Spend less time growing a healthy, sustainable lawn
Can you be an environmentally responsible gardener even when yard work is only one of the many tasks to fit into your already busy schedule? Yes, you can. Here are some simple tips for a safer, more environmentally sound lawn.
Start with the right grasses. Yes, grasses, plural. A mixture of grasses adapted to our region will be able to withstand problems better than if you have just one kind of grass. A mixture of perennial rye, fescue and Kentucky blue is great for Northeast Ohio.
Focus on your site. Almost all grasses prefer full sun; but, a few, such as fine fescues, tolerate some shade. Sometimes the best grass is no grass. Groundcovers or planting beds might make the most sense.
Mow with a sharp blade. A dull lawn mower blade tears the grass instead of cutting it. Frayed grass is more susceptible to disease. Sharpen your mower blades at least once at the beginning of the season and when the grass looks ragged after mowing.
Raise your mower blades. Tall grass grows longer roots which can access more water and nutrients. Tall grass has more leaf area so it is more vigorous than closely cut grass, and it shades out weeds. No matter what height you let your grass grow, remove no more than one-third of the grass with a single mowing.
Leave the clippings. Grass clippings left on the lawn decompose and add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. (And, you don't have to rake as often.) Clippings do not contribute to thatch buildup. Using a mulching mower to finely mince blades that will decompose quickly is a good option.
Remove thatch. Thatch is an impenetrable mat of grass blades, roots and rhizomes that forms over the soil. A thick layer of thatch can prevent water from draining and invites disease and insects. If thatch isn't severe, aeration may solve the problem or raking the ground with a hard garden rake. Don't worry; raking will pull up only the ugly brown patches. Anything green and healthy will stay.
Aerate when the lawn is actively growing. Aeration is a process that removes plugs of soil and leaves them on the lawn to break down. Aeration improves drainage, breaks up thatch, stimulates lawn growth and improves lawn health, without pesticides and fertilizers. So, if your ground is hard, if it has dry spots where grass fails to grow, or if a pencil can't be poked four to six inches into a moist lawn, it needs to be aerated.
Water your lawn only when needed. When grass takes on a dull green or bluish color, when leaf blades begin to roll or fold, or when footprints remain in the grass after you've walked on it, it's time to water. Water deeply and infrequently: you want roots to grow deep into the soil. Healthy roots extend six inches or more. Take into account weekly rainfall before setting out the sprinkler. Do not stand with your hose in your hand and "sprinkle" your grass. You are doing more harm than good. This only encourages short surface roots that can't survive any problems. One inch per week is the general rule of thumb. So if Mother Nature already did the job, turn off the timer and don't set out the sprinkler.
Use a balanced, natural fertilizer to feed your lawn. Most natural fertilizers are slow-acting, remain available over time in the soil and rarely damage the grass by burning. Apply fertilizer once or twice each year. Be careful not to use too much. More is not better. Follow the directions on the packaging.
Try a natural weed killer. Healthy lawns naturally defeat weeds, so weeds may indicate a different problem. Corn gluten is proving effective in preventing crabgrass and other grasses from sprouting in the spring. It is also a natural, slow release nitrogen filter.
Don't waste time pursuing the perfect lawn. Artificial turf looks perfect because it isn't real. Lawns are living, growing and dying things. They aren't supposed to look perfect. Enjoy your healthy, sustainable lawn.Vicki Mentrek is the manager of Heights Garden Center.