Living Green 365: Lawn Care

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Living Green 365
Dear Living Green 365 readers,
The leaves are emerging and grass is green. Lawn and garden care is now at the top of everyone's to-do list. How can we take care of them in ways that protect and enhance the health of our water and air? Here are simple things you can do that make a difference. Read on for practical tips and to learn more.

Summer lawn care

From watering and mowing to applying fertilizers and pesticides, our lawns can have a big impact on Minnesota’s water and air quality. Healthy lawns require fewer chemical applications, hold the soil in place, and withstand drought better than unhealthy lawns. Here are the top things you can do to keep your lawn happy this summer:

Reduce the need for pesticides. Pesticides--including herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides--can be poisonous and pose a danger to animals and people, especially children and pets. Weeds often grow where grass is thin and weak. The best control of these plants is to figure out why the area is stressed or disturbed and fix the underlying cause.

Test your soil. Find out what kind of fertilizer, if any, your soil needs. Fertilizing can reduce the need for other chemicals and reduce soil erosion. Soil tests can be ordered through the University of Minnesota Soil Testing Laboratory. Your soil results will tell you which fertilizer you need, how much to apply, and how frequently to use it. Late summer through early fall is the best time of year to fertilize.

Leave the grass longer. Mow your grass to a height of 3 inches. By keeping your grass a little longer, the roots grow deeper and can reach more water during dry periods. Longer grass also helps shade the soil surface, making it harder for weeds to get established.

Leave your grass clippings on the lawn. Grass clippings can provide the equivalent of about one application of fertilizer per year. However, be sure to sweep up your sidewalk, driveway, or street so clippings don’t pollute nearby lakes or streams.

Switch to push or electric. Two-cycle gas lawn mowers, especially older models, produce large amounts of air pollution. Make the switch to an easy-to-start cordless electric mower. By plugging in instead of gassing up, you consume 72% less energy overall and 64% less carbon dioxide. Push mowers, also called reel mowers, work well too. Both types of mowers can be found at many local retailers.

Wait before you water. In Minnesota, most grass can survive without watering, although it may enter a dormant “brown” stage during the summer. Water only be when it hasn’t rained for at least 7 days. You don't need to water on a routine basis. To get the most water to the plant and reduce evaporation:
  • Water early in the morning. Grass blades need to dry out to minimize disease.
  • Water close to the ground.  
  • Water slowly, deeply, and less frequently. Root growth is influenced by water depth and time of the year. Frequent shallow watering that keeps surface soils wet encourages shallow root growth, greater proneness to certain diseases, and reduced stress tolerance.
  • Only water grass. Make sure water is not lost by landing on or running off the grass onto hard, impervious surfaces.
Aerate grass if the soil is compacted. Aeration lets water soak in and increases air in the soil. Deeper, stronger roots, combined with increased soil water-holding capacity will decrease the need for frequent watering. Core aeration is the best method, and autumn is the best time to aerate. Hardware and equipment-rental stores rent aerators, or you can hire a professional.

Grow native plants. Turf grass is not native to Minnesota and requires more care and attention than native plants. If you do not use your lawn regularly, or have areas where grass does not grow well, consider native plants that do not require fertilizer or watering. Resources and plant lists are available through Blue Thumb.

Use a certified company. If you hire an individual or company to care for your lawn, look for the providers who have taken the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's certification--Summer Turf Care Best Practices. Here's a list of Summer Turf Maintenance Training Certificate Holders.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers short videos on the above topics on their lawn care web page.