Lawns have gotten a bad rap in the gardening world the last few years.It's true they take lots of time and resources to keep them looking their best. However, they are a valued part of our landscape and will not be disappearing soon. A lawn is the glue that holds our yards together. Keeping it looking good isn't as hard as you may think. With some attention paid to the watering, fertilizing, mowing, and building the soil underneath the grass, you can avoid many of the weed, insect, and disease problems. That means more time playing ball, barbecuing, and entertaining on your lawn.
Start with the Soil
Nothing -- repeat ? nothing -- is more important to the successful growth of any plant than proper soil preparation. Since your lawn is already in place, yearly additions of organic matter as a top dressing (applied on top of the lawn), is the best way to build the soil. Compost is the best organic matter to use on lawns. Every spring and fall, use a lawn spreader to broadcast a 1- to 2-inch-thick layer of compost on your lawn. It will naturally work its way into the top few inches of soil and provide nourishment to your grass plants. Each spring rake up the dead grass so a dead layer, known as thatch, doesn't develop. Also, with an aerating rake or scarifying machine, loosen up compacted soil by aerating your lawn. By removing dead grass and aerating the lawn, you'll allow water, air, and nutrients to freely flow into the soil feeding the grass roots.
Another way to add organic matter is to leave the grass clippings on the lawn. Grass clippings are high in nitrogen, and if chopped finely with a mulching mower, they will decompose quickly while feeding your grass plants. The shorter the clippings, the more easily they reach the soil (as opposed to lying on top of the grass) and the more quickly they decompose. Ideally you should never cut more than one-third off the total height of the grass at once. 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 your lawn's health while eliminating the effort involved in bagging and hauling clippings around the yard. Mow lawns when the grass is dry and keep mower blades sharpened to reduce tearing grass blades, which invites disease. Keep the borders between lawn and garden clean with a lawn edger. Keep grass under fences or along walls mowed with a grass trimmer. For small lawns mowing with a hand push mower not only cuts the grass, but gives you a little workout as well. Both you and your lawn will be healthier for it.
Even with a healthy dose of compost each year, lawns still may need some fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer is particularly essential for lush, green growth. However, don't be seduced by quick fix chemical fertilizers. It's best to use a lawn spreader to apply a slow-release fertilizer that feeds the grass over time as needed. Quick-release lawn fertilizers are so highly soluble that much of the nitrogen leaches through to the soil without the grass ever having a chance to use it. They may also cause problems by leaching into groundwater and nearby streams and lakes.
If you have been building your soil, fertilizing regularly with a slow-release product, and returning your lawn clippings back to the grass, you'll probably have a lush, thick lawn with few weed problems. If you see a few weeds here and there, don't panic. It's better to relax your standards somewhat than to immediately reach for the herbicides. Just prevent weeds from spreading by mowing regularly and hand-removing individual tenacious weeds, such as dandelions. If you're not applying chemical fertilizers or pesticides, you can even eat the dandelions in a salad. They're nutritious and tasty, especially when young. Remember, 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.
If you have a healthy, well-maintained lawn, insects and diseases will naturally be discouraged. If insect pests become a serious problem in your lawn, try a natural control first. Great strides have been made in the science of organic pesticides. Today there is an effective, natural control product available for almost every lawn pest. These products make sense not only from an environmental point of view, but from a personal one as well. Just imagine the number of times kids fall facedown in the grass during an active game of volleyball or football, or just how close toddlers and pets are to the lawn as they run around, and the choice of pest remedies becomes clear-cut.