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The Cost of Maintaining the Perfect Lawn

1106523_green_grassOne thing I’ve noticed since we’ve built a house in suburbia is that everyone strives to have a perfect lawn.  It’s quite the sight to drive through a subdivision, and all you see is perfect golf grass.  Some of these lawns are managed by professionals, but others are cared for by enthusiastic home owners.

I’ve never been much of a grass person, but since moving in, the grass obsession has been contagious!  I’m not to the point of trimming the lawn with scissors, but I do like having a nice lawn.  With that, I phoned around to the various professional lawn services to get quotes.  Without the lawn cutting services, most have packages that cover applications throughout the season.   These applications include aeration, spring lime, spring fertilizer, mid season fertilizer, bug/weed spray, fall lime and fertilizer.  The package prices ranged from $160 per season for the bare bones, up to $400/season for all of the services listed above.

Being the spend conscious person that I am, $400/season for someone to feed my lawn a periodically seemed like a lot of money, so I decided to figure out how to get a nice lawn on my own.  The easiest way to figure out the golf green puzzle is to ask existing home owners.  From my research, most home owners simply:

  1. Dethatch (optional aeration) as soon as the snow melts
  2. Followed by lime
  3. Fertilize (with high nitrogen) after the first mow
  4. Fertilize again 6-8 weeks after (high nitrogen)
  5. Fertilize again in the fall (high potassium)
  6. Lime before snowfall.

I left out the anti-weed chemical application as most weeds can be kept at bay by keeping the grass fairly long.  That is, use the highest blade setting on the lawn mower.

How much does this cost?  Here are some of the costs of the materials from the local hardware store (like Home Depot).  Note that the materials are for a standard 50×100 city lot (in NL).

  • Lime:  $5.99 per bag x 4 (2 applications, 2 bags per application) = $24
  • Fertilizer: $16 per application/bag (3 applications) = $48
  • Aeration: I own a 2 prong aeration tool, and only used in compacted soil areas: $20
  • Spreader: $35
  • Total: $127 first year, $72 per season after.

So for $72 per season after the first year, it’s quite a difference from the $300-400/season quote from the local lawn companies.  The $72 does not count for my time, but I must say that spreading lime and fertilizer does not take much time at all.  In fact, mowing the grass takes longer.  The one big value I can see the pros adding is if the lawn has an insect problem.  In that case, I would simply hire them for the pesticide application(s).

For those lawn enthusiasts out there, do you have any tips on maintaining a nice, cost effective, lawn year after year ?

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FT About the author: FT is the founder and editor of Million Dollar Journey (est. 2006). Through various financial strategies outlined on this site, he grew his net worth from $200,000 in 2006 to $1,000,000 by 2014. You can read more about him here.

{ 37 comments… add one }
  • Traciatim May 17, 2010, 9:39 am
  • Aolis May 17, 2010, 9:56 am

    What about organic with compost?

  • Gerry May 17, 2010, 10:27 am

    Depending on the soil in you yard, a great addition to your lawn is organic manure top dressing cut with some fine sand. The sand has really helped my lawn (planted on heavy clay). We add 5 yards every third year in the early spring, costing about $250 delivered (in a truck, not in those giant $100 yellow canvas “bags”). Overseed after top dressing and water as needed until you need to mow it.

  • James May 17, 2010, 10:44 am

    I have a little lawn OCD, I admit it. But the neighbors are jealous as heck.

    Key things. Cut high, cut frequently, use a sharp blade (I sharpen mine every 4 cuts – about 2 weeks).

    From a $ perspective you left out your biggest expense: water.

    Also, you should overseed (I do it twice a year – spring after I aerate and fall around Thanksgiving). For 50×100 expect that it will cost you $80 a year for a decent sun/shade mix. This keeps your pest tolerance down and makes sure your lawn is green all year (different grasses have different growing tolerances).

    IMO $72 a year is a pipe dream. I don’t use any professional services and I would say I am up in the $500 / yr range, easy (not counting labour). With professional services and all of the other homeowner costs it is much closer to $800.

    PS, you’ll need to do a full aeration sometime (I’d suggest yearly but that is up to you). I’d love to know how you determine if the soil is “compacted”. But if you get any snowfall like we do in Ottawa, I’d say it is compacted every spring. Aeration will significantly improve the efficiency of your watering and hence is a good “investment”.

