Laurie Draxler mows her lawn in the Regency Estates neighborhood of Potomac, Md. (Amanda Voisard For The Washington Post)

Sure, you sometimes want it dead — an end to continual mowing and watering. But the responsible part of you — the part your neighbors prefer — says you want your lawn lush and green.

To get it that way and keep it that way, you have the option of doing the work yourself, as most homeowners do, or you can seek the help of professionals. Even if you hire help, you’ll need to do some work by choosing the right company and level of service.

To help you find a company, nonprofit consumer group Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org surveyed its members and Consumer Reports subscribers for their ratings of services they used. Through a special arrangement, Washington Post readers can access Checkbook’s ratings of local lawn care services free through May 10 by visiting www.checkbook.org/washingtonpost/lawncare.

The ratings Checkbook collected reveal that the lawn care field produces substantial numbers of dissatisfied customers. Several rated companies failed to get “superior” overall ratings from even half of their surveyed customers. Most complaints relate to poor work and/or poor results. Fortunately, several area companies satisfy almost all their customers.

Invite several companies to inspect your lawn and propose programs and prices. Although most companies don’t require the homeowner’s presence during inspections, it’s best to meet with representatives in person. This is a good way to size them up and get answers to any questions. Help the company propose a program that will satisfy you by explaining the following:

  • Your degree of tolerance for weeds, thin spots and other lawn defects;
  • What you envision as the result of the treatments;
  • How soon you expect the lawn to reach an acceptable condition;
  • How much work you are willing to take upon yourself;
  • How strong your concerns are regarding the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides;
  • What kinds of notification and other precautions against possible pesticide risk you will expect.

Because companies will propose different combinations of treatments, you won’t be able to compare proposals and prices on the basis of the tasks that will be performed. Rather, you’ll have to describe the level of quality you want and any special constraints you wish to impose — for example, your tolerance for weeds and the types of fertilizers or pesticides they can use — and get prices for the service each company recommends to meet your objectives.

Your choice of a company and a lawn care program will have to be made as a single decision because you’ll have to choose a program that a company agrees is appropriate and efficiently fits into its work routines. You will also probably want a company’s help in designing your program, but be aware that Checkbook’s shoppers find most companies’ sales staff aren’t very well-informed and their advice should be received with a healthy degree of skepticism.

Keep in mind that more treatment — at least in the short term — is not necessarily better treatment. Any company can produce a quick flash of green growth with quick-release fertilizer that weakens your lawn’s root systems. A company that treats your entire lawn with herbicides and pesticides may be less effective than one that targets limited areas and specific problems — and subjects you and your surroundings to the least possible chemical exposure.

Ask what guarantee the company offers on its services. Almost all companies provide some kind of guarantee, usually to refund money or reapply a treatment if the customer is not satisfied. Keep in mind that this standard guarantee will provide little consolation if the company you hire for one year makes little progress with your lawn. Ask companies if they’ll guarantee much more. Will they agree, in writing, to refund your money for an entire year if you are not satisfied that the company has met its service commitments? Alternatively, will they agree, in writing, to continue service at no cost until you are satisfied or, at the company’s discretion, refund service payments for the past year? Checkbook found many companies are willing to strengthen their guarantees, if asked.

Whatever professional lawn treatments you get, how and when to mow the lawn is key. Make sure you don’t mow too short. Most grasses in this area should not be cut below a height of about 2½ to three inches, but zoysia grass should be mowed to about one inch.

Mow frequently enough so that no more than one-third of the leaf is cut off at any one time. Mower blades should be sharp, so that the cut ends of grass leaves aren’t torn, which makes them brown and vulnerable to pest attack. Mow when grass is dry.

Leave clippings on the lawn so they can decompose and return nutrients to the soil; if the grass grows too long between mowings, you might have to spread clippings out so they don’t form areas of matting on top of the lawn.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor for Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and Checkbook.org. The nonprofit Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org rate service companies and professionals and help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. Checkbook is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. See ratings of area lawn care services free until May 10 at checkbook.org/washingtonpost/lawncare.