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Gardening Columns

Eco-Friendly Lawns

First published on on March 27 , 2008, by Suzanne DeJohn

It's just about time for those dandelion-yellow "Pesticides Applied" signs to sprout in lawns across the country, warning passersby to keep off the grass. (Too bad squirrels, birds, cats, and dogs don't know how to read.) Is it possible to have a reasonably nice lawn without monthly applications of fertilizers, pesticides, and pre- and post-emergent herbicides? Of course it is.

Lawns are just a bunch of grass plants -- like the stuff that grows wild in the prairies that evolved to be continually grazed by buffalo. (As you're mowing your lawn this summer, thank the bison that made this joyous task possible.)

Of course we ask a little more of our lawns than, say, our vegetable garden. Do you play tag in your bean plants, or run a mower back and forth over your tomatoes, every week, all summer? Do you drive over them once in a while to deliver a new couch to the front door? Of course not. You treat the garden with respect. Lawns get no such respect. It's no wonder they often struggle.

But that doesn't mean they need the chemical IV drip so often prescribed. Like other garden plants -- and us, for that matter -- grass plants need a healthy growing environment, good nutrition, and reasonable care. You don't see anyone spraying herbicide on dandelions in the prairies, do you?

Holistic Lawn Care
Holistic doctors treat the whole body, rather than just a particular symptom. First and foremost, they strive to keep their patients' bodies healthy. Then, if there's a problem, they try to find the underlying cause of the symptom and treat that cause. It's the same with your lawn. Strive to keep your lawn healthy. If a problem arises, figure out why the lawn is struggling, rather than rushing for the pesticide or fertilizer sprayer to mask the symptom.

Tips for Healthy Lawns
1. Check soil pH and "sweeten" acidic soils.
2. Aerate. The soil under most lawns is compacted. Rent an aerator that pulls up little plugs of soil and deposits them on the soil surface. It will look like a flock of geese called your lawn home for a few weeks, but the little cores will quickly decompose.
3. Add organic matter. Spread a thin layer of screened compost over the lawn after aerating. It will fall into the little holes where it will nurture grass roots.
4. Mow high and leave the clippings.
5. Water deeply, but infrequently, to encourage roots to grow deep and strong.

Identify Problems
Common causes for grass problems include too much shade, wrong soil pH, compacted soil, and overly wet or dry soil. If any of these apply to your situation, fix them or your grass will struggle no matter how much fertilizer you apply. Or choose other options for trouble spots, such as shade-tolerant ground covers, mulch, or gardens filled with more suitable plants.

Overfertilization, misapplied pesticide sprays, and improper watering can also cause problems, either directly or indirectly. For example, too much quick-release nitrogen can burn plant roots; excessive nitrogen causes vigorous, weak growth that's susceptible to fungal diseases.

Healthy grass will outcompete just about any weed, so before you resort to an arsenal of herbicide sprays, encourage lush grass growth. And consider whether a patch of clover or other "weed" really represents a problem.

Treat your lawn like the garden of grass plants that it is by providing the best possible growing environment. If you can tolerate a few imperfections in your lawn, you can reduce your lawn's consumption of fertilizers and pesticides, reducing your (and your pets') exposure to lawn chemicals. You'll also be reducing the time and money spent on frequent applications. Don't consider it a diet, consider it a lifestyle change for your lawn!

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