  • Rachelle May 17, 2010, 10:57 am

    I should start charging my neighbors because I make their lawn look really good :)

    One of my neighbors on one side is retired and she spends at least $1000 per year on her lawn. Almost every week there’s some kind of lawn service company outside her house.

    I ask you now is it a crime to love dandelions? They represent the resiliency of life on the planet to me.

    In any case the last few years I have been unable to love my lawn sufficiently, first the year I was pregnant and could hardly walk, then I got carpal tunnel and was unable to hold tool. Plus my hubby is sick, I have a two year old and run a business that must support my family. (Is it any wonder I love the dandelion)

    All things considered I prefer to think of my lawn as a case study in Darwinian selection. So far the dandelions are winning :)

  • guinness416 May 17, 2010, 11:05 am

    You left out the water, assuming you’re metered (although if you’re not, you pay a high average anyway because of all the other lawn-waterers out there). Biggest waste of money/resources you can imagine but most people water their lawns throughout the summer. Also the source of the biggest arguments between myself and the husband for the next 4 months! (He’d be watering the damn lawn twice a day if I didn’t stop him)

  • FT FrugalTrader May 17, 2010, 11:17 am

    Interesting comments! I’m pretty much a newbie, and have maintained the lawn over the past 2 years with decent results. In NL, houses do not have a water meter, but we pay ‘water tax’ which is tacked onto our property tax. However, we are on a schedule on the days that we are allowed to water our lawns.

    James, quick questions, how do you aerate the lawn? Do you hire someone to do it? Or do you have a machine at home?

  • cj May 17, 2010, 11:22 am

    Rachelle, don’t feel so bad. I think many suburbanites should try taking a good long look at why they want a perfect lawn. So many people spend a large amount of time energy and money to maintain a healthy lawn, without really questioning if these habits are in line with their values or lifestyles.

    There are many negative aspects of lawns that many people seem to not pay any attention to. The lack of biodiversity, the amount of time and fuel that is used to cut grass are harming our planet, and the harmful pesticides that are probably harming you and your children.

    There are many beautiful landscaping options besides having a lawn. Look into replacing your lawn with ground creepers, which can be beautiful, and low maintenance, or a fruitful garden. I refuse to believe that the majority of people in the suburbs all love the aesthetic of having a lawn, and that’s why most houses in suburbs have lawns. It’s a default choice that many people have conformed to, and it’s time those people think about what they really want out of the space around their homes.

  • DG May 17, 2010, 12:41 pm

    I seeded my lawn with ecolawn which claims to need less water and fewer mows throughout the season. I definitely have areas that fit this description, but the wet parts of my yard still grow quickly. The weed situation is now well in hand now that the grass has established itself.

    I also use a cheap reel mower from sears (~$100). What I love about it is that the “procrastination barrier” to start mowing is very low… no need to don protective foot wear, no gas and oil to check. Just put on your flip flops, grab the mower and go. Reel mowers work very well on ecolawn because it is a very fine grass.

    Overseed and thatch-rake once a season. No fertilizing. No watering.

  • Sarlock May 17, 2010, 1:18 pm

    I might fertilize once every year or two… but other than that, I just cut the lawn high every 1-2 weeks and to heck if weeds grow in it… so what? They’re still green and my daughter loves picking dandelions. This perfect golf-quality lawn obsession is completely puzzling to me. Just another example of keeping up to the Joneses, I guess.

  • Michael James May 17, 2010, 1:23 pm

    I perform an important public service for my neighbourhood. I have the worst lawn so that nobody else has to suffer such a terrinle fate. A side benefit is that I save a lot of time and money.

  • Rachelle May 17, 2010, 2:41 pm

    It’s funny that someone should mention biodiversity. I have noticed that a lot of the flat green stuff I mow is not really lawn. I have a perennial that has taken over part of the lawn, I planted bulbs throughout the lawn so in the spring they come up first, then I have another weird purple perennial and even some moss.

    Ah I remember reading about this too a while back for those creative types who don’t like to mow.

    http://spacingtoronto.ca/2007/08/29/city-destroys-natural-front-garden/

    As I was sitting in my backyard the other day I was also noticing that birds and squirrels love my yard. My neighbor’s yard is entirely bereft of any wildlife. She also wants to cut down our walnut tree, but I like to watch the squirrels fight when the nuts ripen.

    My life in general is about prioritizing according to my values. I really don’t see the point of watering my lawn to make it grow faster so I can mow it more. I’d much rather spend time with my son or do something more useful (to me). If I had all the dough in the world I’d probably have a giant Zen garden out there. Toronto needs more Zen :)

  • Astin May 17, 2010, 2:54 pm

    Drop the lawn entirely, like cj up there says.

