In the Garden: Turf Battle

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By Charles Kidder

You might recall an anti-lawn column that I wrote several years ago, “Kill Your Lawn.”  Maybe it’s time to revisit the subject.

First off, this will not just be another rant against lawns. Not quite. So we’ll start with some good things about lawns.

PROS

Lawns can look nice.  There’s something soothing about a sweep of green in the landscape, especially as a foil to the color riot in your flower bed.

Kids can play on a lawn—running, jumping, playing ball, lying on their backs and watching clouds.

Lawns show that you are a real ‘Merkun Gardener, supporting Scotts, Monsanto, John Deere and other turf-care giants. Okay, just kidding.

CONS

Too much lawn can be really boring. And most Americans have too much lawn.

An “ideal” lawn, consisting of only one species of grass, is a monoculture, and not favorable to a broad range of wildlife. Robins seem to like it, however.

If you insist on keeping your lawn green through dry spells, lawns can really suck up water. Somewhere between 50 to 70 percent of residential water is used in the landscape, primarily on lawns. As a rough average, lawns require about one inch of water per week when they are actively growing. If you’re lucky, that water will come from the sky. But if you’re irrigating, it will take approximately 6oo gallons to provide an inch of water to 1,000 square feet of lawn. Depending on your toilet, that 600 gallons could also provide about 300 flushes. Which do you value more, a green lawn or a clean potty? And most people have a lot more than 1,000 square feet of lawn.

Even though lawns are taking up carbon dioxide and pumping out oxygen, they do have environmental costs. First, there’s the water that you might be taking from the county system, where water has to be treated and pumped. The most significant environmental impact comes from mowing. On an hourly basis, the typical gasoline mower pumps out eleven times as much pollution as a car. If you’re dumping on chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, the picture gets even worse. A lot of energy goes into making and transporting them, not to mention the havoc they can wreak after they’re applied.

So, what’s a responsible landowner to do with his or her lawn?  Here are a few important steps:

  • Reduce the area of the lawn, gradually if you want the task to be less daunting. Nothing says you have to stick with the lawn and bed dimensions that some developer left to you.
  • Curb your cutting. A taller lawn functions better to out-compete weeds. Tall fescue should be kept at about 3½”. But try not to take off more than 1/3 of the leaf height at a single whack, so mow when the lawn reaches about 4 ½ inches.
  • Keep your mower blade sharp. A cleaner cut doesn’t tear the grass, giving a better appearance and reducing the chance of disease.
  • Tan is tolerable. If your lawn if stressed by drought and heat, it will eventually turn grey-blue, brown, or tan. Learn to live with this, at least up to a point. A dormant lawn is okay, a dead one not. In hot weather, your lawn should be able to take a week without rain, assuming it was adequately moist at the beginning of the period. Morning is the best time to water; water deeply to encourage a good root system.

What about weeds?  This is probably the most controversial aspect of “turf management.”  Although turf should only be comprised of grass, lawns may include other species. At least in the minds of some, that is. Nowadays we spray-and-spread all kinds of potions to keep non-grass species at bay, but not that long ago, clover was actually added to seed mixes. It’s a tough legume that is able to add nitrogen to the soil, and it actually has flowers. And therein lies the rub. Flowers attract bees, and bees can sting. So, be careful and don’t walk around with bare feet. (And if you’re allergic to bee stings, consider other options.) And some experts have rather unusual attitudes toward weeds. One says that he’s okay with his lawn consisting of 15 percent weeds. So, when they reach that level does he go out and order them to stop? Or does he then start pulling or spraying?

Consider going with an electric mower if your lawn is fairly small. There will be some pollution produced at the power plant, but much less than what comes out of a gas mower’s exhaust pipe. (And I wonder if Tesla might consider getting into lawn mowers. They’d probably cost around $10,000, though.)

Fertilize your lawn, but just by applying a quarter inch of compost. This won’t give you the instant green of the hi-test chemical fertilizers, but it’s much better for the lawn, birds, bees, and fish in the Chesapeake Bay, etc.

So ignore that quaint Scotsman on television that would have you believe that a picture-perfect lawn can be yours, but only if you hurry on down to the home improvement store and buy a few bags of SuperDuperMiracleLawn. Adopt a more relaxed attitude, stop toiling in your lawn, and get out and enjoy it.

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