Please Share your Eco-Friendly Lawn Thoughts
We at ArcheWild know little about turf grass but we do know a lot about plants and soil. A customer recently asked, “I was just wondering whether you are able, at this time, to give me any advice as to what I should do for my lawn as far as feeding it or treating it together with timings?” This customer does not want to use traditional chemicals or services and is looking for a new, healthy approach to having a lawn. Alas, our research yielded little so we applied our basic knowledge of all plants to answer the question.
But we are not experts on the topic. Please share your thoughts and experiences with us using the comments section below.
Our Thoughts on Eco-Friendly Lawns
Dear Iveta, I’ve sat down to do research on this topic several times and after many hours continue to come up empty-handed, at least in the sense of finding a “recipe” for improving lawn health and vigor. Most websites just want to sell you their chemicals, which is NOT the answer.
Penn State University, DelVal, and Rutgers all offer degrees in Turf Management (I’ve now spoken with several folks that have graduated) and they tell me that their coursework actually focuses on golf courses, corporate campuses, and other applications where the lawn has to be perfect and the use of the latest chemicals is fair game. None that I spoke with had any real training on actually improving lawn health and vigor of the type that you and most people are asking for.
Even the Cornell University site is a bit outdated. http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening/scened6bf.html
UK-based resources are generally better than US-based resources as Brits, too, love their lawns but are more careful about the environment than us. The site that actually comes closest to what makes sense is on BBC at http://www.bbc.co.uk/gardening/basics/techniques/organic_lawn1.shtml
Anyway, here’s my take on lawn care and remember that I’m not a lawn guy, but a plantsman. I’ll apply my knowledge of plants to the lawn. Let me know this makes any sense to you:
Core Lawn Care Issues
- Lawn grasses are real, living plants just like any other plant and have the same basic needs
- Lawns’ #1 enemy is soil compaction, caused by the lawn mower and human use, especially sports
- Lawn grasses used by contractors (99.99% of cases) are the cheapest and lowest quality available
Required Changes in Lawn Care Perspective
- Your lawn is a garden just like any other and deserves to be treated like a garden
- A quality lawn cannot be obtained using cheap species, cheap chemicals, and cheap lawn services
- Reset your expectations about what a healthy lawn looks like. In the US, it’s a perfect emerald green with mower stripes. In the UK, its nicely mown but heavily interspersed with other short flowering species. In France, the expectation is that it doesn’t matter what it looks like as long as it survives the Mediterranean summer. In a partially-shaded, Upper Bucks County site, the ‘perfect US lawn’ will be extremely challenging unless you hire a chemist (e.g. Scotts or TruGreen).
The Basics of having Healthy Plants
- Healthy plants require good soils with protection from soil compaction. Invest in healthy soil and good plant health follows easily.
- Ridiculously deep-green plants of nearly any kind require large doses of Nitrogen, which also causes rampant growth and contributes greatly to water pollution. It is almost impossible to have a lush, deep-green lawn without regular Nitrogen injections.
- Buying the best genetics often leads to the best performance. Whether a tomato, a rose, a pansy, a cactus, a native plant, or a turf grass, there is no substitute for buying the best genetics available.
What I would Recommend for your Lawn Care
- I would be remiss if I didn’t first mention that there are native options for turfgrass, but they all have at least one major limitation. The native and naturally occurring lawn in our area is comprised primarily of Danthonia spicata (click here) and generally requires mowing only once or twice but works best under a mature stand of oak and hickory. The other turf grass-like species for our area areDanthonia spp., Carex spp., Juncustenuis. We even have nativefescues (e.g., rough, clustered, nodding). Buffalo grass is another native turf species. All of these species prefer loose, friable soil that is not necessarily fertile, which you do notcurrently have.
- Non-native fescues are excellent choices and are commercially available so unless you want to convert to a native-style lawn, these are your best option.
- There are no-mow and low-grow options that I think should form the core of your lawn care strategy. Because these require fewer cuts throughout the season, there is less soil compaction which addresses the #1 problem with healthy-looking lawns. These are available only through commercial sources and are not inexpensive. Converting to these high-quality strains requires destroying your existing lawn species, but conversion can be performed in small patches each year.
- You need to invest in your soil by annually applying a ½-1” top dress comprised of leaf mould and sand (inoculated with at least two mycorrhiza species) in the proportion of about 50:50 depending on which grass species you decide to use or if you want to continue using what you currently have. Annual Fall coring or aeration will be important, at least for the next five years while you are slowly building the soil. This topcoat will supply all of the nutrients you need.
- Be ok with moss instead of turfgrass in really shady areas. There are many species of native mosses available and some look totally awesome.
- Consider using stone pavers or other hard materials where you want to walk through your lawn. Preventing soil compaction (once built) is critically important. There are techniques that allow for heavy foot or even vehicular traffic in lawn areas that resist compaction, but are either expensive or sacrifice the image of the unbroken perfect lawn.
The MINIMUM Lawn Care Regimen
If all of the above seems too much, the least you can do is the following:
- Apply an organic weed-and-feed in the Spring with a drop-spreader but ONLY use as much as recommended. A decent brand is Jonathan Green, which is available through some of the older garden centers in and around Bucks County.
- Use only low-grow seed mixes to reseed bare spots. This will introduce these new strains and they might slowly outperform the strains you currently have. We would have to buy this for you.
- Apply the annual top-dress of leaf mould-sand mix between ½-1” thick in mid-September. This mix can be ordered from the Mulch Barn or Sparks and dropped off in bulk. Transfer with a wheel barrow and rake evenly. We would have to specify the exact mix, but a 50:50 blend gets you started.
- Buy an aeration roller for your lawn tractor or buy the aeration sandals and aerate the lawn after you apply the top dress. This opens up the soil for water, nutrient, and organic matter infiltration.
- Mow no less than 3” high and mow as often as possible with a mower that has large pneumatic tires to reduce ground pressures.
- Repeat every year. It’ll work.