Look to the lawn
Now is the time to put good lawncare practices into effect
“Lawns are a soul-crushing timesuck and most of us would be better off without them.”
—Cristopher Ingraham (Wonkblog, Washington Post, 2015)
“Lawns can help protect or even improve water quality and control erosion. By contrast, lawns that are poorly managed—whether as a result of neglect or through the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides—can be an environmental liability. What you and your neigbors do with your lawns matters.”
—Frank Rossi, PhD, Turfgrass Science, Cornell University
After twenty-five years of coaching audiences and customers to replace large lawns with meadows or flower beds and groundcovers, it may seem odd to hear advice from me about improving your lawn. True, I encourage bird gardens and pollinator-pleasing front and back yards, overflowing with flowers and trees. But, I know one thing for sure: while the birds and the bees would prefer flowers, most Americans aren’t giving up their lawns.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Let’s consider why, where, and how to maintain turfgrass (the industry word for lawn) for aesthetic satisfaction and the greater good. If you treasure your lawn and want to keep it healthy—and there are good reasons to do so—late August is prime time for lawn care.
The Case for Lawns
1. They are cultural icons: attractive lawns have long been associated with the American dream; they symbolize responsible home ownership for many.
2. Legal or social pressure: Many cities, towns, neighborhoods, and residential associations require well-tended front lawns.
3. Real estate value: Attractive front lawns and tidy landscaping increase real estate sales.
4. Aesthetics: Well-tended grass makes an attractive frame or path around landscape beds and structures.
5. Compared to compacted or neglected soil, healthy turfgrass absorbs water and prevents water runoff and soil erosion.
6. Well-managed lawns can help sequester carbon (removing it from the atmosphere), therefore mitigating climate change to some degree* (See #4, opposite).
The Case against Lawns
1. A lawn is a monoculture, providing little or no benefit to animals, including bees, butterflies, and birds.
2. Lawn care often involves herbicides and other pesticides (often delivered at the wrong time and in unnecessary amounts); most have detrimental effects on animals including soil microorganisms (the organic life of the soil).
3. As stated, US lawns soak up nine billion gallons of water per day, and water is a finite resource.
4. *Fertilizers and lawn mowing equipment produce emissions that reduce any positive carbon sequestration effect from the grass by thirty-five percent (whereas alternative ground covers, flower beds, and trees rarely involve chemical input or machine use).
5. Lawn mowing takes time, from two to four hours per month, according to surveys. Some folks enjoy it, but twenty percent of Americans in a survey reported mowing to be their least favorite outdoor chore.
Best lawn care practices
Frank Rossi has long been the authority—top researcher, brilliant teacher, influential within land grant university and turfgrass industry circles—on proper lawn management, and has been called “the lawn ranger.” I recommend his booklet Lawn Care Without Pesticides (ecommons.cornell.edu; from NYS IPM department) for anyone trying to do lawn care with optimum results and least harm. What is relatively fresh within some environmentally focused circles is Rossi’s summary, quoted at the beginning of this article: if you are going to have a lawn, a thick and healthy one provides more ecosystem services than a lawn that is neglected or treated with excessive or poorly timed products.
In short, if you care about ecosystem health, choose one or both of these: a) Replace lawn with woody and herbaceous plants (as many native as possible) that offer ecological benefits, and/or b) Keep some thick, healthy lawn and adopt best practices for maintenance.
As I drive through the country, I am continually disturbed by seeing vast, mowed lawns around and in front of rural and suburban homes. I understand the urge to frame the house with a neat, clipped lawn; it is part of the American landscape paradigm. But acres of clipped grass, that nobody is using or playing on or harvesting, offer no ecosystem services. And that huge green expanse calls for mowing (gasoline use), possible watering, and, often, pesticide application. The same area could be planted in valuable wildflowers, shrubs, or trees that provide much-needed habitat for nature’s creatures, large and small. (For additional enjoyment and country walks, mow a path through the area!) We country folks have so much more ability than urbanites to replace the rapidly disappearing natural habitats.
