Guide to Green Living

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Tips to More Sustainable Lawn Care

Maintain healthy soil – Having healthy soil is the first step to a healthy lawn. Some ways to make sure your soil is healthy are to test its pH, organic matter content, and nutrient content to see what areas need attention. Although this might seem like too expensive an option for some, it can pay off by reducing the amount of care you might otherwise have to put into your lawn. Lime can be used to reduce the acidity of your soil if that is an issue. The right amount of organic matter in your soil will provide an ideal environment for insects and other organisms that your lawn needs to stay healthy. Adding compost and leaving grass clippings on your lawn is a good way to increase the amount of organic matter. If there is more than 1 cm (½ inch) of organic matter (or thatch) buildup on your lawn, it can choke your grass, and prevent air, water and nutrients from reaching the soil. To remove it, aerating and raking will be sufficient. One cause of thatch buildup is excessive fertilizing, so keep it to a minimum. Aeration, along with removing thatch buildup, is also an excellent method of reducing soil compaction and encouraging your grass to develop deep roots.

Choose your grass wisely – By choosing a species of grass that is native to your area's climate and soil type, you will reduce the amount of care (such as watering and fertilizer) that it requires. Turf grass is the most commonly used grass for lawns, but it is not accustomed to many climates and won’t do as well as a natural species. You may also want to consider using a mixture of grasses in your lawn. Most pests will attack only a single variety of grass, so having a mixture will minimize the damage that any single pest can cause.

Be 'mow' smart – Don’t mow your lawn too short. Keeping it too short exposes the soil and the roots of the grass. This will result in water loss and reduction in soil aeration. Keep your lawn’s height around 8 cm (3 inches), since longer grass crowds out weeds, shades the soil to reduce water evaporation, and encourages your grass to develop deep roots, all in all resulting in a healthier lawn. It is also recommended to leave grass clippings on the lawn after mowing. This deters weeds and acts as a natural fertilizer. You should also keep your lawn mower well in tune and keep its blades sharp to reduce tearing which can expose your grass to disease. You shouldn't cut more than one third of your grass' height at a time. If you leave your lawn uncut for too long, and then cut a lot of it at once, it will essentially shock your grass, leaving it weak. This means that in the spring, during your lawn’s high growth phase, you may need to mow more often then in the hot summer months, when growth slows. Instead of using an electric or gas mower, consider a push mower. There are new designs to these mowers that make them much easier to use, and they have much less of an effect on the environment.

Water effectively – It is important to realize that most lawns don’t really need to be watered unless they have been newly seeded. If the species of grass in your lawn is natural to your climate, it will be accustomed to amount of precipitation in your area and any water you give it will be too much. In fact, overwatering, along with overfeeding, is a leading cause of fungal disease in lawns. However, if you do choose to water your lawn, there are ways to keep it efficient. Wait until the soil in your lawn has dried out to the depth of the grass’ roots before watering. Don’t worry if your grass is a little brown; that just means that it has become dormant. You should only water in the morning in order to reduce the amount of water being lost to evaporation. Water your lawn slowly (to reduce the amount of water lost as runoff and improve infiltration) and deeply (to make sure that the water is reaching the roots of the grass). Brief and shallow watering should be avoided since this can lead to shallow grass roots and thus weaker grass. Remember, more efficient watering techniques can save water and save you money.

Fertilize sparingly – There are many natural ways to fertilize your lawn that will minimize the effect on the environment. Don’t reach for the store-bought fertilizer right away. Compost and grass clippings are two natural and cheap fertilizers that you can use on your lawn to provide the nutrients it needs. For instance, compost used on grass will loosen clay soils and break down excess thatch on your lawn. If you do use other fertilizers, try organic products since they generally have a longer lasting effect and so applications are required less frequently. Time release fertilizers are also a good option since they continuously provide nutrients without burning your lawn or polluting groundwater in your area. Remember to only apply fertilizer once or twice a year and not to do so in the spring. Spring fertilizing will cause a period of major growth in your lawn that will result in tall but weak grass that won’t be able to handle large temperature variations or periods of drought.

Keep your lawn off drugs – Weeds are an issue in almost every lawn, however they are made out to be more harmful than they actually are. Many weeds, in fact, are edible and can be used to make salads (one example being the dandelion). Most homeowners however don’t want weeds in their lawn. To deal with this issue, the most effective method is to hand-pull weeds. Since most weeds are annuals, removing them before they seed will usually be enough for the rest of the season. For perennial weeds, you should make sure to remove their bulbs to make ensure they don’t come back later. If this doesn’t work well and you wish to use herbicides, don’t automatically apply them to your entire lawn. Use spot treatment (applying herbicides only to areas affected by weeds) to solve your weed problems. When buying herbicides, go for the more natural products to minimize the negative effects on the environment. For example, corn gluten can be applied before weeds appear as a preventative measure. Pest problems are also an issue for lawns, however pesticides should not be your first response. Using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques to prevent pests is a natural way to keep your lawn healthy (see our post on Sustainable Gardening for details on IPM). Pesticides may sometimes be needed, but remember that they don’t just affect pests in your lawn, but also important insects that keep your yard healthy. They may also have effects on people, especially young children who play in the yard. Keep in mind that prevention is always better than treatment, and that most treatments have more negative side effects than positive. Try to keep some perspective on the issue; having some pests in your lawn isn’t the end of the world.

Have any tips of your own? Add them in the comments!


  • But why the assumption that lawns involve grass? I came across an interesting reccommendation that something like clover be used instead of grass, as it doesn't need mowing and needs less water.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6/29/2006 12:41 p.m.  

  • Thank you for your input.
    This article was written under the assumption that most people prefer grass lawns since that is what the majority of people have. It is meant to give the average person tips on how to take care of their grass lawn in a more environmentally friendly way. However you have a very good point. There are many alternatives to grass, such as clover, that are more sustainable options for your lawn.

    By Blogger rnb, at 6/30/2006 12:14 p.m.  

  • I just ordered some white clover seed and am looking forward to the results next year, especially regarding its ability to choke out the uglier weeds I have out there now. I'm hoping it will be end up being a good alternative to the same-old/same-old lawn look. I'm on a corner of a busy street, so I should get some interesting reactions. No more chemicals for me.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/09/2006 9:12 a.m.  

  • Another good thing about clover is that it adds nitrogen to the soil. If you establish an understory of white clover in your lawn, you may be able to do away entirely with nitrogen fertilizers. The grass will have to be clipped short so it doesn't out compete the ground hugging clover.

    By Blogger Bill, at 12/19/2009 4:51 p.m.  

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