In the Garden:
New England
June, 2003
Regional Report

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A healthy patch of lawn near a bed of colorful annual flowers is an invitation to relax and watch the clouds drift by.

Mow We Must...

Our culture's obsession with lawns is probably rooted in some primal urge to keep nature at bay and offer protection from all things wild. It's a lot easier to spot a mountain lion or grizzly in the middle of a lawn than one lurking in a thicket! But while maintaining an open space around our homes may be a primal urge, for modern man this survival strategy sometimes degenerates into a competition to have the greenest grass on the block. We pay a high price -- in more than just dollars -- for this obsession with the perfect lawn.

Chemical Perils
According to a Missouri Cooperative Extension Web site (http://muextension.missouri.edu/explore/envqual/eqm105f.htm), on average, homeowners use ten times more chemical fertilizers and pesticides per acre than farmers use on farmland. Remember, these chemicals are used for aesthetics only -- not to produce food or protect important crops. Despite the current trend toward environmental awareness, many people still resort to drastic chemical means to maintain their green oasis -- as evidenced by those small "Treated Lawn - Keep Off" signs that sprout in suburban yards.

This chemical dependency may result in part from the way we view our lawns. For many people, their lawn has more in common with their paved driveway than with a garden: They want it to look the same (green) year-round, and they want to be able to walk, play, and even drive on it. No one would expect that of a flower garden! These expectations about what a lawn should be are at least in part shaped by advertisers.

Marketing Ploys
Manufacturers of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides would like you to believe two things: First, that everyone's goal should be a golf-course-green, weed-free lawn and, second, that you need to apply their products to achieve it. Look past the marketing jargon and you'll find two flaws. First, who decided that a lawn has to consist only of closely cropped grass plants? Who made dandelions, and even violets, the enemy? And, second, grass grows perfectly well in the wild without perfectly timed fertilizer and pesticide applications. Do our lawns really require as much attention as the ads say?

How to Keep Your Lawn Healthy
Lawns consist of individual grass plants. And, like all plants, grasses have specific needs. Provide these, and your lawn will thrive.

Sunlight. Most grasses require full sun to perform their best, although some will tolerate part shade. Choose grass species suited to your conditions. And take your cues from nature: Few plants thrive under the trees in a dense forest -- a few ferns, perhaps, but not grasses. So don't expect a lush lawn to grow in deep shade. Instead, plant a shade-loving ground cover or mulch the area.

Water. Grass is remarkably drought-tolerant -- if it's been conditioned properly. A standard rule of thumb is to provide lawns with an inch of water weekly, though an established lawn may require less. Water your lawn only when nature doesn't provide that weekly dose, and when you do water, give plants a long drink. Infrequent but thorough watering encourages grass to develop deep, far-reaching root systems; on the other hand, daily shallow watering creates a shallow-rooted lawn that's susceptible to drought.

Nutrients. Healthy lawns need little or no supplemental fertilizer, especially if you mow high, and frequently, and leave the grass clippings in place. As the clippings break down, they'll provide a slow, steady source of nutrients to both grass and beneficial soil organisms. If you miss a mowing and the clumps of clippings threaten to smother the lawn, rake them up, compost them, then return the finished compost to the lawn.

If your lawn is struggling, spread a half-inch of compost over the entire lawn in spring and fall to provide a slow, steady release of nutrients. Nature recycles her nutrients, and so should we! (Think of the decomposing leaves on the forest floor, adding nutrients back into the soil beneath the trees.)

Use high-nitrogen fertilizers sparingly, if at all. Soluble fertilizers such as these provide a rush of nutrients, which results in a quick greenup. But the grass roots may not be able to support such rapid growth so the effect may short-lived -- that is, unless you keep fertilizing. Such rapid growth also is more susceptible to disease problems, will need frequent mowing, and will require extra water. Plus, any fertilizer not taken up immediately will leach away, potentially polluting groundwater and surface water supplies.

Air. Plant roots need air, and grasses are no exception. Grasses are better adapted to foot traffic and the resulting soil compaction than most plants but occasionally lawns need to be aerated. Earthworms are natural aerators; their tunnels provide channels for air to reach plant roots. You can encourage earthworms by leaving clippings after mowing, fertilizing with compost, and avoiding concentrated chemical fertilizers and pesticides that can harm soil life. Lawns with heavy foot traffic may also benefit from occasional aerating with an aerating tool.

Soil. If your lawn isn't thriving, test your soil. Improper soil pH -- either too acidic or too alkaline -- can inhibit nutrient uptake. Your Cooperative Extension can provide you with soil test kits; the results will provide recommendations on improving soil and adjusting pH.

Consider Alternatives
Most people want some lawn, but you might consider replacing lawn areas further from your house with low-growing ground covers. If the environmental and financial aspects aren't enough to convince you, consider the few extra hours a week you could spend in the hammock, instead of mowing!


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