    Waste of water, waste of time, serves no purpose other than some suburban-sheep desire to fit in.

    Landscape – ground growth, rock garden, paths, boulders, flowers, trees, etc.. It will bring more wildlife to your house, set up stronger root systems, and be much lower maintenance. It can be done without looking like a jungle.

    And with the right planting, you could even get some food out of the deal – edible plants, fruit-bearing trees, vegetables…

  • J May 17, 2010, 3:00 pm

    I was lucky enough to have someone stop by my house and ask to cut my lawn (front yard and back yard) once a week, including all the trim work and cleanup for $15 a week. He brings his own equipment too.

    This gives me an extra 1hour and a half to spend with my wife and daughter or an extra hour and half of BBQ and drinking beer.

    Well worth the $15

  • Aury (Thunderdrake) May 17, 2010, 3:13 pm

    I’ve always considered lawns to be such an incredible waste of space. Can you imagine how much food can be grown on those things instead?

  • saveddijon May 17, 2010, 4:03 pm

    James,

    Are there any benefits of aeration other than improving watering efficiency?

    I have a drip irrigation system, so the water comes from underneath, not above. Will aeration be of any benefit in my case?

  • Money Green Life May 17, 2010, 5:17 pm

    I think I have the worst front yard in my block. Every year, different weeds pop up. Last year, it was all crabgrass which I manually had to pull out myself. This year, it’s clovers and dandelions. I hate them. I will try your recommendations from this post and hopefully, I’ll be able to salvage my lawn for the rest of the summer and by next year, I’ll have the perfect lawn…hopefully.

  • Preet May 17, 2010, 5:23 pm

    I have long dreamed for astro turf. If we didn’t have a sidewalk I’d also be inclined to extend the house to the curb, and have a giant, borg-like cube of a home.

  • AnnieA May 17, 2010, 5:24 pm

    Playing devil’s advocate, how about a wildflower garden/meadow instead?

  • saveddijon May 17, 2010, 6:05 pm

    AnnieA,

    Where I come from, that will run you afoul of the property standards bylaw officers:
    http://www.cbc.ca/canada/ottawa/story/2009/07/24/ottawa-lawn-garden-dispute-city.html

    It’s not worth your time and energy to fight it.

  • Steve May 17, 2010, 6:11 pm

    While a lot of commenters are against the golf lawn because it really serves no purpose, there are a few important non-visual benefits of a pure, golf lawn.

    – Very few people are allergic to lawn grass. If you have an allergy sufferer in the house, a lack of pollunating weeds can help them enjoy their yard more. If you are allergic to bees, flowering clover and dandelions are inviting a hospital visit.

    – If you plan to sell your house in the next few years, those urban buyers love green lawns, and having a perfect lawn is a huge incentive for buyers and could significantly increase your selling price. A weedy, unkept lawn will have buyers asking if the same attitude was applied to home maintenance in general.

    I am currently in the process of de-weeding my property. Once you get rid of all the weeds, less then 15 minutes a couple times a week is necessary to properly pull any new ones sprouting.

    But if you’re starting with something that’s already pretty infested, manually pulling all the weeks (to fully get the root out) is probably a project for the entire summer.

    And no amount of chemicals will turn an infested lawn into a green one, one way or another, all the weeds must be manually pulled. Everything else just helps to keep it that way.

  • Melanie Samson May 17, 2010, 6:30 pm

    I would never put pesticides on my lawn. I’ve pulled a few weeds, but I don’t get too worked up over my lawn. It’s just a lawn. I haven’t fertilized before, but I’ve got some nice compost now and I might fertilize with that next year.

  • Ms SAve Money May 17, 2010, 6:56 pm

    Oh gosh tell me about it! Not just the lawn but the entire garden! it seems like it costs a lot more for you though because of the snow factor. My dad used to cut our lawn but then we got someone to do it for us but then it got pretty expensive so we’ve reverted back to doing it ourselves.

  • NorthernAlex May 17, 2010, 10:39 pm

    It is my 3rd year in Canada…. and gardening is definitely something on my TO LEARN list for the next few years! :-)

  • GregR May 18, 2010, 12:25 am

    While we have started composting, it is for reasons other than lawn care (less waste to the dump) and we did actually purchase fertalizer and seed this spring (three weeks ago up here).

