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Gardening With Nature: Frequently Asked Questions About Your Lawn
Gardening With Nature's Carl Salsedo answers your questions on how to best care for your lawn...
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1. Why are lawns so popular in the United States?

Our attraction to green grass is very visceral - it's pleasant to look at. It also sets off other plantings nicely. Most lawns are responsible for containing erosion. They also serve to help noise abatement and they act as a carbon dioxide sink. The lawn, as we know it, is a relatively new phenomenon. Wealthy landowners in the late 1700s to the 1800s had lawns that were largely pastures. Lawns became more as we use them today only until after the civil war. The Public Park movement championed by Frederick Law Olmstead used open expanses of lawns in the mid-nineteenth century. Eventually, baseball fields and golf courses began to use lawns as focal points. With the birth of the suburbs after 1946, the lawn industry flourished. Lawn chemical industries help to foster this growth. Today, conventional lawn care uses a lot of resources in the form of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that have been linked to non-point source pollution, as well as other environmental degradation.

2. What is the greatest source of contaminants to Connecticut groundwater supplies?

Our groundwater is mostly contaminated by non-point source pollution. This means the pollution is coming from many different sources, such as individual homes and human activities. This type of pollution is difficult to control. Common sources of pollutants include excessive or improper use of fertilizers and pesticides on lawns and gardens, dysfunctional septic systems, automotive fluids and pet wastes. Learning to reduce or eliminate fertilizer and pesticides while having a beautiful lawn is can be easily achieved. By following some basic rules, you can have a significant impact on the quality of our water.

3. What is the first step to improving the way I care for my lawn?

Studies have found that American homeowners use ten times more chemical fertilizers that farmers use on agricultural land (including golf courses). There are better management techniques that save time and money, and protect the integrity of our water while still producing a beautiful lawn. To reduce your chemical dependence, begin by using native plants in your landscape, and low-input tuft alternatives such as the fescues.

4. What are some low input-tuft alternatives that can be used in Connecticut?

Before I suggest some grass species, remember that by reducing fertilizer, pesticides and watering needs, you've taken the first step toward landscape sustainability in your yard. By planting grass species that have adapted to your local conditions you are beginning to work with your environment in a greener way. Lower-maintenance grasses suitable for Connecticut growing conditions include the turf-type tall fescues, dwarf tall fescues, and the fine-leaf fescues (Creeping Red, Chewing, Sheep and Hard).Tuft-type and dwarf tall fescues are also good alternatives for high traffic, lower maintenance recreation areas. According to our extension turf specialist Dr. Karl Guillard, these grasses provide good persistence and quality, with less fertilizer, water and pesticides than Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass.

5. Where can I buy alternative grass species?

The improved turf-type all fescue, dwarf tall fescues, and fine leaf fescues are available through grass seed suppliers including garden centers and suppliers to the landscape trade.

6. Is it important to test the soil before I start any lawn work?

Yes. Sustainable nutrient management of turf grass should begin with a soil test. Soil test results will determine the acidity of the soil and how to adjust its Ph level for optimal turf growth. If nutrients are required, a recommendation will indicate how much fertilizer should be applied. This reduces the potential for applying excessive fertilizer and loss from leaching or runoff. Nitrogen is most important nutrient to grass - color, density, and growth of grasses are greatly affected by its availability. Soil tests are obtainable from the University of Connecticut Soil Testing Lab, University of Connecticut's Home and Garden Center or any of the Cooperative Extension offices located in all eight state counties (See Gardening With Nature Links for contact information).

7. When is the best time to seed a lawn or renovate a lawn?

Mid-August to mid-September is the best time to seed or re-seed your lawn. Most landscapers I know recommend skipping spring lawn care all together. In the fall, no crabgrass or broad-leaf weed control is necessary, and the cooler nights and morning dew help lawns stay moist. Spot seeding or total lawn renovation requiring the use of an over seeder is also best in the fall. Working more closely with prevailing environmental conditions is the cornerstone of landscape sustainability.

8. How do I convert an existing lawn to a sustainable turf species?

You can change your lawn to a low maintenance fescue based turf without ripping up the old one. This is accomplished by over-seeding with a new grass species. Newer varieties of fescues are tougher, more vigorous, better-looking, drought tolerant, disease and insect resistant. Before seeding, mow the existing lawn as low as possible. Remove the weeds and ground clippings and compost them if possible. For small areas less than 1000 square feet, rake the lawn thoroughly to remove loose grass and rough up the soil. Sow one-and-a-half times the amount of seed recommended on the seed package by hand or with a drop spreader. Lightly rake the seeded area, and keep it moist with regular watering. For larger areas, you can rent an over-seeder that slices through the grass and soil to drop grass seed into slices in the soil. Over-seed in two directions, preferably on a diamond pattern.

9. How often should I fertilize my lawn?

There is a tendency to over-fertilize grass with nitrogen, especially if clippings are returned to the turf. For most established lawns with clipping returned, two pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet per year may be sufficient. Under this method, one pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet is applied in late spring, and one pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet in the fall before October 15. With low-maintenance grasses, one pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet per year may be sufficient if clippings are returned.

10. What is the best way to mow?

Mowing efficiently is a good way to maintain your lawn. Leave three inches in height each time you mow. This height reduces evaporation of water, invasion of weeds, increases the depth of root growth, and helps the plant produce and store sufficient food reserves for future growth. When mowing the lawn, remove about one third of the grass blade with each cut. Leave the grass-clippings on the lawn after each cutting. This returns nutrients to the soil for succeeding uptake by the grass plant.

