(© Filip Kwiatkowski)

The first step is admitting your lawn has a problem. Lots of problems, actually: weeds, bare spots, thatch. People are talking. But are you ready to embrace the treatment?

I'm one of those grass guys. You probably know the type. House surrounded by a shag carpet so deeply green it verges on blue. Not a weed in sight. There's a grass guy or two in every neighborhood. In mine, they call me "the grass whisperer."

Looking at my lawn, you'd think I toil relentlessly from April clear through to Thanksgiving, or pay a small fortune to a lawn service. The truth is, I don't do either.

Except for a weekly mowing, a few squirts of weed killer now and then and a well-timed hit of fertilizer every autumn, I do little more than accept compliments from passers-by. I don't constantly water, overfeed, aerate, douse with 2,4-D, degrub, defungus or dethatch. If I do have a problem with my turf, it's that mowing is sometimes difficult because of how dense the grass grows. I know, I know: Shut up.


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To own a good-looking lawn that's practically on autopilot is a dream widely held. The reality is that getting to that point requires hefty machinery, callus-inducing labor and an enhanced understanding of your lawn as a miniature ecosystem. Take it from me, it's worth it.

Four years ago, the front yard of my new home was an unsightly mess. Aboveground was an assortment of aggressive weeds. Below ground, the soil was compacted by heavy construction equipment and depleted of vital nutrients. Rather than launch a multiyear campaign to coax life out of the few remaining blades of grass, I instead hit the "restart" button and killed my old lawn.

  (© Filip Kwiatkowski)

For reasons mostly practical and somewhat philosophical, I wanted my new turf to fend for itself against pest and weed invaders. I am not a member of the organic lawn-care movement, with its earnest advice to make "peace" with weeds. But if I am going to resort to pesticides or herbicides, I want it to be in response to a particular emergency, not as a matter of routine.

Healthy lawns need a lot less human intervention than we lavish on them. Set a new lawn on the right path at the outset with plenty of organic goodness and busy microorganisms in the soil, then feed it regularly with mulched clippings and autumn leaves, and it will do fine.

A total yard renovation isn't something entered into lightly. But in a variety of situations it makes sense, says Peter Landschoot, a turfgrass scientist at Penn State University. "If your lawn keeps dying or deteriorating, if your grass is very coarse-textured and clumpy or it continuously develops leaf diseases, then it's probably time to start a new lawn," he says. And to that do-over list I'd add a lawn that's more weeds than grass.

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The front yard of my neighbors Kevin and Karlyn Aires was a prime example of a lawn gone past the tipping point. From the street it looked respectable, especially after being mowed. Up close, however, the picture wasn't so pretty. Much of the grass was a wide-leaf, clumpy fescue variety called Kentucky 31, commercially available decades ago and now deemed worthy only of highway medians. Broad-leafed weeds such as plantain, dandelion and white clover had established major beachheads. And undesirable and impossible-to-eradicate grassy weeds like nimblewill and orchardgrass were on the loose.

"I'm tired of mowing weeds," Kevin Aires told me one day. With barely any bribing, the Aireses agreed to submit their lawn to a total renovation by Popular Mechanics. And why not? They had nothing to lose.

Starting over would allow them to rectify their lawn's soil structure and soil health and trade in their Dodge Dart-era grass for the Lexus GS 460-level performance churned out by busy grass breeders. Indeed, modern grass varieties are nothing like your father's. "Today's varieties are more disease-resistant; they have better texture, density, color and uniformity; and they tolerate drought, cold and wear better than those of 30 years ago," Landschoot says.