By Lou Carlozo, Green Dad columnist for dealnews Even in my own verdant slice of Chicago — where our backyard measures something like 1/8th of an acre — the quest for a clean, green lawn is an annual summertime pursuit. (Don’t ask about spring, as Chicago hasn’t seen a bona-fide, decent springtime since the Cubs last won a World Series.) Regardless of size, caring for a lawn requires a delicate balancing act to stay eco-friendly. Take that universal variable, water: It’s arguable that Americans spend way too much money and resources on it. In the summertime, water use in many cities increases by 50%, mostly due to lawn watering. But studies have shown that many lawns are watered twice as much as necessary, according to the National Wildlife Federation. This week, Green Dad looks into the basics of lawn care with emphasis on products and strategies that can make your labor cheaper and more efficient. And since we’re on the subject of water, let’s jump right in with a handy conservation tip that can keep you from getting soaked. 1) Buy a Rain Barrel Lawns need slightly more than 6/10 of a gallon of water for every square foot. So a lawn that measures 20 ft. by 20 ft. needs about 240 gallons of water. You can either get that water from a hose, or Mother Nature. Depending on where you live, summer watering can set you back anywhere from $50 to more than $150 per month. But for $99, you can head over to Amazon and snag this Heaven & Earth 104-Gallon Rain Barrel that collects rain fast, straight from your gutter spout. Cheaper options exist; this smaller 74-Gallon Rain Barrel costs less and works in the same exact way. Price: Heaven & Earth barrel for $99 + free shipping, a low by $18; 74-gallon barrel for $54.99 + $12 s&h, a low by $6 2) Buy a Rain Gauge Of course, you may not even need a rain barrel most days if the clouds do the job for you. Trouble is, how do you know when you’ve hit that 6/10 of a gallon threshold? Another way to think of it is in terms of inches; that is, grass generally requires 1" of water per week. And it should saturate 3" to 4" deep to promote root growth and make your grass more drought resistant. If you buy a rain gauge at a hardware store, you can easily measure how much rain your lawn gets each week, and add the rest. We found the Taylor Precision Clear-Vu Rain Gauge for under $6. There’s an even cheaper but still fairly effective way to measure how much moisture your lawn gets: Use an empty coffee can. Price: Taylor rain gauge for $1.90 + $4 s&h, a low by $1 3) Electric Mowers are Much Friendlier to the Environment than Gas Mowers Did you know that per hour of operation, a gas lawn mower emits 10 to 12 times as much hydrocarbon as the typical auto? A weed eater emits 21 times more, and a leaf blower 34 times more. Hey, what are we trying to grow here — lush lawns or ozone holes? Good thing Green Dad has a great lead on a Worx Electric 19" Lawn Mower and Mulcher for $140. Price: Worx mower for $140 + free shipping, a low by $90 4) For Smaller Lawns, Reel Mowers are the Greenest Way to Go A push mower might not represent an attractive option if you've got lots of lawn to cover, or hills to negotiate. But modern reel mowers operate much more effectively than their clunky ancestors, and take just a fraction of the effort to push. The added benefits include a good light exercise, less noise pollution, and no additional costs for electricity or gas. The American Deluxe Light Push Reel Mower has an 18" cutting width, comparable to most electric and gas mowers. Plus, it weighs just 27 lbs. Compared to gas mowers (which can weigh from 80 lbs. to 100 lbs.), that’s feather light to walk behind. It doesn't accommodate a grass catcher, but some models actually do, including the ultra-nifty Fiskars Momentum 18" Reel Mower. Check out the 1/2-bushel Fiskars Grass Catcher for an additional $40. Price: American mower for $95.86 + free shipping, a low by $8; Fiskars mower for $199 + free shipping, a low by $9; Fiskars catcher for $39.99 + about $10 s&h 5) There's More to Lawn Care Than the Mower If you want to do lawn care correctly, you'll need other essential tools, including a weed whacker, hedge trimmer, and air blower. We recommend the Worx 20" 3.5 Amp Electric Hedge Trimmer, Worx 12" GT 2-in-1 Grass String Trimmer / Edger, and Worx 18 Volt Ni-Cd Cordless Sweeper / Blower Kit with 1-Hour Charger, all available at price lows. Price: Hedge trimmer for $55.04 + free shipping, a low by $4; Grass trimmer for $65.69 + free shipping, a low by $3; Sweeper for $79.99 + $9 s&h, a low by $6 6) Soil Care: What's Your pH? Your lawn's soil should read between 6.5 and 7.0 pH, which is slightly acidic. You can buy a pH tester for as much as $60; we found the Luster Leaf Rapitest Soil pH Meter for much less. You can also have your soil tested professionally; your local extension office will often provide soil testing as a free service. Remember that lawns grow best in loamy soils that have a mix of clay, silt, and sand, and you're best off growing a grass type that is adapted to your local area. If you have no idea how to find this out, the extension service can help, or tap the expertise of a local gardening center. Price: pH meter for $16.28 + free shipping via Amazon Prime, a low by $4 7) Fertilizer choices: Don't go manic, choose organic I think it's easiest to do the eco-friendly thing when it's also the smartest route to go. And for fertilizing lawns, organic kicks some serious grass. It provides organic matter essential for microorganisms; a slow and consistent nutrient release; more balanced nutrition to the plant via trace minerals; and won't leach out since the organic matter binds to the soil particles where roots have access to it. It's also cheaper. Organic fertilizer will cost you $0.05/square foot, pre-season. Compare that to the cost of the most popular chemical fertilizer, known as 15-30-15, which costs $0.15/square foot, or three times as much. 8) Know Where to get Expert Advice Gardening centers and extension services are great sources of information for improving the health of your lawn. Notice how I said "health" and not "look;" the lush look should come naturally once you've treated the soil properly, used the right fertilizer and watered just enough to keep the roots resilient. Of course, it's also possible that the Joneses have a lawn that drives you to envy, and not the other way around. If so, stroll on over, tip your hat to your neighbor's yard prowess, and ask how he or she did it. Take notes, thank them for their time, and then you'll grow something even more precious than blades in the backyard — that is, roots in your community. Photo credit: Cygnus921 via Flickr Lou Carlozo is dealnews' Green Dad columnist. He was most recently the managing editor of WalletPop and, before that, a veteran columnist at the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @LouCarlozo63. You can also sign up for an email alert for all dealnews features.