Garden Guide '09: The Green, Green Grass of Home
By Katie Lamar Jackson
Looking for a low-input, sustainable, environmentally friendly way to care for your lawn? You can try goats—they'll keep the lawn trimmed and provide fertilizer at the same time—but they may not be ideal for many settings. If you want to have your lawn and sustainability, too, there are some reasonable non-goat options.
Mowing is a major drain on time and resources, but also is vital for a healthy lawn. Proper mowing practices help turf-grasses develop a dense stand, which, in turn, keeps down weeds and keeps in moisture.
One major problem with mowing is that, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, lawn mowers are big polluters. The average gas-powered lawn mower produces as much pollution per hour as 11 automobiles. You can reduce the pollution factor by changing mower types. Options include propane, solar and electric lawn mowers and, the old standby, manual reel mowers.
If you grew up pushing a reel mower around, don't automatically dismiss this option. Today's reel mowers are lighter and have more cutting power than the ones from your childhood, plus they are almost maintenance free so there is little additional cost once they are purchased (they normally cost $80 to $150). What's more, you can use lawn mowing as a fitness program. However, even modern-day reel mowers are difficult to push on steep or bumpy yards, and they may require more physical strength or energy than you possess.
Electric mowers are also low-maintenance and emission-free alternatives to gas-powered mowers. The drawback to these is that they can be expensive (often costing between $200 and $500), and their usefulness is limited by the length of their cord (cords should be as much as 100 yards in length). A rechargeable cordless model can remedy that problem, though the battery life of a cordless model tends to be about 90 minutes.
Solar-powered mowers sound absolutely ideal, and do possess many fine qualities, but they are rather pricey. Some cost more than $700.
Cutting height, fertilizing and types of grass
Once you have figured out how you're going to cut your grass, keep in mind the importance of cutting height. Turf-grasses each have ideal cutting heights that are individual to their variety, recommendations for which are available from turf producers and your local Extension office or other landscape professional. Find out the proper height for your type of grass and stick to that height each time you mow. Try to mow often enough so that you are never removing more than one-third of the turf-grass height at any one time. This will keep the lawn healthy and also reduce the volume of grass clippings on your lawn.
Proper fertilization is yet another component of sustainable lawn care. Test your soil to see what nutrients it needs before you apply any fertilizer, use only the amount of fertilizer called for—too much costs you money and may damage the environment; too little will not optimize your lawn's potential. Slow-release fertilizers also tend to be less harmful to the environment, and will not send your grass into a growth surge.
Finally, think about the type of grass you have in your lawn and if it is really well suited for your environment and management situation. New turf-grass varieties and cultivars are constantly being released that may prove to be better options than what is in your yard now. Also, think about something besides traditional turf-grass for at least part of your lawn area. Other options include ornamental grasses, clovers, wildflowers and mosses and other groundcovers.