There's a reason so many landscape painters seem to focus on rolling, emerald-hued hillsides: That lush, green look can seem magical.
Which is probably why we, as homeowners, try to re-create the magic in our own yards. But going from "Hey, I have a yard" to "I have a yard that will knock your socks off" takes some hard work. It goes beyond mere maintenance and mowing. It requires a bit of landscape and garden design know-how and a heavy dose of patience. It even requires some science.
Luckily, we have some insider secrets to get it done. These six landscaping and lawn care tips promise to transform your own personal patch of dirt into a lush, verdant lawn that'll make your neighbors green with envy.
1. Scratch the thatch
Over time, your yard accumulates a layer of dead or decomposing stems, roots, and other detritus near the surface. This is called "thatch." If you care about having your neighborhood's No. 1 lawn, it needs to go.
Picture your yard like a city grid. Each clump of grass is an individual building, and any bare soil is the city's streets. Thatch is the trash accumulating on the sidewalks—and your city can't thrive until someone cleans up the muck.
"Removing this allows the grass to grow better by allowing nutrients and water to more easily get to the grass roots," says Susan Brandt, who runs gardening service Blooming Secrets.
To remove the thatch, first mow your lawn to half its usual height, then use either a dethatching rake or a dethatcher (both available to buy or rent at home improvement stores) to clear out the dead layer. This is best done in spring or fall. Once you've finished, fertilize and water your yard to help your grass recover.
2. Feed your grass
You wouldn't expect your pups to go without dinner—why would you demand the same of your yard?
"Fertilization is a cornerstone of having a great lawn," says Mike Ricke, the owner of AAA Lawn Service, in Burnsville, MN. "A great fertilizer should supply your lawn with a series of micronutrients that help it to grow and get green."
But what makes a great fertilizer? It depends (surprise!) on your specific lawn. Get your soil tested to determine its levels of the three major nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Tests can also show if your soil needs lime. Talk to a garden store specialist to determine the best fertilizer for your particular soil.
Then, make sure to fertilize your lawn when it's growing. For cool-season grasses (e.g., Kentucky bluegrass), that's early spring and early fall. Warm-season grasses (e.g., Bermuda or St. Augustine) need fertilizer regularly throughout the summer.
3. Maintain year-round gardens
Think about the yards you most envy: They always seem to have color, even in the dead of winter. Jealous? You don't have to be. Creating the same look doesn't have to be difficult.
"Add living curb appeal with an evergreen garden space to ensure that it looks like there is life year-round," says Kevin Guzior, a vice president of Pioneer Landscape Centers.
For spring and summer, flowers and seasonal shrubs provide a bright burst of unmistakable color to offset your lawn. For fall and winter, plant evergreen trees and foliage, along with some hardy pops of color—such as the red flowering quince, hellebore (sometimes referred to as Christmas roses), or winter jasmine.
Or for a beautiful, low-maintenance yard that will last year-round, consider xeriscaping.
4. Trim your trimming
No, you can't skip the lawnmower. But you should carefully consider the height of your blades. Trimming your grass too close to the soil hinders lawn growth and makes your yard look less lush.
If you're angling to be the envy of the street, here's Brandt's rule of thumb: "Be sure you're not taking off more than one-third of the grass blade when you mow."
Here's another pro tip: Leave those clippings in the yard. Not only do they smell wonderful (OK, unless you're allergic to grass), they also serve as cheap lawn food.
5. Create a path
Sleek pathways can be the difference between a blah yard and one with some serious va-va-voom.
Imagine how much the yellow brick road pops out against the wide emerald fields. That could be your yard. Minus the poisonous poppies. And the dangerous witches.
"Use gravel or other smaller decorative rocks for a pop of color," Guzior suggests.
Want to add some extra oomph? Guzior recommends bordering pathways with landscape edging, pavers, or riprap—large, decorative rocks such as those found on lakeshores—"for a more stunning appearance."
Bonus: Pathways encourage visitors to stay off your growing baby grass.
6. Become a regional expert
Here's the difference between you and your neighbors: You're willing to do the research needed to perfect your lawn. Every region is different, and lawn tips you picked up living with your parents in the Northeast might be wildly inappropriate for the Southwest.
"Do some research on how often lawns in your region should be watered," Ricke says. "It's different all around the world and even in different parts of the country. You may be doing just as much damage by overwatering your lawn as you could be by underwatering."
Look for your state's master gardeners. These experts can tell you exactly how often to soak your grass—and they'll have tips on creating your evergreen garden, too. In the end, you'll have a yard that promises to be the envy of the block.