Lawn care practices that protect the watershed

By Steve Trusty

A properly maintained lawn is good for the environment. Healthy turf provides oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide. It helps prevents soil erosion, protects ground water, and prevents stormwater runoff. Turfgrass plants can help trap and breakdown organic pollutants. Lawns dissipate heat, provide open spaces for security, and serve as firebreaks to reduce fire hazards.

The key is to achieve all of the benefits without counteracting them with detrimental practices. Below are six things you can do to make sure your lawn is adding to a healthy planet rather than harming it.

Grow the right grasses. Select the best adapted grass species and varieties for your area, the site, and how you intend to use your lawn. Talk to your local garden center or Extension Service to discuss the best options and care requirements. If your lawn is already established, gradually make the switch, if needed, by overseeding with the preferred grasses and varieties whenever warranted.

Fertilize only as needed. Different soils and different grasses have different fertilizer needs. Have your soil tested to determine what your soil needs for the grass you are growing. Only apply what is needed on a schedule that provides the nutrients at the optimum time for utilization by the plants. Avoid fertilizers containing phosphorus unless your soil test specifically calls for it. To choose a lawn fertilizer that doesn't contain phosphorus, look for one with zero as the middle number of the analysis; for example 26-0-10. Apply the fertilizer evenly across the lawn, making sure your spreader is set correctly. One way to do this is to place a tarp on your driveway. Spread the fertilizer over a measured area of the tarp. Pick up and weigh the material to see if it is going down at the right rate. Adjust spreader settings accordingly. Test again if the setting was too far off. Don't spread fertilizer right before a heavy rain is predicted. If any fertilizer lands on paved surfaces as you spread it, sweep it up so it doesn't get washed into storm sewers and waterways.

Mow correctly. Mow at the proper height for your type of grass and the time of year. It is better to mow at the higher end of the range rather than cutting the grass too low. Mow your lawn often enough so that you never remove more than one-third of the leaf blade. Leave the grass clippings on the lawn. They return helpful nutrients and organic matter back into the soil and save on applications of fertilizer. A mulching mower is helpful, but not a strict requirement as long as you are not cutting off more than one-third of the leaf blade.

Use water effectively. Only water as necessary to supplement your grass's needs. If you have selected the right grass for your area, very little supplemental water will be needed in a normal year. If rainfall is below normal you may need to water. If so, make sure the water is applied at a rate that allows complete absorption to a depth of four to six inches. With heavy soils or where slopes or uneven surfaces are involved you may have to apply the water in stages to allow it to soak into the soil without running off. Make sure the watering method you are using applies the water evenly over the area covered. Some small cans scattered around the area can show you how evenly the water is being applied. If you have an automatic sprinkler system, make sure you have an automatic rain sensor shutoff so the system operates only when needed. If you don't have the automatic rain sensor, manually shut off the system during a rain or when one is predicted. Water in the early morning or late afternoon when winds and heat are usually lower. If unfavorable conditions persist or watering is restricted, let the lawn go dormant. Upcoming rains and cooler temperatures will bring the lawn out of dormancy.

Incorporate integrated pest management (IPM) practices. A dense, vigorously-growing lawn will crowd out most weeds and outgrow most insect or disease problems. Hand pull or dig weeds whenever possible. If a problem does require treatment, make sure you are using the right product and apply it correctly over only the areas that need it.

Aerate. Aerate the lawn once a year, preferably in early fall. This will help loosen the soil and provide better use of water and nutrients.

As you follow these best management practices to properly maintain your lawn, you will not only be helping the environment, you will have a lawn that looks nice and is enjoyable for fun and games.

Steve Trusty has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. He has been helping gardeners receive more enjoyment from their lawns and gardens for years through radio, TV, books, magazines, and websites.

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