Much has been said and written about whether or not Americans should rethink their passion for the home lawn. There is general agreement that where summer rains are adequate and a well-adapted variety of grass is grown, a lawn makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, geographic areas where summer rains are adequate enough to support a lush, green stand of grass are few and far between in this country.
While acknowledging the validity of those points, no surface is better suited to outdoor living and game playing than a grass lawn. And few (if any) are more beautiful. Viewed from that perspective, the bigger the lawn, the better! The most practical and thoughtful opinions have suggested that a lawn is well worth the energy and expense it requires, in any region of the country, if it is actively used as a surface for outdoor living and playing.
If, however, you do not intend to use the lawn for game-playing and entertaining, by all means consider planting another type of ground cover, one well adapted to your area. Once ground covers are established, they require far less maintenance than a lawn. Ground covers make perfect sense when all you require is an even visual expanse of green to fill in the area between the house and the fence.
If you determine that a grass lawn makes sense for your yard, planting the right variety of grass at the right time of year will go a long way in making yours a healthy, easy-care lawn. If the healthiest, best-looking lawn with the least amount of maintenance is your goal (and why shouldn't it be?), follow the instructions in The All Important First Step (below) religiously. You won't be disappointed.
If you've decided on a lawn, even though your climate is ill-suited to supporting it naturally, there are four steps you can take to reduce its high-maintenance requirements and all but eliminate any negative environmental impact.
Instead of bagging the lawn clippings, let them compost in place, right on the lawn. Research has shown that leaving the clippings on the lawn actually benefits the soil and the lawn. As the clippings decompose, they improve the structure of the soil and return nitrogen to the lawn.
The shorter the clippings, the more easily they fall to the soil (as opposed to lying on top of the grass), and the more quickly they decompose. Optimally, you should never cut more than one-third off the total height of the grass. This means you may need to mow your lawn on a slightly more frequent schedule, but it's a small price to pay for improving the health of your lawn while eliminating the effort involved in bagging and hauling clippings around the yard.
Second, never apply too much fertilizer at once, and use only slow- or controlled-release fertilizers. Look for a high percentage of "WIN" nitrogen on the bag (that stands for "water-insoluble nitrogen"), or chose fertilizers from natural sources, such as manure. Other forms of nitrogen may provide a quick green-up, but they are so highly soluble that much of the nitrogen leaches through to the soil without the grass ever having a chance to use it. These soluble forms of nitrogen, such as ammonium sulfate, have caused problems by polluting groundwater and nearby streams and lakes.
Relax your standards somewhat regarding what you consider to be weeds. No less than the great American horticulturist, Liberty Hyde Bailey, wrote in 1898: "The man who worries morning and night about dandelions in the lawn will find great relief in loving the dandelions. Each blossom is worth more than a gold coin, as it shimmers in exuberant sunlight of the growing spring, and attracts the bees to its bosom. Little children love the dandelions: why not we? Love the things nearest at hand; and love intensely."
Instead of trying to achieve that nearly impossible perfect grass lawn, completely free of dandelions, crabgrass, clover, and whatnot, why not leave the herbicides on the shelf and simply enjoy what you've got? A lawn with a few weeds in it is not going to stop anyone from having a grand time playing touch football, badminton, or hide-and-seek. Leave perfection to the greenskeepers and their putting greens.
Finally, if insect pests become a serious problem in your lawn, opt for a natural control. Great strides have been made in the science of organic pesticides. Today there is an effective, natural control product available for every lawn pest. These products make sense not only from an environmental point of view, but from a personal one. All you have to do is imagine the number of times kids fall facedown in the grass during an active game of volleyball or football, or just how close babies or toddlers are to the lawn as they crawl or wobble across the grass, and the choice of insect remedies becomes clear-cut.
Nothing, repeat nothing, is more important to the successful growth of any plant than proper advance soil preparation. Skip this all-important first step, and you're asking for trouble. Abide by it, and you've taken a huge step in ensuring a thriving, easy-to-care-for lawn or garden.
Briefly stated, no matter what type of soil you find in your yard, from the sandiest sand to the heaviest clay, a liberal addition of organic matter works miracles. The organic matter can be anything form compost to well-rotted leaf mold, fine fir bark, or peat moss. Almost every area of the country lays claim to some indigenous, inexpensive organic material, readily available to homeowners for free, the material having been made from the leaves gathered by municipal crews in the fall.
The amount of organic matter you add should be equal to the depth that you intend to turn the soil. If you're preparing the soil to plant a lawn, whether from seed or sod, the minimum depth you should till is 6 inches; 8 or 12 is that much better. This may contradict some traditional advice, but experience has proved it to be very successful. If you intend to till the soil to a depth of 8 inches, then you should add 8 inches of organic material on top of the soil before you till to incorporate it to the full depth. This takes some doing, but it helps develop an extensive, healthy root system, resulting in a hardy, vigorous lawn that is able to withstand periods of drought and is more resistant to disease and pests.
Depending on the type of lawn you are planting and the characteristics of your native soil, you may want to add fertilizer and lime as you incorporate the organic matter. Explain your situation to your local nursery staff to find out if such additions are necessary.
After tilling the organic matter into the soil, rake the area smooth and sow the grass seed or roll out the sod. Keep the soil moist (but not wet) for a week or ten days. You'll be amazed at the growth the lawn puts on in such superior soil, even in the first year, not to mention its long-term vigor, in both good years and bad.
Article published on June 23, 2008.