A Guilt-Free Guide to Lawn Care

by D.A. Salazar, MG Class of 2009

What?  You say your place looks nothing like this?

What? You say your place looks nothing
like this?

“Lawn” has become something of a naughty word in recent years. As drought conditions decimate much of the western U.S., we’re learning all kinds of fun facts about the badness of the manicured lawn: They suck up 2-3 times as much water as other plants (especially natives) while runoff from endless rounds of fertilizer and pesticide applications can cause long-term damage to those precious water resources. All this for something that doesn’t even bloom!

Here in the moisty green climes of the Puget Sound region, though, growing a lawn is hardly the problem – it’s keeping it under control. For many of us, the lawn keeps growing whether we water it or not. Still, the cry is the same: What do I do? What do I do?

The truth is, most of our homes come with the lawn already attached. And for all the new advice on green alternatives, getting rid of an existing lawn and replanting the space can be harder work and more expensive than starting with soil that’s never been planted. So let’s see what we can do to keep up with what we’ve got, with just some basic chemical-free maintenance tips.

New AND easy?  I'll take it!

New AND easy?
I’ll take it!

First of all, do you really need a “manicured” lawn? If what you’re ultimately after is a nice green space for people and pets to run around, maybe just regular mowing is all you really need. Kids & dogs don’t care if there’s a little mowed-down dandelion or chickweed among the grass, and if it’s all green, why sweat it?

Make sure your mower’s blades are clean and sharp (of course, you saw to all your equipment maintenance during the off season. Right?). Grasses should be cut at a height of 2-3 inches, and don’t cut off more than 1/3 of the grass blade at any mowing. Turfgrasses mowed at taller heights help shade and cool the soil, resulting in less water used and preventing the germination of weed seeds. In our rural communities, regular mowing can also keep invasives in check (I’m looking at you, Himalayan Blackberry…).

Leave the mowed grass cuttings on the lawn; the trendy new word for this is “grasscycling,” but us old-schoolers just call it “mulching.” Contrary to suburban myth, this does not create thatch, and is actually a natural way to return nutrients to the lawn.

What can lead to thatch, however, is soil compaction, over- or underwatering, and overuse of fertilizer. Thatch is made up of grass roots, stems and other organic matter that is usually eaten by helpful microorganisms which in return provide food for the grass. But this tidy little ecosystem can be thrown out of whack when you repeatedly park your car on, flood, parch, or overfertilize your lawn.

Regularly aerating your lawn can aid in air and water flow, and control thatch. There are any number of manual aerators for the home, from those that look like straightened pitchforks to others that resemble push mowers with spikes; you can even find “aerator sandals” that strap onto your shoes! In any case, all that’s required is a sunny day and a desire for exercise.

Bald spots?  Seed, compost, water.  Done.

Bald spots? Seed, compost, water, done.

If you’ve got one or two bald spots in your lawn, try overseeding. Use a Pacific Northwest lawn seed mix in spring or fall, or as-needed if the weather is mild. Loosen the soil at the bald spot and scatter the seed. Top with a weed-free compost, water gently, and protect the spot from pets or foot traffic until the grass is growing and healthy. (Note that pervasive bald spots could signal a problem with lawn pests or poor soil. Learn about getting your soil tested at the UMass Amherst testing lab, and visit UC Davis’s online database for help in identifying lawn pests.)

What about summer watering? Luckily, in our region, we’re usually free to let the grass go brown in July and August; the rains will return soon enough! The occasional quick touch up to keep the weeds down is all that’s needed. Don’t feel guilty about keeping a brown lawn: spend that water instead on your veg beds and fruit trees.

Listen, lawns are not all bad in areas where they can grow naturally. Lawns prevent soil erosion, keep dust and dirt out of the air, and can have a cooling effect – research shows that the cooling capacity of an average front lawn can equal 70 tons of air conditioning. Designers note that a lawn can rest the eye, and is a complement to trees and flower beds. There’s even one theory that we humans like open areas near our homes because it reminds us of our origins on the savannah.

So stop fretting about bowling-green perfection. Simplifying your lawn maintenance will give you more free time to actually enjoy the lawn — more time for picnics, more time for games, more time for lazy afternoons just lying on the grass and watching the clouds.

Pea gravel just would not have worked for Seurat...

Pea gravel just would not have worked for Seurat…

For more info on lawns and lawn care, visit our sources: conserveh20.org; sustainablegardening.com; Pacific Northwest Weed Management Handbook; and OSU’s Department of Horticulture.

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