    The day after we picked up the lawn care products we realized that the more care we gave our lawn, the faster it would grow, the more often we’d have to mow and the less time we’d have to spend fishing with the growing family.

    After coming ot our senses the lawn care stuff was returned and we bought a few more fishing rods instead.

    The way we see it is our summers are too short as it is and there is no need to give ourselves extra work for the sake of having a nicer lawn than the neighbours.

  • Tony May 18, 2010, 2:10 am

    I have a beautiful lawn and I spend very little time and effort on it. Every fall and every spring I spread granular corn gluten meal. This adds slow release nitrogen to the soil and is a preemergent germination inhibitor. Plus, it’s a byproduct of corn processing and is all natural. I haven’t done overseeding yet but I plan to at some point. We just put in our sod last year so the overseeding hasn’t really been necessary. If you do overseeding you’d have to wait a few weeks after applying the corn gluten because it prevents germination. The other key fault most would be lawnies commit is giving a military buzz cut to their lawn every week. The optimal length for a lawn is 2.5-3 inches. The length of the roots is directly proportional to the length of the blades. So if you cut it to 1″, the roots will be shallow and will rip out easily and die easily during a drought. Or you could go the way I’ll eventually be going and get rid of the whole lawn concept. The concept of having one species of plant spread across a broad expanse of land is so unnatural that you’re really fighting a losing battle. Read the book Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn sometime. It’s quite enlightening!

  • djg May 18, 2010, 1:13 pm

    keeping cost down means proper maintenance. In newfoundland this can be a challenge. our soil is so acidic that unless you use the right amount of lime for maintenance your new bluegrass lawn will perish in a few years no matter how much fertilizer you use. Without the right soil pH grass is unable to absorb nitrogen properly and as a result the lawn starts on a downward spiral. Remember that leaving the clippings adds decaying matter which is good…however it also increases the acidity of the soil so you need something to counterbalance. Use at least 5lbs of lime per 100 square feet (in NL). keep in mind that you can’t over do it. Most people don’t realize the pH scale is not linear. If it takes 2 bags to change the pH from 3 to 4 then it will take 20 bags to change it from 4-5.

    Some of the comments about a lawn be useless space is not necessarily true. Take living in a community where water and sewer are not available. In such a case a fairly large septic field is required for sewerage processing….what are you going to do with the land over the septic field…plant corn! a lawn not only provides for unobstructed drainage of the ground but it also prevents the invasion of unwanted trees which could damage the field drainage. if your lawn is healthy you wont have to worry as much about weed control. The grass will grow so densely that the weeds wont have space to germinate. Biodiversity as mentioned above is also good. local NL sods are usually blue grass == high maintenance. It’s not good in shade areas, not resistant to a barage of insects local to our area. Use a mix of seed, blue grass, creeping red fescue and ryegrass will give good results. your lawn will be more disease and pest resistant which means less use of herbicide and pesticide. I have not had to use any on my lawn.

    Oh and as for the lime…do it in the fall of the year if possible. It takes many months for the dolomitic lime to breakdown and affect the soil pH. good pH + nitrogen == good lawn…and add some clover of you like as it naturally adds nitrogen to the soil during it’s lifecycle.

    just some thoughts an pointers…I am not a horticulture guy, but I have learned some important lessons along the way. You can lower cost and effort by doing things right from the start.

  • Laketown May 18, 2010, 6:11 pm

    We keep it fairly simple. Fertilize in the fall with a winter fertilizer and overseed once a year, our yard always looks fairly good. Not golf course quality, but the only house on the street that looks better has their lawn professionally maintained. I never water the lawn and we use a hand tool to pluck up the dandelions. I figure that does an good enough job aerating the lawn to worry about having it specifically done.

  • Rachelle May 18, 2010, 11:00 pm

    Hah after talking to my husband last night he clearly is not so enthralled by the dandelions as I am.

    Then I read the post from Tony and it did bring to mind one other point about my terrible lawn. My house is about 60 years old and the builder who built my home clearly did not have a strong background in lawn making. In short he put no topsoil down and the ground is very uneven. Then lawn next door to me also suffers the same fate.

    My neighbor with the perfect lawn resodded her lawn entirely. Her lawn is not lumpy like mine. She did this a number of years ago before I moved in.

    So it appears that the initial preparation of the ground is also important and can certainly lead to your lawn not growing properly and being taken over by weeds that are used to more adverse conditions.

