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July 17th, 2012

Embrace Your Brown Lawn

With all the hot weather we’re having in Iowa, my bluegrass lawn looks kinda brown. Would a summer feeding help it to green up?

blog-dougWhen a lawn is stressed from heat, fertilizer is the last thing it needs. Cool-season turf grasses, including bluegrass, fescues, and perennial rye, slow their growth in response to hot weather. If the weather is dry as well as hot, you’ll notice a lot of brown blades among the green. This summer “dormancy” can last through Labor Day or until cooler weather and fall rains prompt a return to green.

You could keep the lawn green through summer with copious amounts of water. But I would argue against that sort of wastefulness. Instead, why not take a break from mowing and allow the lawn to go dormant?

There’s one caveat to letting the lawn brown out, and that is the chance that patches of turf will die if the weather stays dry for too long. A good soak every 2 or 3 weeks is all it takes to keep bluegrass alive. Depending on your soil type and how dry the soil is to begin with, it could take between one-half inch and one inch of water to soak the ground to a depth of 6 inches. If natural rainfall fails to provide this much, you’ll have to step in. Apply water in the early morning, when less will be lost to evaporation, and water slowly so every drop sinks in.

Other summer strategies for keeping a lawn healthy include setting the mower blade high—up to 4 inches—and using a mulching blade that drops finely chopped clippings back on the lawn.

Save the fertilizer for fall. Bluegrass and other cool-season grasses naturally regenerate in fall, when temperatures drop and soil moisture is more abundant. In fall, bluegrass will devote the extra nutrients to extending and thickening its root system instead of producing more top growth. Choose a slow-release organic product.  —Doug Hall

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August 23rd, 2011

Weeding an Organic Lawn

I’m trying to maintain my lawn organically. But I became discouraged by weeds and came close to buying a bag of weedkiller at the hardware store. How can I eliminate weeds without poisons?

blog-dougYou are wise to be skeptical of chemical weedkillers. Read the warning label on one of those products and you’ll think twice before using it anywhere near yourself and your family.

Once you’ve decided to eliminate poisonous chemicals from the equation, you’ll need to change your perception of what constitutes a beautiful lawn. Perfectly weed-free lawns are nearly always chemically induced. Nature doesn’t create monocultures on its own; if left to nature, your lawn would fill with a variety of plants. And who’s to say that a natural lawn isn’t prettier than one whose tidy appearance comes at a toxic price?

In my small patch of lawn, I hand-weed the dandelions and plantain, rake out the ground ivy, and welcome the white clover. One easy technique for improving your lawn’s ability to combat weeds is to set your mower blade at its highest setting in summer. Mowing low gives the weeds an unfair advantage over turfgrass.

Although a turfgrass lawn is the “default” choice for home landscapes, you should consider alternative groundcovers that blanket the ground but don’t need to be mowed, watered, or fed. Options include sedges, moss, creeping thyme or sedums, dichondra, and clover. Or put the space to productive use and grow organic vegetables and herbs. —Doug Hall

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April 26th, 2011

The Antisocial Weed

doug

Unlike some eco-minded gardeners, I’m not anti-lawn. In my yard, lawn forms the pathways among the garden beds and provides a place to set chairs when friends drop by. From a design perspective, it’s a calm counterpoint to the jumble of flowers and foliage in the beds.

To serve these purposes, the lawn doesn’t need to be pristine and weed-free, and it isn’t. In my opinion, if it’s green and ground-blanketing, it qualifies as lawn. Among the blades of bluegrass you’ll see plantain, chickweed, henbit, creeping charlie, and oxalis. There’s plenty of white clover, too—my gift to the neighborhood rabbits.

There’s one weed, however, that doesn’t qualify for my inclusionary policy: dandelions. The other lawn weeds don’t stray far, but dandelions send their seeds flying far and wide on the wind. They’d eagerly colonize the neighborhood if I let them.

So, out of courtesy to my neighbors, for whom a tidy lawn is everything, I hand-dig the dandelions before they can go to seed. Yesterday, a glorious spring day in Emmaus, that’s what I did after work: I removed each yellow-flowered offender, leaving a lawn that still fits my desire for diversity while respecting my neighbors’ pursuit of perfection.  —Doug Hall

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