Sustainable lawns cheaper, easier to care for
Having a lush, green lawn isn’t the status symbol it used to be.
Now, having a lush, green sustainable lawn is the only way to one-up the Joneses.
In the past decade, several communities — including the Canadian province of Quebec; Westchester County, NY; Saginaw, Mich.; Sarasota County, Fla.; and all of Wisconsin — have adopted various bans on the use of “weed-and-feed” products, particularly those containing phosphorus fertilizers, because of environmental and health concerns. In Quebec, the list of banned products consists of almost two dozen active ingredients — pesticides and herbicides — including 2,4-D and Sevin (carbaryl) — two of the many lawn and garden chemicals Americans frequently use.
Paul Tukey, founder of Safelawns.org , an organization dedicated to promoting environmentally friendly lawn-care, and the author of “The Organic Lawn Care Manual,” describes the typical American lawn as a “junkie” — utterly dependent on three or four annual applications of fertilizers, constant artificial irrigation, grub control, weed control, height control.
So here, then, are six easy-to-implement ways to grow a gorgeous sustainable lawn that rivals any chemical-laden landscape and is easy on the eyes and the budget. A gentle reminder, though, that change doesn’t happen overnight. It might take more than a season to wean your turf of these vices. But, stick with it. Tukey says a sustainable lawn is a lot less expensive in the long run and far easier to care for.
Step 1: Shift your thinking from “feeding my lawn” to “feeding my soil.”
Tukey likens the way we should grow grass to the way a forest grows trees.
“Create a nutrient-cycling system where your grass is fed by additions of organic matter rather than through added artificial chemicals,” he says. This means relying on the beneficial insect and microbial life in your soil to break organic matter down into usable plant nutrients — as happens naturally in any undisturbed ecosystem, such as a forest. This is readily accomplished by topdressing your lawn one or two times a year with a finely screened compost spread via a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow.
“It creates a nutrient-rich blanket that is available to plants for far longer than a chemical fertilizer,” Tukey says.
If you don’t have the physical or financial ability to spread a lot of commercial or homemade compost, turn, instead, to one of the many brands of organic-granular lawn fertilizers available at almost every independent garden center. Brands like Bradfield Organics, Organica, Jonathan Green, Espoma Organic and others are broadcast through a drop-spreader.
Because organic matter in the form of compost or a granular product helps feed the soil over time, you are able to sustain this natural cycle. Tukey suggests three or four applications of granular products for the first few years then, only once per year after that. The reason is that, if your lawn has been fed only a chemical diet for many years, there is little organic matter and/or microbial and insect life there, and it takes a few years to build it up to a point where the cycle is self-sustaining.
And, as added good news, 75 percent of the nutrients in chemical fertilizers run off into our watersheds before plants can use them — but 90 percent of the nutrients in natural-granular fertilizers stay in our soil and continue to feed our lawns for months.
Step 2: Make the most of your mower.
Gas-guzzling mowers generate a lot of exhaust and use far more gasoline “per mile” than cars. Switch to an electric mower if you can. Many of the newer models have rechargeable batteries that allow you to mow as much as a half-acre before loosing juice.
A switch from mowing every week to every 10 days makes a big difference, too. Cut your lawn high. Leaving turf grass 3 to 4 inches tall shades out weed seedlings and generates a good, deep-root system. After all, the more surface area grass has for photosynthesis, the more energy it has to promote good root growth.
Be sure your mower is capable of recycling the clippings back into the soil via a mulching feature. Because these tiny clippings are quick to decompose and chock full of nitrogen, with a mulching mower, you are fertilizing every time you mow.
Step 3: Pick the right grass.
If you want to cut down on mowing chores even more, Tukey suggests replacing or over-seeding existing fast-growing Kentucky blue and perennial rye grass lawns with one of the new low-and-slow growing seed mixes.
