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Lawn Garden Maintenance - the natural way

(Content adapted from GardenersSupplyCompany)

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A healthy, thriving garden lawn has many benefits: it keeps air temperatures cooler in the summertime; like other plants, lawn draws carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and gives off oxygen in the garden; and turf is an ideal outdoor carpet for recreation and entertaining.

Did you know that Americans spend $956 million on synthetic garden lawn fertilizers each year? That's an incredible $1.5 billion on pesticides and herbicides for the lawn. These chemicals, even when used correctly, can wash into our lakes, rivers and groundwater thus polluting our valuable natural resource. What's more, they can harm beneficial soil life and insects, pets and wildlife, and even human beings who are sensitive to toxins.

Therefore, growing a natural, low-maintenance lawn in your garden is high on my list of must haves in the garden.  A natural garden lawn is one that you can feel good about and that won't take over your life -- and it's easier than you may think.

The key to natural lawn garden care is to choose the right kind of grass and to provide a healthy soil environment.

Lawn garden tip 1 : Improve the soil

With a trowel or small shovel, cut out a small piece of sod at least 4" deep. Is the soil crumbly and soft? Does it contain a dense patch of healthy grass blades and maybe a worm or two? Those are the characteristics of healthy lawn and garden soil.

You may find your sod piece is dry and compacted. The grass roots may appear weak and shallow. If you see dense accumulation of dead roots and stems and partially decayed organic matter at the base of the grass, that's called thatch.

Thatch accumulates when organic matter at the soil surface isn't incorporated into the soil fast enough by microorganisms and earthworms. It can lead to dead patches in the soil and a spongy feeling when you walk across the lawn.

3 Steps to Better Garden Soil

  • Monitor soil acidity. Lawns prefer a well-drained soil with a slightly acid to neutral pH (6.5-7.0) A simple soil test will tell you if your soil needs an application of lime to make it more neutral, or sulfur to make it more acidic. Contact your local Cooperative Extension System or purchase your own pH meter and test it yourself.
  • Feed the soil. Lawn grass, like all plants, requires organic matter. Apply a quarter inch layer of compost or good topsoil and rake it into the turf. This will stimulate biological activity and improve your topsoil.
  • Aerate the soil. Grass roots and soil microorganisms benefit from loose, airy soils. If your garden lawn has become compacted from a heavy lawn tractor or there's a thick spongy layer of thatch on top of the lawn, spring is the time to aerate. Use a rake, a lawn aerator or a vertical rotor to rip up thatch. Apply fertilizer or lime while the soil is exposed.

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Lawn Garden tip 2 - Choose the Right Kind

The simplest, yet most common problem with lawns, is that the type of lawn is not suited to the site or garden. To choose the best type of grass, you need to consider:

Climate: Many grass varieties will not tolerate extreme hot or cold or may not thrive in wet or dry conditions.

Amount of sun or shade: Most grass varieties require full sun to remain lush and green. If you yard receives less than 4 hours of full sun, plant varieties that are suited to shade.

Traffic on the lawn: Some varieties are more durable than others.

Special site considerations: Steep slopes, deep shade, rocky areas and footpaths are difficult to maintain. Consider reducing the size of the lawn by adding bark or gravel footpaths, or replacing turf with natural perennials, and shrubs.

Lawn Garden tip 3 - How Does Your Lawn Measure Up?

Examine a wedge cut from your garden lawn and see if you can recognize any of these common problems.

lawn garden profile

When and How to Fertilize Garden Lawn

There are two different fertilizing schedules for American garden lawns—one for cool-climate grasses and the other for warm-climate grasses. Before you fertilize, it's important to understand what type of grass you're growing because they can have very different growing cycles.

Cool climate grasses (Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryes, bentgrass, and fescues), grow best in northern climates. They are the first to grow in early spring and stay green longer into the fall. When summer temperatures rise above 80 degrees F, they go dormant, and on scorching days, the blades will turn brown.

The best time to fertilize these varieties is in the fall because they need all the food they can get after being dormant all summer. The next best time to fertilize is late spring when the grass' winter food storage is all used up. Avoid fertilizing your lawn when it's dormant during the heat of the summer.

Warm climate grasses (buffalo grass, bermuda, zoysia, St. Augustine, blue grama grass), thrive in areas with hot summers and mild winters. They stay green during the hot months but go dormant and turn brown during the winter. They grow prolifically during the summer months creating their own food with sun and water and then storing it for the winter. To encourage this growth, fertilize in small doses from early spring to late summer. Do not fertilize in the fall or winter when the grass is dormant because this will encourage weeds, not grass.

Grass has a reputation of being a "heavy feeder," requiring lots of fertilizer. But that's true only of lawns that have poor soil with little organic matter, worms or other soil life.

Chemical fertilizers feed our grass, but they do nothing to enrich the soil and promote healthy soil life. Chemicals typically stimulate growth that is too lush, too wimpy and too vulnerable to disease and insects.

Organic fertilizers release nutrients slowly over time to provide long-term nutrition and build soil life. They also provide vital trace elements, and nutrients that your lawn needs in minute quantities.

