Monday, December 16, 2013

Grass Roots Lawn Care

Who doesn't love a lush, green lawn? Most homeowners go to great lengths to keep our yards manicured and inviting. Lawns are important: they prevent soil run-off, provide recreational areas, and connect one home to another. Caring for our lawns properly has enormous environmental consequences. We may think what happens in our own backyards stays in our backyards, but the truth is that over-fertilization and pesticide use are major sources of eco-system damage and watershed pollution. 

A watershed is an area of land that collects rainwater and drains into streams, lakes, rivers, bays, and ultimately, the ocean. When there is excess nitrogen and phosphate in the watershed, algae proliferate, creating an imbalance of oxygen-sucking bacteria. Our watersheds then become so polluted that they can no longer sustain healthy eco-systems. Sensitive lake and bay organisms begin dying, and our food supply is adversely affected. 

There is a way to achieve a healthy lawn without endangering watersheds and pollinators. Fertilizing in fall (and we still have approximately 5 days left) with slow release nitrogen will make your soil healthier, help grass develop a stronger root system, and ultimately require less care and expense. 

In spring, control weeds by mowing before they go to seed. Corn-gluten based fertilizer enhances soil and limits some weedy growth. Living with clover supports native pollinators and reduces reliance on pesticides. Limit use of herbicides that kill bees and butterflies, along with the lawn plants they rely on. 

The National Arboretum recently broke ground on a new Grass Roots exhibit that integrates environmentally friendly lawn-care practice and land use. I'll follow closely as the 446-acre area emerges, utilizing sustainable grass species, design techniques, and water retention methods. A living experiment of this nature is much easier to grasp and replicate than an advocacy brochure or research paper. A visit next spring promises to be enlightening. However, now is the time to do something good for your lawn, in the few days of fall still remaining:

  1. Test your soil to see exactly what your fertilization needs are, if any. You can pick up a soil test kit at your local library or from the county Extension office. 
  2. Attempt to identify the type of grass you have, so that you can care for it properly and apply the right balance of fertilizer. Ask for help from your local Extension office and master gardeners.
  3. Aerate soil before fertilizing. Inexpensive aerator shoes are available for this purpose, as well as for some light humor (see my husband).
  4. Use slow-release nitrogen. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions on how much fertilizer to use. More is not better! 
  5. Avoid fertilizing before a big storm, which will just wash all the chemicals onto pavement and into the watershed.

Lovely post-lawn garden,
despite the deer.
Think about reducing the amount of lawn on your property.  Not only will you have to mow and fertilize less, you'll also reduce noise and petroleum pollution. Why not spend some time this winter thinking about little-used areas of the yard that could easily be converted to native plant areas, ground cover, or vegetable gardens? 

If everyone in our community changed the way they fertilized their lawns (fall, not spring; slow-release, not quick green up), we could keep a significant amount of nitrogen and phosphorus out of the watershed and reduce our impact on fragile eco-systems. Our relationship with nature is symbiotic. Why not take a note from the Girl Scouts and "leave [the earth] better than we found it"?  


  1. I know some people don't like clover, but I feel they add interest to a lawn as well as attract beneficial fauna.