Share The Wealth by Chris Gupta
June 13, 2006

Pesticide-free Lawn Care

Now that we have won a long hard fight to lessen exposure to cosmetic pesticides in London Ontario, here is a timely article to help us all in looking at more ecologically saner, effective and certainly healthier approaches...

Chris Gupta

Harry Jongerden* 23/02/2006

Here are a few tips to help you maintain your lawn this spring and at any time of year:

1) Improve soil. Your lawn is a garden, and the health and success of any garden depends on its soil. Most soil around homes is compacted and exhausted. Around newer homes (1950s onwards), there's generally a worse compaction problem because of subsoil brought to the surface by excavation and because of continuous driving over the yard by heavy machinery. After moving in, your constant walking or driving over an area of the lawn will also compact the soil. Soil becomes further exhausted by certain types of trees with shallow roots, e.g. Silver Maple, Red Maple, and Norway Maple.

Aerate your lawn at least once a year. If only once, then do it in the spring, but if you can do it a second time, early fall is good. An aerator relieves compaction and gets air down to plant roots. Aeration should be done after a good rain which softens the ground. The bigger the aerator the better the job it will do. Share the rental of an aerator with neighbours and the cost will be minimized.

In smaller areas you can aerate and relieve compaction with a digging fork, the type with 4 wide tines. Stick it in the ground 4" or so and rock the handle a bit, causing the ground to heave slightly. Move the fork and repeat 3 - 4" away. Move it and repeat in a methodical way until the whole area is done.

Plant lawn-friendly species of trees - Sugar maple or Black maple instead of Norway, Silver or Red Maples. (There are many more good ones.) The 3 lawn-killing maples also rob moisture from anything else you try planting under them. It's no shame to give up and put a patio under a shade tree that is killing your grass.

2) Get a thicker lawn growing. (This crowds out weeds.) Sparse lawns invite hardier weeds to take over.

Overseed with grass seed at the right time of year. This involves working grass seed into your existing grass. First, aerate the area well. Then spread a very thin layer (1/2") of Triple Mix topsoil amongst the existing grass (after you've aerated) so that your existing grass is still showing. Use the correct type of seed for your conditions (more on this later). Cast it generously over the area and lightly rake it in with a fan rake, then roll or lightly tamp it down. Do this in spring or early fall and don't let the hot sun dry things out. You can protect against drying out by spreading a temporary thin layer of straw over the seeded area (useful for spring seeding, not so necessary in fall), though the straw must be removed immediately after germination. Keep it watered before and after germination.

3) Use the right seed for your situation. Some companies often sell only a general seed mix. If you have poor-looking grass in shade, or half-dead grass during drought, it may be due to selecting the wrong seed.

Overseed with specialty mixtures of grass seed. For shade you need a mix with 50% Creeping Red Fescue and/or Chewings Fescue. Both would be preferable to only one. For sunny areas which suffer in drought, and which you are unable or unwilling to water, use at least 50% Turf-type Perennial Rye in your seed mix. It's very drought-tolerant, can turn brown in the summer, and bounces back when it rains.
Kentucky Bluegrass can't withstand drought. Too many stores want to sell you this seed, probably because it's the only one we know and it sounds nice. It's alright as part of a mixture of different grasses in your lawn, but be prepared to work harder at maintaining a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn. You're better off insisting on more appropriate seed mixtures.

4) Water properly. If your grass isn't surviving drought you need to change to a different drought-tolerant grass, or water more. Half-dead grass or weak grass is likely to show signs of grub infestation and damage.

Water. Two heavier waterings per week are better than frequent light watering. Light watering leads to shallow roots, which will lead to more drought damage. 1" per watering is good. Put out a broad pan to catch your sprinkler's "rain". Then you'll know how long it takes to rain an inch from your equipment.

5) Cut your lawn at the right height. If your grass suffers during summer heat and drought, you may be cutting it too short, or too often. Grass that's half-dead and wilty doesn't like being cut short. It dries out even more when cut short and the 'crown', from which new blades shoot out, is often damaged.

Cut less often. A cutting height of 2 1/2", or more, is an excellent height for summer. (You can get away with the scalping in wet, cooler conditions, but it's still better to cut higher then.) And definitely leave your clippings on the lawn! Free fertilizer. There is no need to cut your lawn shorter in the fall, or as a last cut, but don't leave it too long as winter approaches either. Long grass is more inviting to rodents and moulds.

6) Use good fertilizer at the right time. Your grass is looking anemic? You think you can green it up with fertilizer? Be very careful. Fertilizer at the wrong time will do more harm than good. Grass that wants to go dormant in the summer heat does not want a stimulus.

Fertilize in spring (late April, earlier or later by a week or so if it's a warm or cold spring). Fertilize again in fall (early October, or a little later if the weather's warm). The important thing with fall fertilization is timing. Fertilize when it's too warm and you get lush top growth on your grass. That may sound good but it's better to fertilize when daytime temperatures are hitting 10 degrees C and night temps. are down to around 2 degrees C. When scientists discovered that fall fertilization, done properly, went directly to the roots, it revolutionized the lawn care industry. However, many people are still doing it incorrectly.

Avoid high nitrogen fertilizer, especially in the fall, unless you are using sulphur-coated fertilizer. You may want to consider switching to the healthier, more natural fertilizers that are available. In standard chemical fertilizers, the nitrogen usually comes from Urea Formaldehyde. It artificially boosts grass growth and does nothing for the soil.

There are fertilizers which use animal by-products such as bone meal, blood meal, poultry meal and fish meal. These fertilizers increase your soil's natural microbial activity. Your grass won't come shooting out of the ground as fast, but it shouldn't be doing that anyway. Build up your soil's health the only way it can be done, naturally. Within a year you will see less mould and fungal damage to your grass. The healthier grass will be better able to withstand grub attacks.

7) Handling grubs. If you're doing everything right, this pest problem is less likely to occur. However…

The chemical insecticides that kill grubs are potentially harmful to you. The grubs' natural predator, a microscopic nematode, can handle them just as effectively. They're available commercially and must be applied to a lawn in the spring or fall when soil temperatures are hitting 15 degrees C.

8) And finally. Know when to give up. If you don't like all the work these methods involve, put in something other than a lawn. Or convert your worst areas to something else. Patios, pathways, ground covers - they're all very attractive too. Weeds can be tackled by hand at any time. You'll see more clover in a lawn that isn't sprayed, but this is a good thing! Clover produces nitrogen that, in turn, feeds your turf grass. A very healthy combination!

*Harry Jongerden, Head Gardener at Hamilton's world-famous Royal Botanical Gardens, presents "My Garden Doesn't Need a Magic Bullet" at the An Evening of Wine and Seeds


posted by Chris Gupta on Tuesday June 13 2006

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Do any of you use a Robotic lawn mower?

Posted by: Ames Tiedeman on June 25, 2006 10:14 PM


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