Sod or seed
You make the choice: higher cost with less work (but short-term critical sod care steps), or lower cost with longer term efforts (with regular weeding and possible lawn care product use). Both methods require preparation—removing old sod and weeds, and improving the soil. For both methods, you must shop carefully: All seeds are not equal, and you must choose the right seed especially for shady areas, highest performance, or roughly treated areas. Sod is only as good as the professionals applying it and your care afterward. Get started now.
After you decide where you really want some lawn, the next decision is to apply sod or seed. John and Mike Braddell, CNLPs and industry leaders, provide the following analysis. Their website, lakesidesod.com, thoroughly covers lawn care choices and timing, including compost use, fertilizers, weed management, mowing, turfgrass species selection, and seed/sod analysis. Key points, briefly:
- Instant, professionally grown carpet
- Can be installed any time (with proper instructions for care)
- Not damaged by heavy rains; prevents erosion
- No weeds; few weeds over time (therefore minimal chemicals or labor)
- More expensive than seed
- Specific strict requirements after installation: a) stay off it for two or three weeks, b) maintain a strict watering schedule until roots anchor it to the soil, c) mow it lightly one week after installation.
- Less expensive
- DIY application possible
- Takes several weeks to create a thick lawn
- Rain, wind, birds can interfere with establishment; may require repeat seeding
- Rains often cause runoff, carrying soil or chemicals to storm drains or water bodies
- Limited timing: spring or late summer/early fall recommended
- May be patchy at first; weeds appear easily; often more herbicides and fertilizers are applied.
Lawn care in late August and early September
Rainfall usually increases after mid-August. Nights are cooler. In the morning, there is dew on the lawn, because the nighttime cool air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air. Established grass normally breaks dormancy at this time if you have allowed it to go dormant. So the grass you have, or new turfgrass, has the best chance to get growing during the comfortable weeks to come.
Lawn care tips
Set mower heights high (all season). Taller grass blocks weeds best, maintains soil moisture, and stresses grass least.
Let grass clippings lie. They return nitrogen and moisture to the soil within days after cutting.
Do not compact the soil: never park on the grass, pile construction materials on it, or walk on recently seeded lawn.
Sharpen lawn mower blades. Dull blades produce ragged tears on grass plants, encourage diseases to penetrate.
Add compost: spread about a half inch of compost on the lawn (any time) and rake it in gently. Compost adds microbial life to the soil, improves soil texture so roots can penetrate better, and helps to retain soil moisture.
Thicken lawns by overseeding: to strengthen an existing weak lawn, Mike Braddell recommends adding five pounds of a quality grass seed over every 1,000 square feet of lawn. Use a rake to break the soil surface and help the compost settle in.
Consider core-aeration: to reduce soil compaction, cut through thatch, admit water, and help seeds establish. Hire a core aerator prior to seeding or compost application.
Time fertilizer applications: never fertilize in the heat of summer. Early September is a good time to fertilize lawns, according to Cornell University/IPM turfgrass research programs.
Weed: the organic method is to pull, dig, or smother weeds; some organic herbicides are available. Some plants considered weeds—dandelions, clovers—benefit pollinators and other beneficial insects. If you choose to use chemical, non-organic herbicides, they are most effective in early fall when the roots begin to grow and absorb the products. Read the labels first.
Grub control: many grub control products are applied unnecessarily and at the wrong time. Grub control should be triggered by counting grubs on sample patches of turf—see Cornell/IPM guidelines. Healthy turfgrass can tolerate a few grubs. Just because you see Japanese beetles does not mean your lawn needs grub control. (Those beetles flew in because you have some attractive plants; they aren’t necessarily from your lawn.) But if you need grub control, late August/September is the time.
Protect your lawn. Turfgrass is damaged by dog urine/feces, salt, herbicides, soil compaction, extended droughts or floods, and chemical spills.
Consciously choose where you want turfgrass, rather than assume it’s the default planting. Then learn proper lawn care. Turfgrasses are little plants, not linoleum or plastic. Find out what they need and keep them healthy where you grow them.