Seed mixes like Pearl’s Premium ( www.pearlspremium.com ) require mowing only three or four times a year. This particular brand is a collection of fescue varieties and newer cultivars of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye with slower growth rates. Their patented seed blend is drought- and pest-resistant and deep-rooted, and requires little excess fertilizer. Tukey says the mix performs as advertised. Other low-and-slow seed blends are produced by High Country Gardens ( www.highcountrygardens.com ) and Wildflower Farm ( www.wildflowerfarm.com ).
Step 4: Read your weeds.
“If your lawn is mostly dandelions, then, that’s what your soil wants to grow,” Tukey says. “You can kill the messenger, but that doesn’t change the problem. The dandelions will come back unless you fix your soil.”
Many weed problems are the result of poor soil conditions. Get a soil test through your local cooperative extension service — it will be $20 well spent. And, follow the “feeding rules” outlined here in Step 1.
Tukey says that a dandelion problem often infers a lack of available calcium or too much magnesium in relation to calcium (your lawn soil is supposed to have seven times more available calcium than magnesium). If your soil test confirms this to be the case, use high-calcium limestone (not dolomitic limestone, which will worsen the problem) or gypsum to fix it. Remedy poor soil conditions and promote healthy grass, and major weed outbreaks become a thing of the past.
And, you can skip the chemical “weed-and-feed” products, because there’s a new kid on the block. A German company called Neudorff has developed a natural product from chelated iron that does a fantastic job of ridding the lawn of dandelions, plantains, thistles, ground ivy, chickweed and lots of other nasties without harming the grass. It is sprayed over the lawn and kills only the broadleaved weeds with a rapid infusion of iron (which, by the way, is a nutrient grass uses to make more green). Neudorff licenses their product to several companies. Brands include Iron-X from Garden’s Alive, Fiesta, Ortho EcoSense and Whitney Farms Lawn Weed Killer, among others. It is an effective alternative to 2,4-D based products.
Step 5: Insects happen.
Every outdoor environment has insects. They are supposed to be there. Seeing a few critters in your lawn should not cause a panic. It’s only when their numbers reach epic proportions that they can cause a problem in our lawns. One root-munching Japanese beetle grub is nothing to worry about. Turf experts say there have to be at least 10 grubs per square foot of turf to cause significant damage.
Conventional lawn care actually promotes insect damage, and you’ll find that, after your lawn-care practices change, insect worries often disappear. Irrigated and frequently fertilized lawns have shallow root systems that are damaged more easily by feeding grubs. Deeper-rooted lawns suffer far fewer consequences. If grubs do become problematic, turn to beneficial nematodes or Milky Spore for a natural cure.
Step 6: Maintenance matters.
Tukey’s concept of resource conservation requires lawn-lovers to reconsider how and when we water our turf. Less-frequent waterings promote deeper root systems. Instead of being hand-fed their water from a sprinkler, these roots need to go out and get their own. This practice makes for better nutrient acquisition via that extensive-root system. So, if you must water your lawn (which no one really does), do it only in the morning when less is lost to evaporation. And, do it deeply and less frequently. If no rain has fallen during the summer months, irrigating once per week is perfect, adding enough to fill up an empty tuna can placed in the sprinkler’s path.
Other sustainable lawn-maintenance chores include dethatching and aeration, especially in the beginning. Chemical-fed lawns have a lot of thatch build-up, and one of the first steps in converting your lawn to natural maintenance is a good dethatching. Removing the old, dead grass stems still attached to the growing plant allows for better penetration of water and any added organic fertilizers. A fully organic lawn almost never has to be dethatched — the beneficial microbes and insects break the thatch down for us.
Aeration is a must for the conversion process. Reducing compaction by removing cigar-shaped cores of soil, opens up channels for water, nutrients and air to move about the soil. Again, after your lawn is fully converted to a natural-maintenance program, this practice seldom is necessary except in cases of compaction because of physical practices (regular soccer games, the presence of heavy equipment, etc.).
Tukey suggests starting your conversion to sustainable lawn care in September, and to go ahead and do it at once. Aerate, dethatch, spread compost or granular-organic fertilizer and over-seed your lawn now. Be patient about the process and tolerant of the learning curve — yours and your lawn’s. With your newfound status as the first fully sustainable lawn on the block comes the best kind of bragging rights.