Toward a Greener Lawn

Posted by Marc at 02:10 pm on 23 December 2009

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
If you have a lawn you undoubtedly want it to be green in color.  Here are a few tips to make a lush, green lawn "green" ecologically as well, adapted in part from NOFA Notes by Wendy Sue Harper, Ph.D (
Why think "green"? Much of the chemicals you put onto lawns, whether fertilizers or pesticides, synthetic or organic, wash into surface water and lakes.  Most lawns don't need phosphorus, yet it is still added by many, ending up causing algae in ponds and lakes.  This can be a huge amount, considering there are three times as much lawn area in our country as corn.  Lawns in the U.S., both residential and public spaces, are estimated to cover over five times the size of Vermont.  A few environmentally sound lawn care practices will help you prevent such contamination, save money, and save labor.
Add fertilizer according to soil tests, so you apply only what is needed.  Test kits are available at Extension service offices and many garden stores.  A thin layer of compost, only one quarter inch thick, will improve many aspects of lawns and the soil.  Make sure and brush any compost or fertilizer on impermeable surfaces (such as walks), back onto the lawn.
Leave mowing clippings on lawns.  Mowing regularly, and with a mulching mower, will make these clippings barely noticeable.  You'll save both time and fuel in collecting clippings, plus you'll save money in fertilizer.  Grass clippings contain about 50 percent of nitrogen lawns need, about two pounds per 100 square feet.  If you mow with a rotary mower, make sure clippings are blown back onto the lawn, as they contain phosphorus too that you don't want washing into waterways.
Related to leaving grass clippings is mowing at the proper height, and as needed.  Mowing high (about three inches) helps the grass shade out weeds, keeps soils cool and moist, and this in turn encourages healthy root growth.  Mow no more than one-third of the grass blades at a time in order to reduce stress on your lawn.  I like to not set my mower on the highest setting, in case the lawn gets too high.  I can then mow it higher, and in a couple days mow it back a bit lower or normal.  Make sure when buying a mower that you can set it at these high levels.
Keeping a sharp mower blade reduces injury, and so stress and disease, on your lawn.  A sharp mower blade also can increase mower efficiency and life, and decrease gas consumption as much as 22 percent.  Sharpening blades at least once a month is recommended by professionals.
Adding seeds to your lawn, or "overseeding", is good once a year to replace the grass plants that die out naturally.  A thick, dense lawn better resists weeds.  If you are overseeding, a diversity of grasses will be more adaptable to soil and climate changes and extremes.  April or late summer are good times to overseed.
Water properly.  The usual recommendation is at least one-inch of water per week, either from rain or irrigation.   If you need to irrigate, do so deeply, once a week, and early in the morning if possible.  Watering late in the day keeps grasses wet at night, and makes them more susceptible to diseases.  Light watering more often will encourage roots near the surface that die with drought and stress.  Topdressing your lawn with compost each year will improve the soil water-holding capacity.
A lawn of diverse species will be healthy, more resistant to pests and diseases and weeds, and will stay greener with less care.  If using chemicals, look for natural or biological ones first.  Only apply what is needed, and when needed, following label directions.  Make sure your full service garden center or lawn professionals help you identify the problem correctly at the beginning.
Give thought to how you might reduce mower use, which in turn will reduce gasoline use and carbon dioxide emissions.  These changes might include electric or push mowers, (even rechargeable ones), reducing lawn size (perhaps with beds of groundcovers), and designing lawn edges properly.  A good lawn edge can reduce or eliminate the need for gas-powered weed trimmers.
Consider design.  If you have a large mown area, consider letting it grow up with only high mowing once or twice a season.  You can regularly mow strips or high-traffic areas, such as near the home and drives, to still have useful recreation areas and the effect of a mown lawn.  Avoiding sharp angles and cul-de-sacs, using curving lines instead, will reduce time needed to mow.  Avoid "islands" of turf surrounded by gardens or paving that take extra time to mow.  Plant these with flowers or groundcovers instead. 
More design ideas on using groundcovers, and low-maintenance plants to choose, can be found in the book by Barbara Ellis, Covering Ground (Storey Publishing).
source - University of Vermont Extension

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