But our love affair with lawns comes with a cost. Each year U.S. homeowners apply more than 3 million tons of synthetic lawn fertilizers and 70 million pounds of lawn pesticides and herbicides. These chemicals pose serious hazards to our children, our pets and wildlife of all kinds. To make matters worse, it's estimated that 65% of these chemicals find their way into our lakes, rivers and underground aquifers. With water shortages and droughts becoming commonplace, it's also becoming much more difficult and more expensive to pamper a chemical- and water-addicted lawn.
Converting to a natural, low-maintenance lawn—one that you can feel good about and that's also low maintenance—is easier than you may think. Here are the seven most important steps to ensure your success.
1. Choose the Right Kind of Grass
One common problem with many lawns, is that the variety of grass is not well-suited to the site. To choose the right type of grass, you need to consider:
- Climate: Many grass varieties will not tolerate extreme hot or cold or may not thrive in wet or dry conditions. Others are known for their hardiness or ability to resist drought.
Amount of sun or shade: Most grass varieties require full sun to remain lush and green. If your yard receives less than four hours of full sun, you need to plant grass varieties that are well-suited to shade.
- Traffic on the lawn: Some varieties of grass are more tolerant of foot traffic than others. If your lawn sees a lot of traffic, choose a coarse-textured variety of grass that doesn't mind some abuse.
- Special site considerations: Steep slopes, deep shade, rocky areas and walking paths are simply not good places for growing and maintaining a lawn. Consider planting these difficult areas with perennials, ground covers, spreading evergreens, low-growing shrubs or wildflowers. For areas that get lots of foot traffic, consider a gravel path or stepping stones.
A chemical-fed lawn typically has a very shallow root system because it receives most of its water and nutrients from above. A natural lawn gets most of its water and nutrients from the soil it's growing in, so the quality of your soil determines the quality of your lawn.
To assess how good (or bad) your soil is, you can conduct a simple test. Use a trowel or shovel to cut out a small piece of sod at least 4" deep. Now take a close look at what's both above and below ground. Is the soil crumbly and soft? Does it contain a dense patch of healthy grass blades and maybe a worm or two? Those are the characteristics of healthy turf.
If the sod sample is dry or compacted, the roots may appear weak and shallow. A dense accumulation of dead roots, stems and partially decayed organic matter at the base of the grass is called thatch. Normally this material gets re-incorporated into the soil by microorganisms and earthworms. In poor and/or biologically inactive soils, this organic matter accumulates at the soil surface and creates an ideal environment for disease. Thatch can be removed by vigorous raking or by using a power dethatching tool. Thatch is rarely a problem if you have fertile, biologically-active soil, and your lawn is maintained according to the practices recommended for natural lawn care.
Grass roots and soil microorganisms prefer loose, airy soils. If your lawn has become compacted from heavy power mowers or from foot traffic, spring is a good time to aerate. The objective is to open up passageways in the soil for air, water, nutrients and soil life. Use a manual or power aerating tool. Apply fertilizer or lime (if needed) right after aerating, while the soil is exposed.
Be sure to conduct a soil test to check the pH of your soil. Most varieties of grass prefer a slightly acid to neutral pH (6.5-7.0) A simple soil test will tell you if your soil needs an application of lime to make it more neutral, or sulfur to make it more acidic. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service for a soil test kit, or purchase one and test it yourself.
One of the most important steps you can take to improve and maintain healthy soil is to start a regular practice of topdressing your lawn with compost or good topsoil. Apply ¼ to ½ inch in early spring and rake it down into the turf.
3. Switch to Organic Fertilizers
Once your soil and your lawn are healthy, you may find that there's no need for supplemental fertilizers. But it may take awhile to improve the quality of your soil, and along the way, you'll probably want to apply an organic fertilizer on an annual or semi-annual basis.
There are two different fertilizing schedules for American lawns-one for cool-climate grasses and the other for warm-climate grasses. Before you fertilize, it's important to understand what type of grass you're growing because they can have very different growing cycles.
Cool climate grasses (Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryes, bentgrass, and fescues), grow best in northern climates. They get off to an early start in spring and stay green longer into the fall. When summer temperatures rise above 80 degrees F, they go dormant, and on scorching days, the blades may turn brown. The best time to fertilize these varieties is in the fall, once they break out of summer dormancy and before cold weather sets in. The next best time to fertilize is late spring when the plants have used up the energy they stored last fall. Avoid fertilizing during the heat of the summer while the grass is dormant.
Warm climate grasses (buffalo grass, bermuda, zoysia, St. Augustine, blue grama grass), thrive in areas with hot summers and mild winters. They stay green during the hot months but go dormant and turn brown during the winter. During the summer months they grow rapidly, and store energy for the winter. To encourage this active growth phase, fertilize in small doses from early spring to late summer. Do not fertilize in the fall or winter when the grass is dormant because this will encourage the growth of weeds, not grass.
Grass has a reputation of being a "heavy feeder," requiring lots of fertilizer. But that's true only of lawns that contain little organic matter, worms or other soil life. Chemical fertilizers may feed the grass, but they can also have a negative impact on soil life and soil texture, and do nothing to increase organic matter. Chemicals fertilizers can also over stimulate growth, making turf more vulnerable to disease and insects.
