Resolve to have a legal — and healthy — lawn this season

The best personal New Year’s resolutions are things that make you healthier and safer, such as exercising more, using your turn signals (for a change!) and eating more kale. (OK — I don’t like it either; let’s make it “whole grains” instead.)

And resolving to observe the new lawn care laws for Maryland and Virginia that restrict the amounts and types of lawn fertilizer you can apply, and when and how often you can apply it, are going to be just as good for the health of your lawn — and make everyone a little safer.

(Yes: safer. “Why is your lawn not like Las Vegas?” Because what you put on your lawn does not stay on your lawn.)

So buy into the new rules: two light feedings a year, feed only when the grass is actively growing, and no feeding of phosphorous. If you feel that your lawn really needs more than that, give it what it’s always wanted from you: The gift of proper care.


Think sharp; cut sharp; be sharp!

Resolve now to do one of the most important — and least expensive — things that will make your lawn look great this summer.

To paraphrase The Grinch, “It doesn’t come in a bottle. It doesn’t come in a bag. It isn’t on a shelf with a shiny price tag.” It’s a freshly sharpened blade for your lawn mower.

Get back here! You ever use a dull razor or kitchen knife? They do a remarkably poor job while carrying an excessive risk of injury; the same is true of a lawn mower blade.

A dull blade on your mower rips the blades of the grass apart without actually cutting them; you wind up with ragged shreds that look terrible and that can’t hold water. A sharp blade — newly purchased or freshly polished — cuts clean and even, leaving you with a level cut that will quickly seal up and hold water well.

It’s the best 20 bucks you’ll ever spend on your turf.


Don’t wrap it; don’t bag it

Papa may have a brand-new bag, but if you want to make sure your lawn has enough nutrition without breaking the new lawn-care-feeding laws in Maryland and Virginia, get rid of yours (the bag, that is). Grass clippings are incredibly rich in nitrogen — the primary food that lawn grasses crave — and if you utilize this potent natural fertilizer correctly, you can misquote The Beatles and sing “all you need is clips”!

In studies performed in the 1990s, returning the cut clippings on an acre’s worth of lawn provided an astounding 235 pounds of nitrogen; that’s more than half the nitrogen you’re technically allowed to apply to your lawn under the new laws in Maryland and Virginia. And it’s at least half the Nitrogen any lawn could possibly need.

And they’re free. And you were growing to throw them away. And …


The not-so-angry inch

This resolution involves a ruler. Go out to your lawn on the next nice day and measure the height of the grass. Gently press the butt end of the ruler against the soil line, but don’t press it into the soil — no cheating! Measure the height of your turf in this manner in a few different places — especially problem areas. The ruler should reveal the grass to be three to three and a half inches high everywhere.

That’s the height your lawn needs to be all year round. Cut it shorter than that and the grass will try and regrow at its fastest possible rate and use the most nutrients. A short cut also exposes bare spots in uneven areas and makes it easier for weed seeds to reach the soil and germinate.

Imagine the blades of your grass are solar panels: A three-inch lawn has enough energy-absorbing surface area to use photosynthesis to generate many of its own nutrients. It will also grow at a much slower pace and more evenly than a crew-cut lawn. It will look fuller, and the height of the grass will prevent many weed seeds from gaining access to the soil line.

Don’t trust lawn mower markings; they are famously imprecise. Oh — and please don’t tell me you’re already cutting at three inches; your neighbor just posted a YouTube video of dirt blowing out the back of your mower last July.


Indoor insecticides are never a good idea

Looking for a New Year’s resolution to replace the ones you’ve already broken? Resolve to follow the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and stop using toxic chemical pesticides in homes with children.

It’s an easy resolution to keep, as chemical sprays are never a good solution, especially indoors. Fleas, roaches and flies, for instance, are much better controlled by traps than sprays. Ant colonies collapse when exposed to otherwise nontoxic boric acid baits. And structural pests such as termites are better deterred by outdoor bait stations and intelligent mulching than toxic trenches.

The next time you feel threatened by a pest, resolve to research the alternatives before you spray. Or just email me at, because I’ve already researched them all.

Mike McGrath was Editor-in-Chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated Public Radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and Garden Editor for WTOP since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at

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