For those who are environmentally conscious, we want to offer some “green” tips on how to keep your lawn healthy and be a good steward of our environment at the same time.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that as much as 80 percent of the water falling on lawns—from rain or sprinklers—doesn’t stay there. Instead it runs off carrying fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides into our creeks, ponds, and rivers.
One tactic is to reduce the area of lawn. Take former Charlottesville mayor Kay Slaughter, for example. While she has a lawn at the rear of her home, her front yard is a cheerful symphony of easy-care perennials, flowering trees such as lilacs and white-blossomed fringe trees, and shrubs including azalea and butterfly bush.
“The oak leaf hydrangea are white with pinkish touches,” she says. “The early daffodils are followed by tulips, iris, peonies, cone flowers, daylilies, sedum, roses, and red bee balm.” She also plants herbs like basil and oregano as annuals.
Still, most people, including Slaughter, want some lawn area for a game of croquet or badminton and have that lawn safe for children and pets to play. An “organic” lawn is healthier and better for the environment.
“Organic lawn care is important for reducing pollutants in our environment,” declares Nancy Whitman, a Master Gardener with the Piedmont Master Gardeners chapter.
“That’s very important because what does in our water ends up in the Chesapeake Bay,” chimes in Master Gardener Penny Crisp. “Being organic might take a little more effort than using traditional methods, but if you start by seeding properly and keeping your grass healthy, you force the weeds not to show up.”
Where do I start?
“Your first step is a soil sample,” says Whitman. “We have little boxes people can come and get, fill with soil, and send off to Virginia Tech. VT will send back a report with feedback about what supplementation might be needed and information on changing the Ph, if necessary, to maximize your grass.”
The next step is to use seed that is well suited to your yard, most likely a mix of warm- and cool-season grasses. “You might change the ratio by region,” continues Whitman, “and it makes a difference whether you have lots of sun or shade.” Again, get information on the best grass for your area from your Extension Office.
Having a healthy lawn reduces the need for weed killers and pesticides. And if you have pests, you know whom to call. “Your extension service might have some organic remedies depending on what pests you have,” says Whitman. “Ground-up corn is one example. It can smother pests like grubs, but it won’t hurt your worms.”
Here are some other important tips:
Don’t mow more than 1/3 of the length of the blade of grass.
Leave clippings on the lawn or, if you have not applied herbicides, add them to your compost heap. This lessens the need for fertilizer, especially nitrogen. It’s estimated that leaving clippings on the lawn will reduce the need for nitrogen applications 20-30 percent after the first year and 35-45 percent after the second year.
Use a self-mulching blade on your lawnmower and mow 3 to 6 inches in height. This will capture and filter rainwater, slowing it from running off. “Never mow your lawn bald,” urges Crisp. “It puts too much stress on it.”
Fertilize when grass is growing and can actually use the nutrients. Choose fertilizers with 30 percent or more slowly available nitrogen.
Never over fertilize. More is not better.
An excellent way to keep your lawn healthy is to compost it 2 to 3 times a year rather than using chemical-based fertilizers. Compost includes nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and often has trace elements you don’t ordinarily find in commercial fertilizers. Make your own compost or buy it.
Spread the compost evenly about 1/4 inch thick so you don’t smother your grass and the nutrients will enter the lawn more quickly. Water the compost in for 5-20 minutes. Mow only after a week to ten days.
Following these pointers will make your lawn green and “green,” too.
Glenn Pribus and his wife live in Albemarle County near Charlottesville where he leaves the clippings on their very small lawn when he mows.