Publix GreenWise Market Magazine - May 2008
The Grass Grows Greener
Keep your turf green in more ways than one with these earth-friendly lawn care suggestions.
Jane Burman-Holtom takes pride in her beautiful lawn, which boasts more than an acre of native grasses, trees, ferns and flowers. No boring expanse of golf-course turf, it's more like the natural terrain that existed before her Gainesville, Florida, neighborhood sprang up. She and her husband enjoy working to keep their yard healthy, natural and free of toxic chemicals. They're rewarded with a wealth of flora, as well as birds and butterflies that find safe haven there.
Florida alone has more than 5 million acres of turf grass managed by homeowners. "With more and more people, more and more lawns have an impact," says Wendy Wilber, environmental horticulturist at the University of Florida extension office of Alachua County. "We have to be really careful what we do with our landscape. In our sandy soils, excessive soluble fertilizer slips away before it can be utilized by the plant. It's not gone; it's entering our waterways and the aquifer, and then it's in our water supply. Our lakes die and our springs turn green, and it can possibly get into our drinking water. There are consequences." For example, too much fertilizer in waterways may contribute to an overgrowth of algae, such as red tide, which uses up the oxygen supply, choking out plants, fish and marine life.
Burman-Holtom exercises caution when applying chemical weed killers and pesticides. She prefers to eradicate weeds from her yard the old-fashioned way, by hand. "I do the weed of the moment," she says. "I look to see what's about to seed or flower—they're seasonal. Then I walk around and look for those specific weeds and catch them early. It's very good exercise out in the fresh air."
Weeds can signal a soil calcium deficiency, says Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual (Storey Publishing, 2007). He suggests having soil tested by the local extension office. If you keep your turf thick and healthy, there's no room for weed seeds to germinate and grow. Tukey advises keeping a bag of grass seed handy to toss on bare spots that emerge.
He also notes that some "weeds" are good for your lawn. Clover, for example, adds nitrogen to the soil. Rethinking the roles of these beneficial plants will cut down on weeding too.
Nature provides its own checks and balances in the yard, a good reason to avoid using blanket pesticide products that kill good bugs along with the bad. Some beneficial insects include ladybugs, which are attracted by pollen- and nectar-producing flowers and eat aphids. Lacewing bugs also are drawn to the garden by flowers and feast on aphids, scales, thrips and moth eggs. Bees and wasps pollinate fruit and flowers, and their larvae often feed on lawn pests, such as the mole cricket. Spiders prey on small bugs, helping to keep populations in check.
Some beneficial plants help maintain this natural order too. For example, the common "weeds" partridge pea and button weed attract wasps that prey on mole crickets, which eat grass roots. Both perennial bushes bloom with pretty flowers. You can find them at native plant nurseries or through your local extension office.
When pests do become a problem, visually inspect plants and try to remove the bugs by hand. Or wash them off with a mild solution of dish soap and water or cayenne pepper steeped in water.
Nourish Your Lawn
Give your lawn a nutritious diet but avoid using too much fertilizer. To help prevent runoff of excess nutrients, avoid getting fertilizer on sidewalks or driveways or applying it before a rainfall or near bodies of water. If you choose to buy organic fertilizer, Tukey suggests looking for the OMRI certification label from the Organic Materials Review Institute.
SafeLawns, a coalition of non- and for-profit groups founded by Tukey that promotes natural lawn care, provides a recipe for an organic compost tea in the How-to-Videos section at safelawns.org. It's made by steeping compost in water to create a nutrient-rich solution. (For details about composting, see the March 2008 issue of Publix GreenWise Market magazine, available at publix.com.)
Another way to nourish your lawn naturally is with grass clippings. For decades the popular practice was to collect grass clippings when mowing and then dump them unceremoniously into the trash. In recent years, turf scientists have realized that there are better ways to utilize grass clippings and keep them out of landfills. Now they advise "grasscycling," leaving clippings on the lawn when you mow instead of removing them. Grass is rich in nitrogen, so it acts as a natural fertilizer, and it has a high water content that helps it decompose quickly to feed your lawn.
"Look into the forest," says Tukey. "It didn't grow because anyone put [fertilizer] down. That forest grows because of the leaves and pine needles on the ground. Lawns can grow the same way. The goal is to create a system that's self-sustaining."
Mow Down Pollution
The average lawn mower emits as much smog-forming pollution in one hour as eight new cars traveling at 55 miles an hour, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. To reduce the environmental impact of mowing, try using an electric model or a new version of the old-fashioned rotary mower. Better yet, cut back on the need to mow by xeriscaping with drought-tolerant native plants or plant trees and wildflowers instead of grass to create a wildlife-friendly habitat.