By Irene Virag
When I moved into my home 21 years ago, a neighbor surveyed my large front lawn and asked: “What do you need with all that grass? Why don’t you grow corn instead?”
As it turned out I did try a few ears of corn, and they were fine until the raccoons discovered them. I still tend a sizable vegetable/flower garden in the middle of the front yard, and it’s attractive and productive. And I planted beds and borders of shrubs and trees and perennials and bulbs that seem to grow longer, wider, and deeper every year as the lawn shrinks.
But I have lots of lawn left, and it too is green and healthy. Not only that, but like the garden, it’s organic. Whatever your philosophy and approach, here are some simple tips for a healthy lawn.
Know your grass. Remember September is a good time for repairing, renovating or starting a new lawn from seed. Happily, most lawns in our region are cool-season grasses that do their best when the mercury reaches only from 60 to 75 degrees.
I’m talking Kentucky bluegrass—a homeowner’s favorite for decades—and perennial ryegrass and fescues. Kentucky bluegrass spreads by rhizomes and forms a thick, dark-green sod. But it isn’t exactly low-maintenance: It likes lots of sun and a steady supply of fertilizer and water. Tall fescues are drought tolerant and deeply rooted. Fine fescues have no problem settling in dry, acidic soil and shady sites, but foot traffic can damage it. Perennial rye establishes itself quickly and stands up to wear and tear but doesn’t react well to drought or shade.
Most lawns are a mixture of different species of grasses or a blend of several varieties of the same grass. Just steer clear of annual ryegrass—it’s not likely to make it through our winters.
Compost, compost. In spring and fall rake in about 1/8th inch of organic compost. And give it a boost with a sip of compost tea every other month from April through November. Also you might try a slow-acting organic fertilizer instead of chemicals. Spring and fall are the best times to feed your lawn. Check local ordinances. Where I live it’s illegal to fertilize from November 1 to April 1. And have the soil pH checked before adding amendments such as lime, gypsum, or sulphur. Lawns are happiest in the 6.3 to 6.8 pH range.
Make the right cut. The average American homeowner spends 40 hours a year behind a lawn mower. Whether you use a tricked-out rider or an old-fashioned people-powered number, make sure you keep the mower blade sharp and set no lower than 3 inches high during the summer. Never shave off more than one-third of the grass at a time. Vary your cutting patterns to avoid soil compaction, and leave clippings to fertilize the lawn with nitrogen and organic matter. The earthworms love it. Get a mulching mower—it leaves behind chopped clippings that degrade quickly.
Water wisely. Infrequent watering encourages roots to search for moisture. If you mow correctly and load your soil with organic matter, your grass should thrive on the water nature provides.
Words to mow by. Nurture the soil and you nurture the lawn. That’s why we compost, stick to organic fertilizer, use corn gluten meal, and ward off grubs with milky spore.
After all there’s poetry in the leaves of grass. Or as Walt Whitman put it: “A blade of grass is the journeywork of the stars.”
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