lawns thrive within a wide range of acidity levels, your lawn may need lime if it is highly acidic (pH reading of 5.5 or less).
Maintaining proper soil acidity may also help control moss and weeds. By keeping soil pH at ideal levels for turf grasses, you give your grass an advantage in competing with moss.
Many lawn care companies will test the pH level of your soil and apply lime, which reduces the acidity, as needed. Some companies include this service in their basic packages; others add an extra charge.
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 the unwanted plants can’t compete. Mowing high and often, and seeding every year or two, will help produce a virtually weed-free lawn.
- Pre-emergent herbicides—You can apply an herbicide that kills seed sprouts; it’s what lawn care companies do to control undesirable grasses such as poa annua. 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. 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 some lawn care companies treat every lawn in its entirety, many limit treatment to lawns with 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.
All lawns have some harmful insects; how much your yard resembles Attack of the Killer Grasshoppers (in 3D!) depends on weather and other factors. Even if insects are plentiful, however, a strong lawn can withstand a substantial infestation. Like weeds, many harmful pests prefer sunny areas. A thick, properly maintained lawn discourages widespread bugs, and most of this area’s turfgrasses are fairly resistant to most insect attacks.
Many lawn care services treat all of the yards they service with insecticides at times when insect damage is likely. 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 earthworms, which contribute in other ways to the maintenance of healthy turf. Because of this, applying a hefty dose of insecticides can make a lawn more vulnerable than before the pest problem. 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.
To prevent companies from needlessly applying pesticides, insist that the company you hire use a targeted control approach, or withhold pesticide treatments altogether. If a company plans to use pesticides, ask why, and whether it’s okay to skip the treatment.
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 can up your chances of problems.
In most years, most lawns won’t experience serious disease problems. Most diseases that do occur are self-limiting, with the full damage often done by the time a disease is spotted. Because most lawns won’t benefit from fungicide treatment, and because the chemicals are expensive, lawn care companies and homeowners should seldom apply fungicides.