11. Will grass clippings benefit my lawn?

Research has demonstrated that leaving grass clippings on the lawn can reduce nitrogen fertilizer needs by 50 percent. Grass clippings contain about 4 percent nitrogen by dry weight. When grass clippings are removed, nitrogen recently applied as fertilizer is also removed. Many research studies demonstrate that leaving clippings on the lawn will not contribute or create thatch. During the rapid growth period in May, it is often difficult to mow frequently to make the clippings disappear back into the lawn. Possible solutions include reducing the growth of the lawn by holding off on spring fertilization until mid to late May. Also consider using a mulching mower, which seemingly makes the clippings disappear.

12. Are there any watering tips I should know about?

To avoid watering, choose grass species that require less water during the growing season. The turf type tall fescues, dwarf tall fescues and the fine leaf fescues (Creeping Red, Chewing's, Sheep and Hard) are good choices for persistence and quality. Typically, a Connecticut lawn requires one inch of water per week during the growing season. Avoid watering during hot, windy parts of the day. Water accordingly to weekly rainfall amounts and steer clear of irrigating paved surfaces, roads and driveways.

13. What are some alternatives to a grass lawn?

Good alternatives to the traditional lawns are the improved turf type tall fescues. Another good choice is the use of clover. Clover grows quickly and easily, chokes out weeds and is a soil conditioner. Clover is a nitrogen fixing plant, which has nitrogen-forming nodules on its roots, which adds nitrogen to the soil. This in turn enriches the soil as a natural fertilizer. Clover is low maintenance and needs no watering and less mowing. It requires no fertilizer, and stays green even during dry periods. White sweet clover (Melitous alba) occurs naturally in lawns. A better choice for lawn clover is Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens), which is best suited for lawn type use. Dutch White Clover is a perennial and grows to a height of 4-8 inches. It is relatively low growing, low maintenance, needs no watering and little mowing, requires no fertilizer, stays green even in dry weather, is inexpensive (cost about $4.00 to cover 4000 sq. feet of turf area), is easy to walk on or play on, although not as durable as grass, and tolerates dog urine.

14. What are some good strategies to decrease lawn area?

Depending on your landscape, your lawn may not be the best choice. Consider alternatives for the lawn. Using ground covers instead of turf in certain areas such as steep slopes, dry areas and shady sites like under large trees will reduce maintenance. Reduced turf areas will reduce the need for lawn maintenance such as mowing, raking, fertilizing and watering. The borders of your property can be left more natural with native trees and shrubs as buffer zones for privacy and as a means to recycle the leaves in the fall. In these areas, the natural progression of falling leaves provides a natural mulch to conserve water and reduce maintenance.

15. Beside clover, what are some alternatives to lawns, suitable for Connecticut?

In some situations grass can be a maintenance problem. Difficult areas such as steep slopes and erodible areas, shady areas, wet areas or extremely dry areas. Some alternatives to consider in replacing a lawn or reducing its size include:

- The use of groundcovers that are plants which spread across the ground and require little maintenance. Their purpose is to spread and choke out other undesired plants. They act to enhance the soil by acting as a mulch of sorts that require little care and provide a means to cover the soil. Traditional ones that are common in Connecticut include exotic plants such as vinca or pachysandra. These useful landscape plants perform in sun or shade. A shift to utilizing native plants is occurring. For example Gro Low Sumac is a relatively new low growing shrub that will grow in hot dry sunny locations. Junipers, bear berry, violets and heather are good choices for sunny locations. For shade wild ginger, bunch berry and ferns are good choices. A number of sources are marketing native grasses and sedges that can be used in sun or shade. I've seen a no mow lawn mix offered buy one of these seed houses.

- Moss is becoming another ground cover that is growing in popularity as a low maintenance ground cover. Moss occurs naturally found in nearly any soil where turf is thin and moist. In the past the emphasis was to get rid of the moss but now there is a movement to encourage moss to take over in the areas where turf does not perform well, such as shady areas or in areas dominated by pines or dense woodland. I've seen some very nice lawns composed of mainly of moss and they look great! Additionally they require next to no care or mowing.

- Wildflower mixes or grass meadow provides a low maintenance alternative. The easiest way to create a meadow is to stop mowing and allow regeneration. If you can't wait for this natural process the following is the process in establishing a meadow. The best sites are open and sunny. Meadow plants prefer sunny locations and so do many pollination insects such as butterflies. The next step is to remove the lawn using a sod cutter, covering with plastic, spraying with herbicides or repeadly rototilling the site. Small areas can be planted with containerized perennials. Larger areas can be seeded with a native wildflower meadow mix. Although they can be slow to get established native plants are long lived. During the first year when the plants reach 12-18 inches tall, weed whack the meadow to eight inches tall. This will keep undesirable plants under control. It's a good idea to remove invasive plants and ragweed, chicory, dock and Queen Anne's lace to give the native plants a good start during the fist several years.

- Rain gardens or water gardens can create an interesting addition to any landscape. Water from down spouts are used in these gardens instead of the water going into municipal sewage systems or creating run off problems. An instructive guide, Rain Gardens in Connecticut-A Guide for Homeowners is available from the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System which provides step by step construction.

- Xeriphytic landscapes are used in the arid south west and western states but they can also be used here in Connecticut. In these landscapes drought tolerant plants that require no watering are the emphasis.

- Vegetable garden are a great alternative that produce a desirable end product, as a replacement for lawns. Vegetables require sunny locations and can be aesthetically designed to fit into nearly any landscape. As food prices become a continuing concern growing your own vegetables is a smart choice in reducing food costs as well as contributing to your good health.