Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
April, 2011
Regional Report

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Is it possible to have a beautiful lawn without adverse environmental impact?

Learning to Love Lawn

Okay, let's be honest here -- I love plants, big plants, small plants, trees, shrubs, roses, annuals, perennials, bulbs, tubers, rhizomes, herbs, vegetables, and fruits. Now, here's a short quiz. What's missing on this list? Yes, that's right, lawns. Lawns are a yawn to me. Just green empty spaces to set off the plant beds and borders. Besides, a beautiful lawn is an environmental nightmare, requiring pesticides and fertilizers to maintain it and pollution-spouting machines to mow it. The "in" thing in gardening now is to eliminate lawns altogether, but with my approximately five acres of gardens, it seems to me that some lawn is inevitable.

So fine, for the last ten years I've ignored the lawn areas, grumbling about the costs of mowing them. And, yes, I've looked into "alternative" grasses, such as the short-growing buffalo grass, but the cost of installing it on this acreage would be astronomical. As I surveyed the gardens this spring, I realized that the lawns were an eyesore, detracting from the thousands of hours and dollars spent on the garden areas. Still, I'm not about to turn the gardens into a chemical nightmare, so what's the solution, other than ignoring it altogether? I don't need a perfect green carpet but just something that looks pleasant. Searching through books and websites has given me a long-range plan to improve my lawn areas without untold expense or environmental degradation (except for the inevitable mowing).

Mow High
The goal with a good lawn is to make things favorable for the grass and unfavorable for the weeds. One of the best ways to do this is to set the mower blades to cut at 3 to 4 inches. This allows the grass to shade the weeds, especially seedlings. It has a benefit for the grass plants as well. When grass is cut short, the plants grow faster, weakening them. Taller grass has more energy to spread and thicken. It also shades the soil better and promotes deep root growth, which leads to less watering. By encouraging taller, slower growth, theoretically, there should be less mowing.

Water Infrequently
Well, I'm not about to start watering the lawn. I don't even water the garden areas. But, if you are so inclined, the best advice is to water deeply and about once a month in the Upper South. One tip that I read suggested to water the equivalent of an half inch, wait 90 minutes, then water another half inch. This interval will help the soil absorb the water more deeply.

Fertilize in Spring and Fall
Lawn grasses need lots of nitrogen for best growth. You can test your soil, but a quick way to determine if fertilizer is needed is by noticing if clover is taking over your lawn areas. Clover and other legumes can produce their own nitrogen (with the help of beneficial bacteria on their roots) from the air, but grasses can't. The most thoughtful choice of a lawn fertilizer is one that uses natural or organic sources, following the manufacturer's directions and applying in the spring and fall.

An interesting side note to the subject of soil and fertilization is that in my research I found out that dandelions grow best with a pH of about 7.5, while with lawn grass a pH of 6.5 is preferable. Dandelions I have, so perhaps I should go beyond my home pH tester and have the soil professionally tested. If needed, I will apply sulfur to lower the pH.

To Seed or Not to Re-Seed
In my research, I've found varying opinions on the subject of over-seeding an existing lawn. Basically, since I have deep soil and a fair stand of lawn grass, with only a few bare patches, and if I follow the recommendations for mowing and fertilizing, the lawn areas should fill in. I might also re-seed one area to see if there is any distinguishable difference later in the year. If I do, I will use a lawn seed mix that is consists predominantly of newer varieties of tall fescue, which has deep roots, is very durable, is drought tolerant, does well in shade and sun, and is better suited to high mowing than Kentucky bluegrass.

Further Reading
Among the websites that I found while researching lawns, two of the most helpful were those of Organic Lawn Care for the Cheap and Lazy, and Planet Natural, I would enjoy hearing about your lawn care experiences and will report later in the year about what worked for me.

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