Landscaping Tips

Healthy Lawn BasicsLawns do more than make your yard look good.  Lawns absorb water, which helps reduce storm runoff and improve water quality. Lawns also have a significant cooling effect, provide oxygen, trap dust and dirt, promote healthful micro-organisms, prevent erosion and filter rainwater contaminants.

The only way to reduce a dependence on chemical fertilizers is to develop a healthy lawn, which is naturally resistant to weeds, insects and diseases. If you need to fertilize your lawn more than once a year, consider these ways of improving the natural health of your lawn:

Improve the SoilThe first step is to test the soil’s pH – it should read between 6.5 and 7.0, which is slightly acidic. Soil that is too acidic will need a sprinkling of lime; sulfur can be added to soil which is not acidic enough. Call your county cooperative extension office – they often provide soil testing as a free service.

Lawns grow best in loamy soils that have a mix of clay, silt and sand. Too much clay in the soil mix, or heavy use, can compact the soil and prevent air and nutrient flow. Compacted soil may need aeration, a process of lifting small plugs of turf to create air spaces in the soil. For best results, rent an aerator or hire a lawn service to do the job – this will remove “finger size” plugs which improves aeration. Aeration is best done before top dressing and fertilizing.

Organic matter, such as compost and grass clippings, will benefit any type of soil; it lightens soil which is heavy in clay, and it builds humus in sandy soils, which helps retain water and nutrients.

Mow Often, but Not Too Short – Giving your lawn a “Marine cut” is not doing it a favor. Surface roots become exposed, the soil dries out faster and surface aeration is reduced. As a general rule, don’t cut off more than one-third of the grass at any one time. Most turf grass species are healthiest when kept between 2.5 and 3.5″ tall

Water Deeply but Not Too OftenThorough watering encourages your lawn to develop deep root systems which make the lawn hardier and more drought-resistant. Let the lawn dry out before re-watering; as a rule of thumb, the color should dull and footprints should stay compressed for more than a few seconds. When watering, put a cup in the sprinkler zone; it should get at least one inch of water.
The best time for watering is early morning – less water will be lost to evaporation. Ideally, it’s better to water the first half-inch or so, and then wait for an hour or two before watering the second half-inch.

Watering needs for different grass types – How long can you wait between waterings before the lawn starts to go brown?

8 – 12 days: Carpet grass, Fine fescue, Kikuyu grass, Seashore paspalum, Tall fescue, Zoysia
5 – 7 days: Ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, Bentgrass

The fine-leaved fescues (grass blades) as well as the “common” types of Kentucky bluegrasses, such as Park and Kenblue, require less water, fertilizer and cutting than turf-type perennial ryegrass or many of the newer “improved” types of Kentucky bluegrass.

Source: University of Georgia, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

Leave clippings on the lawn This provides nutrients equivalent to one application of fertilizer. Clippings do not cause thatch.

Fertilize once or twice a year – This is sufficient for an attractive lawn. Cool season grasses are semi-dormant in the summer; fertilizing during summer will be ineffective. Fertilizing in early fall promotes vigorous lawn growth the next spring.

Use a fertilizer with time-released, water insoluble nitrogen These fertilizers are less likely to burn your lawn with excess nitrogen, and slow-release allows the roots to absorb the nutrients as needed. In most instances, choose fertilizers containing at least 35% – 50% of their nitrogen supply in the “slow-release” form, such as sulfur-coated urea, methylene urea or various natural organic products. With fast-acting fertilizers, some nutrients are washed away with watering or rain, and the wasted fertilizer pollutes ground water supplies.

Control lawn weeds with corn gluten A nontoxic byproduct of corn processing, corn gluten kills weed seedlings within days of application. It also adds nitrogen to your soil. Just one application, before weeds emerge, reduced weed survival by 60%, according to research at Iowa State University. After several years, this method provides as much as 90% weed control.

Keep pesticide/herbicide use to a minimumPesticides kill the soil organisms which contribute to a healthy lawn. The sooner you remove harsh chemicals, the faster your soil will recover. Repeated past use of toxic chemicals may have destroyed the microbiotic life that exists in healthy soil; it will take time, at least a season, for the soil to begin to recover. If lawn chemicals are used, clean out applicators and empty containers on the lawn, where the residue will be utilized. Do not clean them out on sidewalks or driveways, or residue will go directly into water supplies.

‘Spot-treat’ weeds with vinegar to minimize herbicide use Where only a few scattered broadleaf weeds such as dandelions or plantain are present, consider spot-treating individual weeds with household vinegar rather than applying a broadcast treatment of an herbicide over the entire lawn. (Vinegar can burn grass and garden plants, so be sure to spot treat weeds only.) Physically pulling or cutting weeds is also effective; remove as much of the root system as possible to reduce the chance of regrowth.

Lawn grubs For lawn grubs, there is a natural remedy called milky spore . The granules are spread on the soil and cause the grubs to contract a disease that kills them. Only the grubs are affected, leaving beneficial organisms unharmed. Milky spore multiplies over time and will sit inactive, waiting for grubs to infect. One treatment is said to last 40 years. The grubs are actually the larvae of Japanese beetles. So, when you kill the grubs you kill the beetle.

Hand raking If the clippings are too long and must be raked, try hand raking. This light aerobic exercise will save you a trip to the gym. Fallen leaves make excellent mulch for flower or garden beds, or can be added to your compost pile where they’ll be converted to rich, organic humus for the garden.