Organic fertilizers release nutrients slowly over time to provide long-term nutrition, improve soil tilth, and encourage soil life. They also provide vital trace nutrients that your lawn needs in minute quantities. Leaving grass clippings where they fall also adds free nutrients and organic matter to the soil. In situation when the clippings are too thick and wet, they should be raked up and composted for later application to the soil.
4. Proper Mowing
Mow your lawn a little at a time rather than waiting for it to get long. The more leafy material that's removed, the more the grass will be stimulated to replace it by using food reserves stored in the root system. Cutting off too much of the grass blade at one time can deplete these reserves faster than they can be replenished, resulting in a weak root system that's more susceptible to disease, and that can't out-compete weeds.
Grass roots tend to grow about as deep as the blades grow high. Therefore, don't mow your grass shorter than about 2 inches. For better drought resistance and to help shade out weed seeds, try "mowing high", which means keeping your lawn at a height of 2½-3".
Don't mow your lawn when it's extremely hot or when the grass is dormant. And try to keep your mower blade sharp. A dull blade injures your lawn by tearing rather than slicing the blades of grass. It can also pull out tender new growth.
5. Proper Watering
The amount of water a lawn requires depends upon many factors, including weather conditions, grass variety and soil type. Sandy soils, for example, drain quickly while clay soils retain moisture longer.
Water your lawn deeply and consistently or not at all. Shallow watering promotes shallow rooting and weak growth. Watering to a depth of 6 to 8 inches encourages deep rooting for a stronger lawn. In general, you'll probably need to run your sprinkler for 2 to 4 hours, and maybe more, to water deeply and thoroughly.
After watering, insert a spade into the lawn and tilt it forward to see how far the moisture has spread. If you are not getting adequate moisture into the soil, and you are not able to devote time and water to the lawn, do not water at all. The grass will stop growing and will begin again when the weather cools and/or the rains return. It's important to decide at the beginning of the summer whether you'll water your lawn or not. To vacillate between watering and not watering stresses the lawn.
6. Controlling Weeds
Healthy soil and proper lawn maintenance will go a long way toward controlling weeds. In fact, weeds are often indicators of infertile soil or stressed turf. Here are some common signs of a troubled lawn:
Moss indicates a shady, acid and infertile soil.
Nutsedge indicates that the soil is too wet and poorly drained.
Crabgrass indicates that the turf is not dense and healthy and that you may be mowing too low to shade it out new weed seeds that are trying to germinate.
Dandelions may indicate a potassium deficiency.
Obvious weeds can be hand pulled or removed with a dandelion digger. the area should then be reseeded. If 50% or more of your lawn is weeds, it may be best to start over. Rototill a small section of your lawn at a time, (preferably in the spring before weeds start growing).
Immediately reseed the area and water lightly every day until the grass seed germinates and the roots get well established. Be sure to use the proper grass seed for your growing conditions, and add organic matter and correct the soil pH (if needed).
7. Controlling Insects and Disease
As with weeds, a healthy, properly maintained turf will minimize insect problems. Two common insect pests in lawns are white grubs and chinch bugs.
White grubs are the larval stage of several types of beetles. Grubs chew on the roots of turf and can sometimes kill entire sections of lawn. Apply Milky Spore, a bacteria, or beneficial nematodes, to control.
Chinch bugs appear during the summer months. They suck the grass blades to withdraw the moisture and inject a toxic saliva that can then kill the grass. Severe infestations can be controlled by spraying a quart of premixed insecticidal soap with a tablespoon of isopropyl alcohol. Spray the lawn every 3 to 4 days for two weeks.
If the infestation is serious and you must apply an all-purpose chemical insecticide to your lawn, keep in mind that many of them can be toxic to earthworms and other beneficial soil life that act as predators against the "bad bugs". Over time, you may be actually increasing insect problems rather than solving them.
Lawn diseases are difficult to recognize because the symptoms often resemble nutrient deficiencies and insect damage. If you think you have a fungal disease, contact your local nursery or extension agent for a diagnosis. Most fungal diseases can be avoided by following proper lawn practices:
Do not overwater
Do not water in the late evening.
Plant a mixture of grasses rather than one variety to reduce disease spread.
Remove accumulated thatch.
If your lawn is addicted to a chemical diet, you and your lawn will need time to make the transition. Improving the quality of your soil and the health of your lawn is usually a multi-year project.
You can start weaning your lawn off chemicals by switching to a low nitrogen organic fertilizer. Apply once in early spring after the soil has begun to warm up and apply again in early fall. Organic nutrients are released slowly over the entire growing season so they're available as they're needed. This promotes more consistent top growth as well as root growth. It also results in fewer problems with nutrient runoff, as the nutrients are not water soluble and most stay right in the soil.
The transition to healthy soil and healthy turf may take several years. During that period you should carefully monitor your lawn for weeds, pests and disease. Once your natural lawn is well-established and happy, you'll find it will require much less fertilizer, water and attention. Make a habit of checking on top growth and root growth, soil pH and soil texture. Your lawn will reward you with a lush carpet of green that's far safer and more enjoyable for you, your family and the environment.