Imagine wriggling your toes in a carpet of thick, healthy grass, taking in the vibrant color and aroma of plants that seem to thrive preternaturally. At its heart, sustainable lawn care is about making time to enjoy this kind of lush beauty in your own backyard. By contrast, conventional care means pouring energy (and not a small lump of change) into a toxic stew of chemical fertilizers, weed killers, and pesticides. According to the EPA, home owners in the United States apply 20 times more pesticides per acre than farmers -- a staggering amount, considering that our residential lawns carpet as much as 30 million acres of land. Many of these chemicals wash into waterways, harming fragile habitats. They pose risks to people, too, with the potential to irritate skin and eyes, damage the nervous system, and disrupt hormones. And that's not all: Yard waste, including bagged grass and clippings, eats up a full 20 percent of our diminishing landfill space, while gas-powered landscape tools, such as mowers and trimmers, cause more than 5 percent of urban air pollution.
Fortunately, turning toxic turf into luscious green grass is easy to do -- and easy on your wallet. By encouraging thick, beautiful grass that naturally resists disease, pests, and weeds, you will spend less time inhaling chemical fumes behind a mower and more time in your lawn chair. Use the guidelines below to get growing.
Know How to Mow
If you're like most home owners, you spend the bulk of your time in the yard pushing (or riding around on) a roaring mower. Smarter practices can cut your grass and your work time.
-Start by keeping grass about 3 inches high. These longer blades absorb more sunlight than short ones, allowing thicker turf and stronger roots. Taller lawns will also shade out weeds, keep the soil moist longer, and prevent certain pests from setting up shop.
-Although grass responds best to frequent mowing, don't bind yourself to a rigid schedule. Instead, abide by a few general rules. Before you start, make sure the machine's blades are sharp, since a dull cut will leave the grass blades open to disease. Try to mow in the early evening, when the turf is dry and the temperature is low, since heat stresses grass. And, most important, never clip more than one-third of the height at once.
-After trimming your lawn, save time and money by leaving grass clippings where they land. They nourish soil and help keep moisture from evaporating. If you worry that clippings will lead to thatch -- a dense layer of decayed plant matter that can hinder growth -- don't. Experts agree that this "grasscycling" gives lawns a boost.
-Finally, when it comes time to trade in your old mower, consider a fuel- and noise-efficient model. Choosing lawn equipment that doesn't emit exhaust, such as a manual or electric mower (instead of gas-powered options), will help reduce air pollution and keep your neighborhood quieter.
-Quench your turf's thirst when you notice the green glow fading and when it takes more than a few seconds for the blades to pop up after being pressed down. Lawns that get watered deeply when they need it -- rather than briefly on a predetermined schedule -- grow deep roots that better tolerate dry spells.
-Most lawns need as little as an inch of water each week, including rainfall. To determine how long you need to run your sprinkler or soaker hose, arrange several empty cans on the lawn (if you use a soaker hose, drape it over the cans). Then turn on the water and time how long it takes for an inch to accumulate in each.
-Keep in mind that applying water slowly makes it less likely to evaporate and more likely to sink deep into the soil. Trickle irrigation systems and soaker hoses offer the most efficient means of watering; they're nearly twice as efficient as sprinklers. To further reduce evaporation, water during cool early-morning hours. (Avoid watering at night, since moisture that lingers too long can lead to fungus.)
-Manicured lawns absorb water poorly, whereas natural woodland absorbs up to 90 percent more water than grass. Large swaths of turf can result in storm-water runoff laden with fertilizer or pesticide chemicals -- as well as flooding. To minimize water problems, limit grass to small patches of level ground and fill the majority of your landscape with native plants and trees. Having adapted to the conditions specific to your locale and climate over millennia, native species tend to thrive with far less care and supplemental water than exotic plants. To learn about growing plants native to your area, visit enature.com or talk with experts at a local nursery.
Feed Less Often
The best fertilizer for your lawn depends on the makeup of your soil.
-A soil test kit, purchased at a garden store or online (see "Turf Toolbox" below for suggestions), will indicate the levels of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, as well as the pH level. Most kits include instructions for interpreting results and making the necessary accommodations; your local cooperative extension office or nursery can also offer guidance.
-Choose a slow-release organic fertilizer with the appropriate amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to correct any imbalances your soil test revealed. (The percentage of each of these elements will be noted on the label in what's called the NPK ratio.) When it comes to pH, most grasses grow best in soil with a level of 6.5 to 7.0. You can apply lime to correct soil that's too acidic or sour (low pH) or sulfur to correct soil that's too alkaline or sweet (high pH).
-Apply fertilizer only during the active growing season. Feed cool-season grasses, common in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest, during the spring and fall. Feed warm-season turf, usually found in the West, Southwest, and South, in the late spring and summer. Overfertilizing can kill beneficial organisms, requiring you to mow more often. In general, wait at least eight weeks between applications of fertilizer.
Know Your Pests
-Don't eliminate everything that crawls, flies, or slithers. Many critters are actually beneficial (earthworms and honeybees, for instance); dousing them with pesticides can create an imbalance in your backyard ecosystem.
-When combating true pests, opt for natural methods. For example, introduce ladybugs to eat aphids. With a little research you can learn how to get rid of pests without disturbing their helpful counterparts. Start at your local USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) office. To find yours, visit csrees.usda.gov.
-When it comes to weeds such as crabgrass, avoid treating the entire lawn with pesticides. Instead, pull the weeds by hand (if you're in the mood for exercise), or squelch weeds before they sprout by spreading a layer of mulch over problem areas.
A few green products to stock in your shed:
Brill Accumower ASM380, cleanairgardening.com
Rapitest Soil Test Kit and pH Tester, biconet.com
Earth-Safe Organics Fish Meal Fertilizer, 3 pounds, vitalearth.com
AgraLawn Crabgrass Killer, 2 pounds, yardlover.com
Planet Natural Beneficial Insects Garden Variety Pack, planetnatural.com
Text by Kristen Pakonis