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.
- Pesticides kill 60 – 90% of earthworms when applied. Earthworms are important for soil health.
Much of the environmental cost associated with lawn care can be avoided.
The only way to reduce a dependence on chemical fertilizers is to develop a healthy lawn that 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 that’s not acidic enough. You can buy a pH test kit for less than $15 which also tests nutrient levels. 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 (see below), a process of lifting small plugs of turf to create air spaces in the soil.
Organic matter, such as compost and grass clippings, will benefit any type of soil; it lightens soil that is heavy in clay, and it builds humus in sandy soils, which helps retain water and nutrients. Some lawn mowers are equipped with mulching attachments that break up the clippings and disperse them as you mow. To add minerals to your soil, consider products like glacial rock dust.
2. Choose a Locally Adapted Grass
Grasses vary in the type of climate they prefer, the amount of water and nutrients they require, how much shade they can tolerate, and the degree of wear they can withstand. Ask your local garden center to recommend the grass that is best adapted to your area.
If your soil is clayey or compacted, your lawn will benefit from annual aeration. Half of any healthy soil should be pore space, which allows the circulation of water, nutrients, and air. When soil particles are compressed so there aren’t enough of these spaces, plants can’t get the nutrients they need to thrive.
Aeration helps re-create these important spaces by removing finger-sized plugs of soil throughout the lawn. For best results, rent an aerator from your local garden center or tool share, or hire a lawn service to do the job. It’s best to aerate your lawn before top dressing and fertilizing.
4. 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 turfgrass 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 build-up during winter.
5. 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. 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.
6. Overseed Your Lawn
Overseeding is the process of adding grass seed to an existing lawn, which can be helpful for filling in thin or patchy areas of grass. In cooler climates, overseeding can be done in spring and fall when the soil is warm enough for the type of seed you’ve selected; in warmer climates, late spring to midsummer is the best time to plant warm season grass.
Begin by preparing the area you intend to overseed by mowing grass very low and raking away grass clippings and other plant matter, so the seed can contact the soil. If possible, aerate before overseeding. Next, follow the directions on your seed mix package to determine seeding rate, since these will vary by type. After sowing keep seeds moist to encourage germination. Once the seeds have sprouted, follow your normal watering schedule. Wait to mow the overseeded area until grass has grown to at least one inch in height.
7. 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 you resort to renting a dethatcher, however, effort should be made to improve aeration to control thatch build-up. 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 build-up. 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 build-up, it can also strip and thin the grass so much it allows weeds to germinate more easily. Ensure you don’t overuse your dethatcher. You can also reduce thatch with a steel rake.
8. Inspect Regularly for Pests
A number of pests can affect the health of your lawn, so keep an eye out for areas that look damaged. Moles are notorious wreckers of turf grass. If you see their tell tale tunnels poking up into your lawn, drive them away with granular mole repellent, which makes your yard taste bad, or try a sonic mole repellent. Both methods also drive away the voles that like to tunnel in your yard as well.
If you have insect damage, an application of beneficial nematodes or some BT (Bacillus thuringiensis galleriae), a nontoxic insecticide made from naturally occurring soil bacteria, can help eradicate grubs, beetles, and other common pests. Milky spore is also an effective way to target grubs. To determine exactly which insects are destroying your grass, pour a soap solution on the affected area and see which insects come out to escape drowning in soap. Different regions have different pests, so it’s best to consult with your local extension service for guidance.
9. Replace Grass with Pathways in High-Traffic Areas
Areas people walk on repeatedly can get compacted and worn, and may be better off as paths. You can lay paving stones or gravel for a no-maintenance path. Mulch can also work, but will need replenishing regularly, making pavers or stepping stones the more ecological and potentially more cost-effective option.
Fixing bare spots
After the first cutting, inspect your lawn for noticeable bare spots. Grass growth can sometimes be spotty on sloped land and undulating areas due to water run off and puddling.
Paradise Landscape and Hardscapes uses premium seed and a topsoil/organic, nutrient-rich compost to help the seed germinate and keep it from being washed away, blown away or eaten by birds. Dress the bare spots with approximately one inch of compost and then hand spread the seed, covering about 40% of the area. Next, use a kitchen broom (not a rake) to gently mix the soil and seed together.
Water these newly seeded areas twice a day for the first few weeks to ensure the soil stays moist for maximum germination.