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5 Ways to Save on Lawn-Care Costs

You don’t have to pay a lot of green to keep your grass green

spinner image Use a sprinkler that sprays large drops close to the ground.
Sprinklers that spray water close to the ground are better than those that send a fine spray high into the air.

We Americans love our lawns. In fact, more than 40 million acres of the United States are covered with manicured turf, which is roughly the equivalent of sodding over the entire states of South Carolina, West Virginia and Maryland.

Heck, I live in Maryland, and sometimes when I'm cutting our grass it does feel like I'm mowing the whole state.

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As lovely as a lush green lawn can be, it can also be hard on your wallet and tough on the environment. Americans spend about $30 billion on our lawns every year, and dump 3 million tons of fertilizer and 30,000 tons of synthetic pesticides on them annually. Using satellite imaging, NASA scientists have estimated that turfgrass is now the single largest irrigated crop in the U.S.

What's a dyed-in-the-wool cheapskate with an environmental consciousness to do? Well, here are some lawn-care tips to help you save money, time and the environment this summer.

1. Water Wisely, Not Wastefully

Most lawns require only about 1 inch of water per week — including precipitation — to remain healthy. Avoid overwatering and save big on your water bill by installing an inexpensive rain gauge to measure rainfall during the week. Use a sprinkler that sprays large drops close to the ground (as opposed to a high, fine spray) to bring your lawn's moisture level up to 1 inch for the week.

For established lawns, early morning watering, between 5 and 10 a.m., is generally best. This allows the water to soak the roots of the plants, giving them the moisture they'll need for the day ahead. Watering during the heat of the day wastes water through evaporation.

Nighttime watering can result in plants having insufficient moisture the next day, when they really need it, and can cause pest and disease problems in lawns.

2. Mow to the Right Length

With most types of grass, mowing to a height of no shorter than 2 to 3 inches allows the plants to shade their own roots and soil, helping to retain moisture and reducing the need for watering. Generally speaking, follow the "rule of one-third" when mowing. Never remove more than a third of the grass blade at any one time. This will result in a healthier lawn and also reduce the need for water and fertilizer, as well as reseeding or other turf repairs that may become necessary if you severely scalp the poor plants.

Keeping mower blades sharp for a clean cut will promote healthier growth and reduce the need for watering, too. You'll save even more because your lawn mower will use less gas if its blade does the job in a single pass.

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3. Make the Most of Natural Fertilizers

Overfertilizing the lawn is a common practice among many homeowners, with the excess fertilizer being both an unnecessary expense and a dangerous pollutant. By using a self-mulching lawn mower and leaving the grass clippings on the lawn to decompose naturally, your lawn will get about half of the nitrogen it needs to remain healthy without your spending a dime on fertilizer.

Before applying additional fertilizers, test the soil to determine exactly what your lawn does and doesn't need. Inexpensive DIY test kits are available online and at home-supply stores. Many local cooperative extension services will test soil samples for a nominal fee. Never apply fertilizers or pesticides on a windy day or right before mowing, or else the products you've paid a pretty penny for will likely end up in your neighbor's yard instead. When applying granular fertilizers or pesticides, gently water immediately afterward to keep them from blowing away.

While you need to apply chemical fertilizers carefully and at the right time of year, homemade compost or "compost tea" can be applied at any time and might be the only additional fertilizer your lawn needs.

4. Weed Out Seedy Lawn-Care Contractors

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More than 25 million American households hire help to tend their lawns, with service providers running the range from the kid down the street to nationwide lawn-care companies. Since services can vary widely, make sure you get a written price quote and understand what is — and isn't — included in the price.

If applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides is part of the deal, be certain the contractor is appropriately licensed and qualified to work with toxic substances.

While you may save some money by signing an annual or seasonal lawn-care contract, it can also pay to make a shorter-term commitment in the beginning so you can be sure you're happy with the services provided. Use websites like Angie's List, the Better Business Bureau and Yelp, as well as referrals from friends and neighbors, to find a recommended lawn-care provider.

5. Rake in Big Savings With Lawn Alternatives

My father so hated mowing the grass that he was constantly threatening to "pave the whole #&%* thing over and paint it green!" A less drastic approach, like reducing the size of your lawn by mulching part of it over or planting a low-maintenance ground cover, can result in a major savings of both time and money. Consider this in areas of your yard that aren't conducive to growing grass in the first place.

The "Grow Food, Not Lawns" movement is literally taking root across the country, based on the commonsense fact that pretty much anyplace where a lawn will thrive, so will a vegetable garden. Even a small garden plot can yield hundreds of dollars worth of fresh produce, turning the money and time you would otherwise spend maintaining a lawn into a windfall for your grocery budget.

Another option: The landscaping technique called xeriscaping is a popular approach particularly in arid climates, incorporating drought-resistant plants, stones and other materials to create a lawn alternative that conserves water and looks terrific. Gee, maybe my dad was on to something.

Jeff Yeager is the author of four books including How to Retire the Cheapskate Way and The Cheapskate Next Door. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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