In the Garden:
Lower South
July, 2011
Regional Report

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A limited turf area with some part day shade can provide an attractive spot for gathering while conserving resources.

A Resource Efficient Lawn

We seem to have a love-hate relationship with the American lawn. On the one hand, the expanse of turfgrass provides a verdant outdoor carpet on which kids, pets, and adults alike can play. Our lawns also serve as an outdoor social setting for gatherings of friends and family.

On the other hand, much time and resources go into keeping our lawn in pristine shape. Weekly mowing can be a chore or an added monthly expense, depending on whether we do it ourselves or hire it out. It often seems that the more we strive to have a "perfect lawn", the more diseases, pests and weeds show up to mar our plans for perfection.

Then there are the environmental issues. Turfgrass helps capture the summer sun and moderate temperatures. The urban "heat island" is reduced whenever we place plants in the path of sunlight. On the other hand, fertilizers and pesticides that are misapplied or applied in excessive amounts can contaminate surface and groundwater supplies.

Water supplies are not unlimited and the growing population is leading us toward some difficult and potentially expensive decisions as more communities face inadequate supplies to meet their demand. "You can have my lawn when you pry my cold dead fingers off of the hose end spray nozzle!" Can't we all just get along?

The reality is that most people with property around their home have a lawn, and lawns to one degree or another are here to stay. So what can we do to keep our lawns as resource efficient and environmentally positive as possible? Here are some ways to accomplish these lofty goals.

First of all it would be helpful to evaluate the size and location of our turf areas. If you have very sandy soil or live in an area where rainfall is scarce, trying to keep an expanse of turf alive will mean using a lot of water, which often comes at a considerable cost. Reducing turf to where you really use it most will go a long way toward conserving water and reducing the monthly expense.

Turfgrass likes the sun, but uses less water in the shade. Areas too shady for a lawn can be converted to an attractive shade garden with mulched areas between plants. Maybe that outdoor sitting area you've been planning would be great in that spot, with a little hardscape of pavestones to provide an an all-weather surface.

Where you have bright shade or part day sun, a lawn may make sense because there is enough light to sustain it but some shade to lower its water needs. This summer has been an incredibly dry one for my area, and while I have had to water a small sunny spot very often to keep it alive, the bright shady areas have needed less than one fourth the water to sustain them.

Second, there is a right and a wrong way to water. Frequent, light irrigation makes a lawn more prone to turf diseases, more shallow rooted and even wastes water. Here's why.

Most diseases are encouraged by wet conditions on plant leaves, roots or stems. Therefore watering less often can help decrease the incidence and severity of various diseases.

Turfgrass, like most other plants, will grow roots where there is moist soil. Frequent, light irrigation results in the soil only being wet near the surface. Your lawn will grow more of its roots in this limited area, making it more susceptible to grub attack or drought conditions. A deep soaking on an infrequent basis will encourage the turf roots to grow deeply to sustain the plant during the cyclical dry periods. The grass will be more drought tolerant as a result.

Frequent, light watering wets the leaves, thatch, and surface but not much more. After the irrigation cycle all the water on the leaves, thatch, and even some from the soil surface is lost to evaporation. This is not a very water efficient way to use your high-priced municipal drinking water!

On the other hand, with a more thorough soaking, after the leaves, thatch and surface are wet, the rest of the water soaks down into the soil where it will stay in the soil's "bank account", available for future withdrawals by your turfgrass. Therefore, for example, you get more efficient use of your water when you apply one inch of irrigation every week or two rather than making three applications of one third inch during the same period of time. Keep in mind that sandy soils hold less water than clay soils and will need more frequent watering, comparatively.

When it comes to pest control and fertilizing, the goal is to minimize applications and to direct them to where they are most needed. Spot applications of some products are the best approach to managing pests. This minimizes the amount of pesticide you need to apply.

Fertilize your lawn enough to keep the turfgrass healthy but not so much as to push excessive growth. Excessive fertilizer applications result in more mowing and a shallower rooted, problem-prone grass plant, along with an increased likelihood of the excess nutrients ending up in local waterways. When applying pesticides or fertilizer, always take care to direct it onto the lawn and prevent it from landing on driveways or sidewalks where it will be washed away with the next rain. After applications use a broom or blower to sweep any that landed on hard surfaces back onto the lawn.

So for all you lawn owners out there, consider some of these ideas to help maintain a useful area of turf for your outdoor gatherings without polluting local waterways, or wasting your hard earned family budget on unnecessary outdoor irrigation.


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