Ground Rules: Just say no

Ground Rules: Just say no

Something sinister lurks behind the Easter basket prettiness of April. The first blooms of spring also herald the start of the lawn care industry’s campaign to sell high nitrogen fertilizers laced with pesticides that promise to-die-for turf. Do not succumb to this false lure.

If you have decent soil and at least a good half day of sun, you can grow luscious grass organically without poisoning the waterways. Spring rains wash off granular fertilizers from close-shorn turf into gutters, local streams and, inevitably, the Chesapeake Bay, where they help grow the algae blooms that form the great dead zones.

Snazzy license plates and T-shirts with “Save the Bay” printed across a scenic wetland notwithstanding, our great watershed continues its decades-long decline as native water grasses disappear and the oysters die. Much of this is due to agricultural pollution from excess manure (think gigantic chicken factories and mountains of resulting poop) that pollutes the water. But a significant part of the problem comes from tons of fertilizer applied each spring by happy homeowners and diligent golf course managers.

Fertilizers are aggressively marketed in spring because we’re ready to drop some bucks at the garden centers and we’ve been brainwashed into believing we can’t have a lush lawn without chemicals. The inconvenient truth is that healthy grass growing on a lively soil will green up on its own in the spring with the onset of rainfall (or irrigation) and warming temperatures.

Plants are dormant just coming out of winter and not ready to use a sudden spurt of nutrients. Fertilize lawns, preferably with compost, in the fall when roots are actively growing and ready to receive food. Spend your money now on soil tests, compost, lime, grass seed for oversowing, and sharp mower blades.

Top-dress in spring and fall with soil test-recommended rates of lime and good quality compost. Buy it bagged or create your own. Forestall fungal disease by mowing with sharp blades and not watering at night.

Cultivate the shaggy look and set mower blades at 2-3". Taller grass shades out sun-loving weeds like dandelions. Turn up your nose at ad-driven macho displays of lawn prowess and compete with your neighbors instead over how small you can make your chemical footprint.

Not just moral, but design dilemmas, arise against the backdrop of vivid Easter basket grass. Strong spring colors scream for a little relief with red azaleas and pink cherries blazing against orange brick. Green and yellow tend to predominate (picture the perfect daffodil), but they’re too close on the color wheel to make a soothing combination. Some of us just give ourselves up to the riot of candy colors, but those with a more sensitive eye yearn for a certain restraint in the vernal display.

The bright whites of the early bridal wreath spirea (S. prunifolia) and candytuft, with creamy varieties of violas and pansies, can go a long way towards toning things down. White bleeding heart and Virginia bluebells are dependable aristocrats in the April garden, though they’ll leave gaps when they go dormant in early summer. Interplant with hostas, daylilies, black-eyed susans, sedums and ornamental grasses that bloom later in the season.

Don’t miss the chance to visit the fine old estate of Morven on Saturday, April 21. It dates to the late 18th century with a bona fide Jefferson connection and has been open every year for Historic Garden Week since 1933. The grounds sport a formal perennial garden designed by Annette Hoyt Flanders early in the last century, fanciful topiary along the drive and our state champion Chinese chestnut tree on the lower front lawn.