Less is More: A Lawn Care Primer

Many Americans accept the idea that we must have lawns of thick, green, healthy grass with few weeds. We spend a lot of time, money, and energy trying to achieve that perfectlawn. All too often, we direct our efforts toward trying to discourage the plants and insects we do not want by using chemical weed killers called herbicides. Herbicides are a type of pesticide. Other types include insecticides and fungicides. Pesticides cause significant health and environmental problems. They negatively affect people, pets, and wildlife.

The easier and healthier way to maintain a green lawn is to encourage the plants we do want. By optimizing the conditions that encourage grass growth, it is possible to have a healthy, green lawn without using chemicals. The Safe Lawn and Garden Campaign promotes alternative lawn management practices that eliminate the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

Less Mowing

Don’t mow your lawn too short. Maintain a height of 3 to 3 1/2”. Mowing your grass at the proper height is the single most important thing you can do to improve the health of your lawn.

Mow when your lawn needs it. Don’t mow every weekend just because it’s tradition, and don’t let the grass grow so long that you have a hay field. Maintain a fairly constant height by mowing when the grass is about 4” tall, so that you’re always removing about 1/3 of the leaf blade. In Duluth this usually means more frequent mowing in spring and fall, less frequent mowing in summer.

Always mow with sharp mower blades so the grass is cut cleanly, not ripped.

Why are these things important?

The depth of the grass root is proportional to the height of the grass blade. By letting the grass grow, you allow the roots to grow down. Deeper roots can reach more water during dry periods, making it less necessary to water the grass.

Grass manufactures food from sunlight. The longer the blade, the more food the plant can make, keeping it healthier and stronger. The deeper roots can also reach more nutrients.

Longer leaf blades create more shade, making it harder for weeds to get established.

Less Watering

Here in the Northland we usually get enough rain during the summer so that it is not necessary to water the lawn. In addition, grasses that survive best in the Great Lakes Region naturally slow down their growth during the hot, dry part of the summer. During this dormant period they lookbrown and dead, but they are only resting. Maintaining your grass at least 3” high will help it to survive dry periods without extra watering.

If you do water your lawn:
• Water only if it has not rained for 7 days.

• Water early in the morning — between 6 and 10 a.m.

• Thoroughly soak the ground, giving it about 1” of water.

Less Raking

If you leave the grass clippings on the ground as fertilizer, you will not need to rake your lawn except to clean up fallen leaves. Grass clippings decompose rapidly and do not promote disease or thatch buildup. If you rake the lawn in spring, be sure to rake gently so you do not pull up on the young grass plants.

No Pesticides

Using pesticides to control weeds is like treating symptoms of a cold. You may succeed in killing the weeds, but you will not change the conditions that allowed the weeds to grow. A weed-free lawn is not necessarily a healthy lawn. Weeds can tellyou something about what is wrong with your lawn.

Here in Minnesota:

Plantain may indicate the soil is compacted or poorly drained.
Creeping Charlie may indicate the site is too shady or the soil is poorly-drained.
Hawkweed may indicate the soil is low in nutrients.
Dandelions may indicate the grass is too thin.
Moss may indicate the site is too shady or too wet for grass to survive.
The easiest way to control weeds is to optimize the conditions that favor grass. That way the weeds do not have a chance to get established. If you do have weeds, interrupt their cycle of seed production by digging up the roots or cutting off flowering stalks before they go to seed. Spread a “northern mix” of grass seed in the empty space. After spreading grass seed, dampen it and cover it with mulch. Keep the grass seed evenly damp until it germinates. In heavy shade, plant shade-tolerant ground covers instead of grass.

Less Fertilizing

The soil provides nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous that are essential for a healthy lawn. Not all soil is equal, but about half of the nitrogen can be provided by leaving grass clippings on the lawn to decompose. Grass clippings break down quickly and do not promote disease or thatch buildup.

If you think your lawn is lacking nutrients, have the soil tested. Call the local County Extension Office (In Saint Louis County, the number is 218-733-2870) to help you determine what kind of fertilizer will correct the deficiencies indicated by the test. Use slow-release fertilizer, use only the amount needed to correct the deficiencies, and add it in the fall. After you have improved the health of your lawn, you only need to have the soil tested every 3 years.

Keep in mind that “organic” in this sense means made of naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral material, not synthetic or petroleum based. Some fertilizers contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals, even ones labeled “organic.” When in doubt, use and Organic Materials Review Institute certified product (www.omri.org)

Have You Heard About Corn Gluten Meal? Corn gluten meal is a natural, nontoxic “weed and feed” that can reduce the mount of crabgrass and dandelions in your yard while simultaneously fertilizing it. It is pre-emergent, meaning it needs to be applied before weeds go to seed, usually in mid-April, and can be applied again in the fall. It is available in feed stores and garden centers. Please note that corn gluten meal will also prevent the germination of grass seed. If you also wish to over-seed your lawn, do so at least six weeks after applying corn gluten meal.

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