In the Garden:
New England
April, 2013
Regional Report

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Comfortable Adirondack chairs rest on the small area of lawn in my front yard. Since I can mow the grass in a jiffy, I have more time to relax here and and enjoy the trees, shrubs, and perennials that fill in the rest of the landscape.

Green Lawns, Green Landscapes

How "green" is your lawn? Sure, we all want our turf to look lush, but as gardeners we also know the importance of protecting our precious water resources, our environment, and all the creatures in it. Fortunately, these goals don't have to be at odds.

Why the focus on lawns? Not only do these ubiquitous elements of our landscapes cover a lot of acreage, conventional lawn care practices contribute an inordinate amount to the negative environmental impact of many landscapes. Runoff containing nutrients from lawns fertilizers wreaks havoc when it enters the watershed. Many lawn herbicides and pesticides have been linked to health risks to people, especially children, as well as pets and wildlife, and can pollute waterways. Irrigating lawns uses water resources that are becoming increasingly scarce in many areas.

Lawns are not all bad, of course. They take up and store carbon and allow rainwater to soak into the soil. And there is really no type of plant other than lawn grass that can take foot traffic and provide a soft spot for kids and pets to run and play. Here are some suggestions for sustainable lawn care practices that will help you enjoy the benefits of both a healthy lawn and a healthy environment.

  • Plant only as much lawn as you really need. In many landscapes, large swaths of lawn serve no practical purpose. Keep just enough turf for your recreational needs and consider replacing the rest with trees, shrubs, and groundcovers that will benefit wildlife, attract beneficial insects, and need less in the way of water, fertilizer, weed control, and mowing.

  • Time fertilization properly. The best time to fertilize the cool season grasses we grow in our region is in early fall; no later than September 15 in northern New England and October 15 in southern areas. Spring fertilization is usually not necessary, but if you decide to feed your lawn then, wait until the grass is growing actively and you've had to mow a couple of times before applying fertilizer.

  • Select the right fertilizer. Choose one that has at least 50 percent of its nitrogen in organic or slow release (water-insoluble) form. On established lawns, use a fertilizer containing phosphorus and potassium (the second and third numbers in the analysis) only if a soil test shows a deficiency. Sweep up any fertilizer that lands on driveways and sidewalks as you spread it, and avoid fertilizing right before heavy rain is predicted.

  • Mow high. Set your mower blade to cut grass 3 inches high. This will shade out weeds and encourage deep, vigorous roots that will weather dry spells well. Keeping mower blades sharp helps prevent disease problems. Leave the grass clippings on the lawn to recycle their nutrients back to the soil. Gas powered mowers emit a lot of air pollution; consider using a push mower, a practical option especially if you've reduced the size of your lawn.

  • Water wisely. Water your lawn only when absolutely necessary. If footprints remain visible after you walk across the lawn, it's time for a drink. Then give the grass a deep soaking, but put on water slowly enough that it doesn't puddle or run off. Frequent, shallow waterings encourage weak, shallow root systems and thatch buildup, and make runoff more likely.

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