5 Common Mistakes You Might Be Making When You're Mowing the Yard

Using the right techniques for cutting grass is key to keeping it looking its best. Ditch these bad habits from your maintenance routine now.

Mowing the yard is one of the most common—and frequent—landscaping chores out there. Even if you're more of a hands-off gardener, chances are you still have to rev up your mower regularly.

Properly caring for your lawn involves a bit more than just pulling your lawn mower out once a week and running it across your yard. There are a few common mistakes to avoid to have the healthiest grass and a beautiful lawn each time you mow.

1. You Mow Your Grass Too Short

Worx lawn mower sitting on grass in yard
Karla Conrad

It may seem like mowing your grass shorter would mean you can get away with mowing less frequently, but in actuality, this can cause more harm than good. Each blade of grass is part of a plant that gets its nutrients partially from photosynthesis. Mowing the yard too low reduces the amount of leaf surface available to soak up the rays, so you may end up damaging or even killing your grass. Short grass also makes it easier for weeds to move in and take over.

Instead of mowing down your lawn super short, keep your lawn mower blade high and mow frequently. As a rule of thumb, you should never remove more than one-third of a blade of grass in a single mowing. If your grass has gotten tall, mow as high as you can, then a few days later, mow the yard again a little bit lower rather than waiting another week. Grass clippings should always be less than 1 inch long.

How short you mow your lawn also depends on the season. Lawns can be cut a little lower in the spring and fall when the weather is cooler. In summer, keeping the height taller allows the blades to shade their roots and provides extra leaf surface to fuel them.

Experts have raised their recommendations in recent years for mowing heights between 2 and 3.5 inches, depending on the type of grass. Cool-season grasses—such as Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, and perennial ryegrass—can generally be cut to 2.5 to 3.5 inches. Warm-season grasses that grow horizontally—such as zoysia and Bermuda—can be mowed down to 2 to 2.5 inches.

2. You Collect Your Lawn Clippings

Removing grass clippings as you mow with a bagging lawn mower is tempting, but doing so will actually rob your lawn of valuable nutrients. Here's why: Grass blades are primarily composed of water (about 85%) and also include nitrogen, so they break down quickly and will add nutrients back to the soil, allowing you to use less fertilizer. If you already have a bagging lawn mower, you don't need to buy a new one—you can remove the attachment on most models.

Another common misconception is that grass clippings cause thatch, a layer of partially decomposed grass roots and stems that can build up between the soil surface and the growing grass. However, if your clippings stay under 1 inch in length, they won't cause this problem. (though if your lawn already has thatch that's more than ½ inch thick, grass clippings can contribute to the problem). If thatch becomes a problem for your property, you can rely on power raking, verticutting, or core aeration in the spring or fall to open up more space for the roots.

To prevent grass clippings from making a mess, keep them away from hard surfaces such as streets and driveways. If they're sitting on concrete or another hard surface, they can be swept into storm drains and clog them or affect water quality down the line. Grass clippings contain phosphorus, a nutrient that turns lakes green with algae, and chemically treated decomposed clippings can also pose a threat to fish and other wildlife.

3. You Don't Switch Directions Each Time You Mow the Yard

mowing grass with red lawn mower and leaving grass clippings behind
Marty Baldwin

If you always mow your lawn in the same direction, eventually, your grass will start bending that way. Changing the pattern each time you mow will eliminate this issue and decrease soil compaction. Alternating directions, either at right angles or diagonals, can also help control creeping grass runners and reduce thatch development.

4. You Mow Wet Grass

Here's a golden rule of lawn care: Never mow your grass when wet. For starters, it's a lot messier than mowing it when it's dry—nobody wants wet grass clippings sticking to everything and clogging your mower's blades. Wet soil is softer than dry, so the lawn's roots may get pulled out of the ground by your mower, leaving you with patchy, dead areas. Dry grass takes less time to mow, cuts easier, won't clog or mat, and looks better when you're finished. It's also safer to mow on dry grass because there's less risk of slipping (especially on slopes) and getting injured by the mower.

5. You Don't Sharpen Your Lawn Mower's Blades

sharpening lawn mower blade with file
Chip Nadeau

If you notice that your mower isn't getting the job done as well as it used to, try sharpening the blades. Just like kitchen knives, mower blades can become duller with each use, resulting in grass that gets "torn" instead of "cut." These ragged edges will look bad, and they can also invite diseases or pests in through damaged areas, so it's worth taking the time to sharpen the blades at least twice a year. You can do it yourself with just a wrench and a medium file, or a sharpening power tool ($10, Walmart).

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