Not Your Father’s Lawn

Ah, Spring.  After this weird winter, who knows how early everything is going to start growing and blooming.  I’m itching to start dividing some perennials, moving stuff around and adding new plants.  It’s all good.  Except for my lawn – which I hate.   So this year I’m going to really put some effort into it – research, science, new ideas.  Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Soil Test – This is the first step.  Of course, this makes sense.  You wouldn’t start taking medicine without getting tests done by a doctor.  Well, maybe you would, but it’s a really bad idea.

So, soil test  - The Columbia Association (CA) is offering FREE soil testing.  Why are they doing this?  Because it turns out that most of us are using too much product – wasting time, money and adding unwanted nutrients to our local waters.  Here are 2 documents about it: soil testing and instructions for taking a soil sample.

Back to the soil test – basically, you take some soil from your lawn, put it in a plastic bag, bring it to your village center, then it is sent to a lab for testing.  CA is holding short workshops to interpret the results so that homeowners can determine what their lawns need.

If you have a lawn service, ask them to do a soil test and show you the results.  Why should you pay to put stuff down that you don’t need?  Actually, since 1998, companies are required to do a soil test for you and keep track of the amount of fertilizer used.

Pre-emergent – If you are going to spend time and money to put chemicals on your lawn later to try and kill weeds, I guess it makes more sense to prevent them.

Many gardeners advise using a pre-emergent when the Forsythia’s bloom (yellow-blooming shrubs you see all over the place in early Spring).  So, that is basically now.

My neighbor swears by corn gluten as a pre-emergent.  It is organic, and works best if you keep using it for a few years.  It does have some nitrogen, and the Maryland Extension is pretty clear that IF YOU FERTILIZE, IT SOULD BE IN THE FALL ONLY.  Sorry for all the Caps, didn’t mean to scream at you.

Chemical pre-emergents often contain a lot more nitrogen than corn gluten, but I searched around and found one brand with 0 nitrogen.  There weren’t any in the “big box” store I went to first, but it wasn’t too hard to find.  Great news starting this year is that many of the lawn care products are now “phosphorous free.”   This recent change will help keep lots of this damaging nutrient out of the Bay.

Of course, change is not easy.  Many people just do what they’ve always done before, or what their parents taught them.  But things change, and just because everyone else in your neighborhood is dumping chemicals on their lawn 4 times a year, doesn’t mean that it works.

Cut it High and Let it Fly – I’m not sure who made up that slogan, but I like it.  Cutting your lawn short stresses it out, and makes it harder for it to crowd out weeds.  You would think that cutting it short would shorten the time before you have to mow again, but I’ve read that this is not true – grass shoots up in response, getting even weaker in the hot months.  The let it fly part means using a mulching mower and leaving the clippings there.  Clippings are a natural source of nitrogen (less fertilizer needed) and do NOT cause thatch.  I hire someone to cut our grass, so I am going to ask them to cut it higher this year.  If they won’t, I’ll find someone else who will.

Watering – I don’t water my lawn in the summer.  Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could keep up with it to do any good.  The type of grass most Marylanders have is not built to be green in a hot, dry summer.  Maryland Extension backs me up on this.  They advise:  “Allow established tall fescue lawns to go dormant during hot,dry weather in the summer.  The lawn will recover when rainfall and cooler temperatures return. Only newly seeded areas and lawns less than two years old should be irrigated.”  It might get a little crunchy, but so be it.  If you do water new grass, it is best to water deeply, and less often.  Short, frequent watering is bad for lawns because it encourages short, weak roots.

Whew, that’s about all I can handle.  I’m bored with lawn talk already, and it is only March.  Back to the real plants.  Can’t wait to get started!

Elissa Reineck
Office of Environmental Sustainability
Elissa Reineck