Leave your grass clippings where they fall. You'll add free nutrients to the soil and stimulate biological activity. If the clippings are thick, wet and smothering the lawn rake them up and compost them for later application to the soil.

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Lawn garden - Lawn Mowing and Watering

Mow a little at a time: The more leafy material that's removed, the more the grass is stimulated to replace it by using food reserves stored in the root system. Cutting off too much of the grass blade at one time can deplete these reserves faster than they can be replenished, resulting in a weak root system that's more susceptible to disease and weeds.

Don't mow when grass is dormant: The grass won't grow and may turn brown from the evaporation of moisture from the freshly cut blades.

Keep your lawn mower blade sharp: A dull blade injures your lawn by tearing blades of grass, and it can pull out tender new growth. Read up about lawn mower maintenance and troubleshooting.

lawn garden maintenance - lawn mower cut

The amount of water a garden lawn requires depends upon many factors such as weather conditions, grass variety and soil type. Sandy soils, for example, drain quickly while clay soils retain moisture longer.

Water deeply or not at all. Shallow watering promotes shallow rooting and weak growth. Watering to a depth of 6 to 8 inches encourages deep rooting for a stronger lawn. In general, you'll probably need to run your sprinkler for 2 to 4 hours, and maybe more, to water deeply and thoroughly.

After watering, insert a spade into the lawn and tilt it forward to see how far the moisture has spread. If you are not getting adequate moisture into the soil, and you are not able to devote time and water to the lawn, do not water at all. The grass will stop growing and will begin again when the weather cools and/or the rains return. It's important to decide at the beginning of the summer whether you'll water your lawn or not. To vacillate between watering and not watering stresses the lawn.

lawn garden maintenance - strong lawn grass roots

Lawn Garden - Controlling Weeds and Insects

Proper maintenance of a lawn will go a long ways towards controlling weeds, insects and disease. Maintain a healthy lawn. In fact, weeds are often indicators of infertile soil or troubled grass.

  • Moss indicates a shady, acid and infertile soil.
  • Nutsedge indicates that the soil is too wet and poorly drained.
  • Crabgrass indicates that the turf is not dense and healthy and that you may be mowing too low to shade it out.
  • Dandelions may indicate a potassium deficiency.
  • Mow high. Most weeds need light to germinate and taller grass will shade them out.

Tips for removing weeds from the garden lawn

  • Hand-pull weeds and reseed heavily with a fast-growing lawn seed.
  • Remove dandelions and thistle with a dandelion digger.
  • If your lawn is at least 50% weeds, you may need to start over again. Rototill a small section at a time, (preferably in the spring when the weeds are not growing), and reseed the area. Add organic matter, lime (if needed) and the proper grass seed to get a good start.

As with weeds, a healthy, properly maintained turf will minimize most insect problems. Two common insect pests in garden lawns are white grubs and chinch bugs.

White grubs are the larval stage of several types of beetles. Grubs chew on the roots of turf and can sometimes kill entire sections of lawn. Apply Milky Spore, a bacteria, or Grub Guard, beneficial nematodes, to control.

Chinch bugs appear during the summer months. They suck the grass blades to withdraw the moisture and inject a toxic saliva that can then kill the grass. Severe infestations can be controlled by spraying a quart of premixed insecticidal soap with a tablespoon of isopropyl alcohol. Spray the lawn every 3 to 4 days for two weeks.

If you must apply an all-purpose chemical insecticide to your lawn, remember that many of them can be toxic to earthworms and other beneficial soil life that act as predators against the "bad bugs". You may actually increase your insect problems rather than solve them.

Lawn garden diseases are difficult to recognize because the symptoms often resemble nutrient deficiencies and insect damage. If you think you have a fungal disease, contact your local nursery or extension agent for a diagnosis. Most fungal diseases can be avoided by following proper lawn practices:

  • Do not overwater
  • Do not water in the late evening.
  • Plant a mixture of grasses rather than one variety to reduce disease spread.
  • Remove accumulating thatch.
  • Mow high.

Transitioning from Synthetic lawns to Organic Garden Lawns

If your garden lawn has grown used to a chemical diet, you'll need to allow some time for you and your lawn to make the transition. The soil probably doesn't have much organic material in it and it may be devoid of biological activity.

  • Wean your lawn off chemicals gradually by switching to a low low nitrogen fertilizer.
  • Apply one spring application of a slow-release organic fertilizer. Organic nutrients are released slowly over the entire growing season which helps rejuvenate worn-out lawns.
  • Monitor the lawn for weed, disease and insect pests because of the possible pest imbalances created from earlier times.

Once established, your lawn will reward you with green, lush blades of grass that will enhance your yard year after year.

Resources

Favorite Books

The Chemical-Free Lawn, by Warren Shultz.

Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony, by F. Herbert Bormann, Diana Balmori, and Gordon T. Geballe (Yale University Press, 1993).

The Wild Lawn Handbook: Alternatives to the Traditional Front Lawn, by Stevie Daniels (Macmillan, 1995).

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