natural lawn care

Natural Lawn Care

Lawns do more than make your yard look good. Lawns absorb and hold 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 consumed 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. [Read Healthy lawns, healthy lungs]
* Per hour of operation, a gas lawn mower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as a typical auto. A weedeater 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.

Much of the environmental cost associated with lawn care can be avoided!


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. If you need to fertilize your lawn more than once a year, consider these ways of improving the natural health of your lawn:

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 [see below, this page] for $40 - $60. Another solution is to have your soil tested professionally; first call your extension office - they often provide soil testing as a free service.
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.

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.

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.

The best time for watering is early morning - less water will be lost to evaporation. Ideally, it's better to water the first half-inch or so, then wait for an hour or two before watering the second half-inch.

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.
You can reduce thatch with a steel rake, or by renting a de-thatcher which does a more thorough job.


Watering needs for different grass types

How long can you wait between waterings before the lawn starts to go brown?

12 - 21 days: Bahia grass, Buffalo gass, Bermuda grass, St. Augustine grass, Centipede grass
8 - 12 days: Carpet grass, Fine fescue, Kikuyu grass, Seashore paspalum, Tall fescue, Zoysia
5 - 7 days: Ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, Bentgrass

The fine-leaved fescues [grass blades] as well as the common types of Kentucky bluegrasses, such as Park and Kenblue, require less water, fertilizer and cutting than turf-type perennial ryegrass or many of the newer improved types of Kentucky bluegrass.

Source: University of Georgia, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences


The new reel lawn mowers

Times have changed.

Push mowers [reel mowers] used to be heavy, clunky contraptions which required great effort in cutting the lawn. A new generation of reel mowers has been designed, however, which operate much more effectively with a fraction of the effort.

The added benefits include a good light exercise and pollution-free lawn care.

Consider the advantages of a reel mower:

Better Cut. Reel mowers shear the grass rather than tearing it. Most rotary mowers tear the grass which leaves the tips shredded, and the tips soon turn brown. A sheared cut gives a greener lawn, and is preferred by lawn care professionals.

Quiet. You can cut the lawn anytime without disturbing the neighbors or the wildlife. Listen to the birds as you cut the lawn!

Non-polluting. The savings in fuel is significant to both the environment and your wallet. No more dead spark plugs, messy oil changes or stored fuel.

Easier. Today's reel mowers are lighter, easier to push and more effective than the old push mowers. The light weight also makes it easier to move from front to back yard, or lift into a pickup.

Low maintenance. Aside from the occassional drop of oil and blade sharpening, there's little maintenance required. Some models have blades made of hardened steel which do not require sharpening. These blades will last up to ten years before needing replacement.

Inexpensive. With prices ranging from $100 to $350, the cost of a reel mower is less than half that of a lower-end power mower.

If you have a small to medium size lawn, switching from a gas mower to a reel mower may be the biggest environmental savings you can make from your home. If your lawn is large, you can use a reel mower for small or isolated sections, or for a helper to use. Whenever your reel mower is being used, the result is cleaner air.


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 - it's more damaging than underwatering.
Leave clippings on the lawn. Sometimes referred to as grass-cycling , this provides nutrients equivalent to one application of fertilizer. Clippings do not cause thatch. Mulching mowers are also available which help the clippings hide in the grass. If you mow the lawn before it gets too tall, 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. Dandelions thrive at a pH level of about 7.5, and are a sign to add gardeners sulfur to lower the pH. Clover and medic are sign that your lawn may be nitrogen poor, and needs compost or a nitrogen-weighted fertilizer.
Fertilize once or twice 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.
Use a fertilizer with time-released, water insoluble nitrogen. These fertilizers are less likely to burn your lawn with excess nitrogen, and slow-release allows the roots to absorb the nutrients as needed. In most instances, choose fertilizers containing at least 35% - 50% of their nitrogen supply in the slow-release form, such as sulfur-coated urea, methylene urea or various natural organic products. With fast-acting fertilizers, some nutrients are washed away with watering or rain, and the wasted fertilizer pollutes ground water supplies.
Control lawn weeds with corn gluten. A nontoxic byproduct of corn processing, corn gluten kills weed seedlings within days of application. It also adds nitrogen to your soil. Just one application, before weeds emerge, reduced weed survival by 60%, according to research at Iowa State University. After several years, this method provides as much as 90% weed control.
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 microbiotic 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.
'Spot-treat' weeds to minimize herbicide use. Where only a few scattered broadleaf weeds such as dandelions or plantain are present, consider spot-treating individual weeds rather than applying a broadcast treatment of an herbicide over the entire lawn. Physically pulling or cutting weeds is also effective; remove as much of the root system as possible to reduce the chance of regrowth.
Hand raking. 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.


Large Lawns and Golf Courses

Large lawns, and especially golf courses, require large amount of herbicides and chemical fertilizers to maintain their condition and appearance. The impact on the environment is considerable.

Recent experiments using organic compost have shown this method to be very promising. Generally, researchers and practitioners recognize that incorporating high-quality compost does several things:

1. Adds food and nutrients for plants and organisms,
2. Adds a diversity of organisms to the soil,
3. Encourages plant growth promoting substances in soils.