The Great Green God
“Lawn is the curse of suburban man, the great green god he sprays to.” Time Magazine 1991
Here in Larchmont, as in most suburban towns, a perfectly manicured, emerald green lawn is a badge of honor. We hire gardeners, apply fertilizers, spray herbicides and pesticides all in an effort to reach that desired level of perfection. But, at what cost?
On April 27th, the Westchester County Board of Legislators unanimously approved a ban on phosphorus lawn fertilizers and created regulations for the use and sale of lawn fertilizers that will begin in 2011. To create a more sustainable Larchmont, the municipality is considering its own pesticide policy for village owned and operated property and buildings.
The world is changing, at least our small part of it is, and we can no longer disregard the broader implications of what we decide to do here at home.
Last year we went to an Ecological Lawn Care class given by Mary Thurn of Cornell University. Mary talked about the aesthetic threshold, or the level of visual quality that moves us to additional action. Unfortunately, we find that this is usually in the form of chemical applications.
Poorly managed lawns – whether by neglect or through the overuse of fertilizers and pesticide – can be an environmental liability. Here in Larchmont, we place a high value on our perfectly manicured lawns. However, healthy lawns provide us benefits beyond aesthetics, including a place for our children to play, higher property values, less pollution and better water quality. Healthy lawns even lower air conditioning bills by keeping air temperatures cooler around our homes.
If you feel like your lawn can use some TLC, don’t grab the sprayer. First, consider the following:
The Right Grass for the Right Place
The first thing to consider is the type of grass you have. Grass for our Larchmont lawns must have several characteristics: it must be perennial; it must tolerate mowing; it must be winter-hardy; and it must be reasonably pest-resistant. Cool-season grasses like Kentucky bluegrass, fine and tall fescues, and perennial rye are best for seeding in our area. Choose a good quality seed from a reputable dealer. The Cornell gardening website has a lot of information about lawns. Another website which allows you to enter your zip code, light levels and planting dimensions to learn the best grass for your lawn is www.seedsuperstore.com.
In shady areas (those that receive less than four hours of sun per day) consider a groundcover other than grass. In addition to the ubiquitous pachysandra, there are lots of choices: myrtle, wild ginger, and sweet woodruff. You can mix them together and add some other features like astilbe, hosta or bishop’s hat, for interesting shapes and colors of foliage. We’ve used this technique in our own gardens.
The ideal mowing height for most grasses is three inches. Mowing often and at the right height will produce healthy growth and deep rooting.
If you feel that your lawn could use a supplemental fertilizer, have your soil tested first. You may be surprised to find that your lawn may need no additional fertilizer other than the clippings produced from your weekly mowing. To order a test kit, contact Cornell Cooperative Extension at 914-285-4640.
Unless you have recently seeded, most lawns do not need to be watered regularly. Improper watering will weaken your grass, making it more susceptible to weed problems. An established lawn should receive about an inch of water per week, either by precipitation or irrigation. If you feel that you have to water, water less often and more deeply to promote deep root growth.
The first step in reducing the weeds in your lawn is to identify which weeds are present. Visit the following site for proper identification and preventative practices:
Weeds are opportunistic and will sprout where grass is not. To reduce weeds’ ability to move in, consider overseeding your lawn. To prepare the area to be seeded, closely mow to expose soil and ensure that the seeds will make contact, seed as the label recommends and water in. The time to do this is in the spring and fall months when the temperatures are cool and allow for optimum root growth.
I reseeded my own back yard last month. Last year my neighbor’s three huge beautiful black walnut trees came crashing down in a wind storm. It was sad to lose the trees, but the upside was we could now plant grass where only moss would grow before. Here’s the rub, there was enough time between the felling of the trees and winter frost for a very nice crop of plantain to take hold. This spring I had a choice, use a broadleaf weed killer or a non-chemical option. So, I decided that I would pull the weeds by hand. There are thousands of weeds and although it may seem like a big job, I actually find it quite relaxing to grab my mp3 player, a small stool and my dandelion tool and hit the back yard for a couple hours of weeding.
Sharpen Your Mowing Practices
Mow Sharp: A blunt blade tears grass leaving it stressed, ragged and brown. If you see this, have your mower blade sharpened.
Mow High: Raise your blades to their highest setting cutting off no more than one-third of the grass blade per mowing. This will promote stronger, healthier turf which is better able to shade out weeds and is less susceptible to drought and disease.
Don’t bag grass clippings: Lawn clippings provide up to one third of the nitrogen and all of the phosphorus your lawn needs for healthy growth. Tell your gardener to leave it where it lay.
To Herbicide or not to Herbicide
Before using herbicides consider the following:
Diagnosis: Why do you have weeds? Do you have the right type of grass? Have you overseeded? Are you being careful not to overwater? Are you mowing high with a sharp blade to reduce stress to the grass plant? Are you leaving your grass clippings on your lawn to recycle nutrients back into the soil?
Effectiveness & Time of Year: Most herbicides are designed to work within a specific time frame. For example, pre-emergent products are effective only before germination.
Label: Are you using the right product and equipment? Check the label to be sure that it is effective on your specific weed population. Also, the right equipment and proper calibration will ensure herbicide effectiveness.
Environment & Nearby vegetation: Other plants can be harmed or killed if they come into contact with nonselective herbicides.
Off-site movement: Soil erosion, water, and wind can carry herbicides off-site, making them less effective and a source of pollution.
Weather conditions: Avoid application during windy conditions or prior to heavy rains; wandering herbicides can cause contamination and injury to valuable plants.
If you decide herbicides are necessary, reduce your risk of exposure by wearing protective equipment, as indicated on the label. Your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office can help you with information on particular products and how to use them safely and effectively.
With our environment at risk, we can no longer close our eyes to the impact our gardening practices have on our environment as a whole. The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have all but erased our need to understand our lawn’s most basic needs. To learn more about your lawn and how to maintain it, visit the Cornell website.
To Do For Mid-April:
- Deadhead pansies and shear lobelia to prolong the flowering cycle.
- Replace dying pansies with heat-tolerant impatiens, wax begonias, dwarf snapdragons, zinnias or sweet alyssum.
- As they come up, evaluate perennials for performance. Note what, if any can use dividing in the fall or following spring
- As spring bulbs bloom out, fill in bare areas with colorful annuals, herbs or cannas.
- May is a great month for planting roses. Also, deadhead spent blooms on already planted specimens.
- To reduce insects and fill your gardens with song, consider planting a tree that birds love.