Integrated Pest Management and Organic Lawn care

  • An Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy for lawn care is rooted in prevention rather than treatment, and a certain acceptance of some pests in the landscape without suffering significant damage.
  • If the pest population reach a certain threshold (damaged lawns/landscape plants) then other controls may be implemented. These controls include biological, cultural, manual, and chemical.
  • The aim is to use selective plant selection and establishment combined with maintenance practices to promote, conserve and enhance natural pest controls. IPM is proactive rather than reactive.
  • IPM is one way that a conscientious homeowner can control pests, whether they be weeds, insects or diseases, in a safe, yet effective way. Education is the key to knowing what is available and how to best implement these sound principles that will protect our environment, yet still allow us to enjoy many of the traditional aspects of a beautiful landscape.

Weed management A healthy, well-rooted turf can compete with many common weeds. Mowing high is another organic strategy aimed at shading out particularly troublesome annual weeds like crabgrass that require a certain amount of light to germinate.

Weeds are used as an indicator of other cultural problems, such as nutrient deficiencies or soil compaction, which should then be corrected. In addition, organic lawn care endorses the need for education aimed at acceptance of a certain level of weeds.

Disease controlDisease management also focuses on providing optimal conditions to maintain the health of the grass and soil. Good drainage and proper soil pH contribute to the conservation of organisms antagonistic to pathogens.

Practices such as establishment of disease-resistant grasses, increased air circulation and avoiding watering at times when the grass will remain wet may all be used in attempts to prevent disease.

Natural and/or organic supplements may also be used to change an environment which favors the disease organism. Certain composts are disease-suppressive, although the particular organisms involved have yet to be identified.

Some specific natural organic fertilizers have also been found to suppress specific diseases such as dollar spot, brown patch and red thread.

Insect management An organic approach to pest management for damaging insects focuses on the least toxic controls. Avoiding broad spectrum pesticides that can affect non-target insects results in the maintenance of natural pests.

Biological controls such as predators and parasites can also be used in addition to natural organic sprays and dusts. Entomophagous (insect-eating) nematodes such as Steinernema carpocapsae parasitize the larvae of sod webworms and cutworms. Bacteria such as B.t. (Bacillus thuringiensis) can also be used against the sod webworm and the cutworm as well.

Botanical insecticides as rotenone and pyrethrum are also allowed as part of an organic pest control program. Emphasis on scouting and spot treatment reduces costs and overuse of even these more ecologically sound methods of organic pest control.

Tips for Using PesticidesSometimes, even with good lawn care practices, weather conditions or other factors can cause pest problems to develop. Pesticides can help control many lawn pests. But pesticides have risks as well as benefits, and it’s important to use them properly.

The chemicals we call pesticides include insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. These products are designed to kill or control pest insects, weeds, and fungal diseases. Pesticides can be very effective. But don’t be tempted to rely solely on pesticides as a quick-fix solution to any lawn problem. Serious, ongoing pest problems are often a sign that your lawn is not getting everything it needs. In other words, the pests may be a symptom of an underlying problem. You need to correct the underlying problem to reduce the chance that the pest will reappear.

All pesticides are toxic to some degree. This means they can pose some risk to you, to your children and pets, and to any wildlife that venture onto your lawn – especially if these chemicals are overused or carelessly applied. Pesticides can also kill earthworms and other beneficial organisms, disrupting the ecological balance of your lawn.

Store pesticides out of children’s reach in a locked cabinet or garden shed. When spraying, protect your skin, your eyes, and your lungs. Wash your clothing separately before using it again.

Before Using Any Pesticide, Be Sure to Review These Basic Rules:

  • Take safety precautions. Never assume a pesticide is harmless.
  • Read the entire label and follow its instructions. Use only the amount directed, at the time and under the conditions specified, and for the purpose listed.
  • Be sure to wear any protective clothing – like gloves, long sleeves, and long pants – indicated on the label. Wash this clothing separately before using it again.
  • Keep children and pets away from pesticides, and make sure no one goes on a treated lawn for at least the time prescribed by the pesticide label.
  • Remember to follow any state or local requirements for posting your treated lawn or notifying your neighbors that a pesticide has been applied.
  • Store and dispose of pesticides properly, according to the label directions and any state and local regulations.
  • Use pesticides to minimize pests, not eradicate them. The latter is often impossible and unnecessary.
  • Be sure you have accurately identified the pest so you can choose the best pesticide for the job and use it most effectively. Obtain professional advice from your county extension agent or a local expert.
  • Spot treat whenever possible. In most cases, it isn’t necessary to treat the whole lawn with pesticides if the problem is confined to certain areas. Spraying more than necessary is wasteful and can be environmentally damaging.

For More Information – The National Pesticide Telecommunications Network is a toll free, 24-hour information service that can be reached by calling 1-800-858-7378 or by FAX at 806-743-3094. The operators can provide a wide range of information about the health effects of pesticides, and provide assistance in dealing with pesticide-related emergencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency can provide information on integrated pest management strategies for lawn care. Write EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs, Field Operations Division (H7506C), 401 M St., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20460.

Some suppliers of lawn care products can provide helpful tips, answer questions, and help identify problems. Look for information/hotline numbers on product packaging.

The Bio-Integral Resource Center (BIRC), a non-profit organization formed in 1978 through an EPA grant, has information on least-toxic methods for lawn care. BIRC’s address is: P.O. Box 7414, Berkeley, CA 94707


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