Lawns do more than make your yard look good
Lawns absorb water, which helps reduce storm runoff and improve water quality. Lawns also have a significant cooling effect, provide oxygen, trap dust and dirt, promote healthful micro-organisms, prevent erosion and filter rainwater contaminants.
Lawn care, however, has come at a high cost to the environment. According to the U.S. National Wildlife Federation:
• 30% of water used on the East Coast goes to watering lawns; 60% on the West Coast.
• 18% of municipal solid waste is composed of yard waste.
• The average suburban lawn received 10 times as much chemical pesticide per acre as farmland.
• Over 70 million tons of fertilizers and pesticides are applied to residential lawns and gardens annually.
• Per hour of operation, a gas lawn mower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as a typical auto. A weed eater emits 21 times more and a leaf blower 34 times more. Where pesticides are used, 60 – 90% of earthworms are killed. Earthworms are important for soil health
Healthy Lawn Basics
The only way to reduce a dependence on chemical fertilizers is to develop a healthy lawn, which is naturally resistant to weeds, insects and diseases.
1. Improve the Soil
The first step is to test the soil’s pH – it should read between 6.5 and 7.0, which is slightly acidic. Soil that is too acidic will need a sprinkling of lime; sulfur can be added to soil which is not acidic enough. You can buy a pH tester for $40 – $300. Some over end testers are not very accurate however. Another solution is to have your soil tested professionally.
Lawns grow best in loamy soils that have a mix of clay, silt and sand. Too much clay in the soil mix, or heavy use, can compact the soil and prevent air and nutrient flow. Compacted soil may need aeration, a process of lifting small plugs of turf to create air spaces in the soil. For best results, rent an aerator or hire a lawn service to do the job – this will remove “finger size” plugs which improves aeration. Aeration is best done before top dressing and fertilizing.
Organic matter, such as compost and grass clippings, will benefit any type of soil; it lightens soil which is heavy in clay, and it builds humus in sandy soils, which helps retain water and nutrients.
2. Choose a Locally Adapted Grass
Grasses vary in the type of climate they prefer, the amount of water and nutrients required, shade tolerance and the degree of wear they can withstand. Ask your local garden center to recommend grass which is best adapted to your area. Stay away from big box store grass seeds.
3. Mow Often, but Not Too Short
Giving your lawn a “Marine cut” is not doing it a favor. Surface roots become exposed, the soil dries out faster and surface aeration is reduced. As a general rule, don’t cut off more than one-third of the grass at any one time. Most turf grass species are healthiest when kept between 2.5 and 3.5″ tall.
When the lawn is finished growing for the season, cut it a bit shorter to about 2″. This will minimize the risk of mold buildup during winter.
4. Water Deeply but Not Too Often
Thorough watering encourages your lawn to develop deep root systems which make the lawn hardier and more drought-resistant. Let the lawn dry out before re-watering; as a rule of thumb, the color should dull and footprints should stay compressed for more than a few seconds. When watering, put a cup in the sprinkler zone; it should get at least one inch (2.5cm) water. Most healthy lawns require only 1″ of water per week. The best time for watering is early morning – less water will be lost to evaporation.
5. Control Thatch Build-Up
Thatch is the accumulation of above-soil runners, propagated by the grass. This layer should be about 1/2″ ( 1.25cm) on a healthy lawn, and kept in balance by natural decomposition, earthworms and microorganisms. Too much thatch prevents water and nutrients from reaching the grass roots. Before resorting to renting a dethatcher, however, effort should be made to improve aeration to control thatch buildup. Aeration brings microorganisms to the surface that will eat most of the thatch. If you don’t aerate, the roots stay near the surface, contributing to thatch buildup. When you aerate once a year it breaks down the thatch, allowing the roots to get deeper in the soil. This leads to thicker grass which naturally kills weeds too. While a dethatcher will reduce thatch buildup, it can strip and thin the grass so much it reduces competition for weeds allowing them to germinate easier. You can also reduce thatch with a steel rake.
Tips for Sustainable Lawn Care
How to spend less on fertilizer, pesticides and water, and save energy and time on lawn maintenance.
Water early in the morning.
Much of the water from daytime watering is lost to evaporation. Avoid overwatering your lawn – it’s more damaging than under watering.
Leave clippings on the lawn.
Sometimes referred to as “grass-cycling”, this provides nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, water) equivalent to one application of fertilizer. Clippings do not cause thatch. Mulching mowers are also available which help the clippings hide in the grass. The clippings left on the lawn will quickly disappear from view. Of course this technique also saves hauling yard waste to the landfill – some states have banned yard waste from landfills.
Observe the weeds.
Clover and medic are signs that your lawn may be nitrogen poor, and needs compost or a nitrogen-weighted fertilizer. Buttercup is often found in areas with poor drainage.
Sharpen mower blades at least once a year.
You can tell when your mower blades are dull by looking at the grass tips. If they are brown and ragged, your blades are dull. Sharp mower blades not only make your lawn look greener, they help develop a healthier lawn.
Fertilize 3-5 times a year.
This is sufficient for an attractive lawn. Cool season grasses are semi-dormant in the summer; fertilizing during summer will be ineffective. Fertilizing in early fall promotes vigorous lawn growth the next spring.
Keep pesticide/herbicide use to a minimum.
Pesticides kill the soil organisms which contribute to a healthy lawn. The sooner you remove harsh chemicals, the faster your soil will recover. Repeated past use of toxic chemicals may have destroyed the micro biotic life that exists in healthy soil; it will take time, at least a season, for the soil to begin to recover. If lawn chemicals are used, clean out pesticide and fertilizer applicators and empty containers on the lawn, where the residue will be utilized. Do not clean out on sidewalks or driveways, or residue will go directly into water supplies.
Reseeding or Overseeding.
If you are adding seed to cover bare spots or a thin lawn, use hardy perennial ryegrass and drought-tolerant fescue seed mix. Alternately, reseed with a drought-tolerant, low-maintenance Eco Lawn seed.
If the clippings are too long and must be raked, try hand raking. This light aerobic exercise will save you a trip to the gym. If you have fallen leaves to rake, don’t burn them – they make excellent mulch for flower or garden beds, or can be added to your compost pile where they’ll be converted to rich, organic humus for the garden.