  • savvysavingbytes May 18, 2010, 11:56 pm

    One of the nice things about building a home with no adjoining neighbors is that you can do whatever you want with your lawn. A friend and naturalist took care of his lawn forever all in one shot: he scattered wild grass and flower seeds over the space. Now he’ll never spend a minute mowing or “dressing” the thing and has all those lovely flowers to look at.

  • Brendan May 19, 2010, 2:40 pm

    My lawn is horrible, thinning out, and full of weeds.
    The only water it gets is rainfall. No raking, weeding, fertilizing, etc.
    Cut once a week if that.
    I dont care, and I dont care if the neighbours talk. It’s just grass, and it makes no sense to spend a dime on it. Maybe if I want to sell the house I will spend some money and effort because people like a nice lawn, but seriously a lush green lawn would not improve the quality of my life one bit.
    It’s pretty hard to kill grass. Look at all the fields that get even less care than my lawn. Not lush, but still grass.

    It’s only grass.

  • Scott May 20, 2010, 1:16 am

    “Lawn” is the largest crop in North America.
    Look it up.

    And it is worthless.

    Way to go suburbia.

    (For such a FRUGAL guy, your lawn is completely NOT you!
    Even more bizarre that you filed this article under ‘Saving Strategies’!?)

    In my West Coast part of the country, the grass naturally turns brown and dies in the summer. Every bright green lawn I see during July makes me cringe because I know the huge waste of water it sucks up just to go against Nature (even more so when every summer we have water shortages!).

    As others have said, ditch the green 100%.
    Install something that is either a) far more interesting and intriguing (shouldn’t be hard) and/or b) useful (eg. garden).

    On the positive side, a few people in my neighbourhood have started growing front yard food gardens. It is a joy to watch the growth of plants from sprout to fruit (or veggie in this case!) and to know that it is feeding that family.

    Go green, Frugal, and nix the lawn. :)

  • Ben May 21, 2010, 4:35 pm

    I absolutely abhor and despise gardening and find it somewhat amusing that people spend so much time, money and energy aiming for the perfect lawn. (In fact I consider them as having a lower IQ). We get maybe three months of “summer” in Canada (It’s going to snow this weekend) and one of those months: it rains or hails! So just when the lawn is perfect down comes the winter snow and covers it all – what a complete and utter waste of time!!

  • George May 25, 2010, 6:04 pm

    Nothing but cutting high and compost. And most recently compost tea. That makes the compost go a long way.

    Grass is just as green as the neighbors and ALOT less time fussing over it.

  • Jo May 29, 2010, 1:39 pm

    I dont judge those who love thier lawns. I prefer the look of more a more natural and organic look. If done with planning and thought it can look just as “manicured” or landscaped as you would like. Our neighbourhood has slowly transitioned over the last 10 years to this type of front yard and it raised the profile and character of it. Almost every house looks unique from the front. And those who do have some lawn have converted to a more eco-friendly means of maintaining it and yes, we do seem to have a wide variety of “wild life”. No manicured, golf greens here but houses sell very quickly and it’s a very popular area for potential buyers. But Im not an expert and could not debate this with hard facts. Too each is thier own. I will however pass on the lawn care tips here to our lawn loving friends. Thanks

  • Derek June 2, 2010, 2:58 pm

    How about a picture or 2 of your lawn? A picture tells an articles worth…

    I am in between all above comments. I have a below average lawn in my area, because i don’t want to spend $500 or more for water.

    I have a few weeds, because i don’t want to really spray chemicals with a 4 and 2 year old running around, although i have and will again, but only after locking up the kiddies.

    All other costs are fairly insignificant really after you buy your first few lawn care tools (mower, rakes, spreaders, etc) and factor out your time.

    I will also get an electrical mower at some point which will reduce pollution as mowers are not good in this area. Since i am in MB it means my power will also come from hydro and not fossil fuel.

    A sand point will be another thing i may add since many neighbours have both underground sprinkers and a sand point to water (many water when its raining!?)

    In the mean time i will enjoy the golf like turf on the course!

    D

  • Derek June 2, 2010, 3:04 pm

    I am full of hot air.

    I forgot to mention ‘The nature of things’ ran a show about our ‘addiction’ to the perfect lawn which highlight some of the above criticisms.

    The last side note we also planted a veggie garden this year. We (my wife bought) and her Mom and i planted (as she is 8 mo pregnant) lots of flowers and trees this year. That cost me a fair bit more than a few lawn care items.

    I wished i got a carbon credit for the trees. I remember reading something about that a while back during the initial carbon trading craze.

    Derek

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