Given the national surge of interest in healthy living and sustainability, it's no wonder people are re-thinking their lawns. Lawns consume enormous quantities of time, money, water and chemicals. We hear from many people who are concerned about the health risks posed to children and pets from lawn care chemicals that are commonly used in the U.S. but banned in much of Canada. People also have a growing awareness about the impact of lawn chemicals on clean water and healthy lakes and streams. Every week during the growing season, Americans have been mowing, watering, fertilizing and raking the equivalent of Wisconsin! What's a suburban homeowner to do? Here are some ideas to consider.
The first question worth pondering is, how large of a lawn do you need? Many people are surprised when then realize how much of their lawn is decorative – and an expensive decoration at that. You might prefer to replace some turf grass with beds of native groundcovers, shrubs, trees, or perennials. Studies show that residential properties with well-designed beds of native trees and shrubs add significantly to the property value. After making the initial investment, you'll save time and money on lawn care while supporting clean water, rich soil and resilient ecosystems. Be sure to choose something that works for you – if you're not a gardener, trees and shrubs set within mulched beds can make a beautiful statement while providing songbirds and butterflies with much-needed habitat. Their autumn leaves serve as great mulch and fertilizer. Reduce your lawn size and earn points toward Conservation@Home certification.
Is the guy in the radio ad making you feel obligated to apply chemicals to your lawn every few weeks? Weed-and-feed programs are expensive, short-lived approaches to lawn care, and present health concerns for children and pets. One easy step everyone can take is to simply reduce the number of treatments or the application rate. You'll probably be pleasantly surprised at the results. Another good trick is to leave the lowest one-third of the property untreated – rain will wash the chemicals from the treated area into the untreated area as it flows off your property. Another idea is to create a bed of native plants (trees, shrubs or perennials) at the lowest portion of your property – where the rainwater exits. This bed will capture and infiltrate many impurities before the water leaves on its way to the local pond or stream. Cut back on chemicals and earn points toward Conservation@Home certification.
Raise your mower to three inches and you'll grow healthier grass with longer roots. Thus it will better survive droughts – and shade out many weeds, too. Leave your clippings on the lawn where they can break down and return their nutrients to the soil. A sharp mower blade delivers a clean cut, which creates healthier grass. And when the peak of summer arrives, it's easier on your lawn to let it rest rather than repeatedly force it to break dormancy with occasional waterings. Lastly, if you do water, do it in the morning – not evening – to prevent fungus issues. Mow and water for healthy grass and earn points toward Conservation@Home certification.
A more holistic approach to lawn care is to create a lawn that's able to deliver its own nutrients and pest control. It's not hard – the answer lies in healthy soil. Aerate your lawn intensely in summer with a core aerator – the kind that pulls up plugs of dirt. Then spread a quarter-inch layer of compost. Beneficial micro-organisms will return and within several years they will flourish in what was formerly dead soil. Also, your grass will be able to grow stronger roots in the formerly hard and compacted soil. Note: grass is not a long-lived plant – if it's been 10 or more years since you've added grass seed, this is a good time to do that, too. When it comes to grass, you do get what you pay for, with inexpensive grass oftentimes containing many weed seeds – read the label. Whereas compost offers a superior number of benefits, we understand that many people don't want to cover their front lawn with something that looks like dirt – even if it will "disappear" into the grass within one or two rainfalls. In this case, compost tea provides some of the same benefits. Read more
If you use chemicals, it's less expensive, more effective and healthier all around to treat a specific weed rather than the whole lawn. But check out this chart from the Pesticide Action Network before reaching for the bottle of Round-Up because chemicals aren't always the best solution. Also, dandelion tools have come a long way since we were all kids. Find some tool suggestions in Local Vendors.
See the section on compost, above. Also consider corn gluten, which does a good job as both a crab-grass preventer and fertilizer – and it's free of synthetic chemicals. Learn more about corn gluten. Sources of corn gluten and other natural fertilizers and pesticides can be found in Local Vendors. Understand that application rates for corn gluten need to be about 20 lbs. per 1,000 square feet of lawn. Also understand that temperature and moisture needs to be within a narrow range – apply corn gluten just as the forsythia begin to bloom in spring and be sure to get it wet if there is no rain in the immediate forecast; then hope there are no more rains in the forecast or the impact will be reduced.
Would you prefer to mow once a month rather than once a week? You'll save both time and money. If renovation or construction requires you to seed a new area altogether – and you've decided lawn is a better solution for this particular spot than beds of low-maintenance native plants – then consider low-mow fescue grass or no-mow buffalo grass. Because these are slow growing, you need a weed-free soil to start with and/or serious weed control while your new turf is getting established. Also understand that in spring, buffalo grass won’t turn from brown to green until warm weather is fairly constant, unlike most lawns that green-up in early spring.
Another option is to simply embrace a lawn that is a collection of myriad short green plants that includes grass as well as uninvited species. Mow high and call it a day. If you take this approach, please consider an occasional aeration to keep your soil from becoming compacted. Compaction leads to dense, lifeless soil that does not easily absorb rainwater. Also, if you embrace the dandelions and other species making their home in your lawn – but your neighbors do not – explore the idea of hedges or shrub beds on the property line to prevent weed seeds from blowing next door and provide a visual barrier. It’s nice to get along with the neighbors even if approaches to lawn care aren’t quite the same.