Much noise has been made about the ‘great Canadian Lawn’ over the last few years, mostly negative stuff. I am exposed to this conspiracy against the lawn whenever I travel across the country and meet gardeners face to face. Most questions [and I do get a lot of questions!] that I hear are in reference to the lawn as we know it, in a world devoid of chemicals to achieve the dream of a great looking lawn. You will recall that the Ontario government banned the majority of chemicals for use on lawns and gardens last year.
This reveals two truths:
- The average Canadians that loved their lawn a few years ago are still in love with it (or the idea of it, anyway).
- Many people are at a loss as to how to produce a nice green lawn in the absence of synthetic ‘problem solvers’.
I am here to acknowledge the former and provide answers to the latter.
First, let’s get one thing straight.
A lawn is not an environmental disaster any more than a potato is a health risk. It is what we choose to do with it that makes it bad or good, not the thing itself.
What is a lawn?
A living carpet. It is a mass of intertwined and interdependent oxygen producing, moisture retaining, and atmosphere cooling plants. About 9,000 thousand plants per square meter. A lawn is the most sophisticated ground cover known to human kind.
And yes, I am a fan of the lawn.
How can you produce a great looking lawn while being environmentally responsible?
Here is how:
- Rake off the winter debris. Use a leaf or ‘fan’ rake to do this and do not put yourself or your back out. All you are trying to do is remove the loose stuff that remains from winter and get the grass blades to stand on end, allowing air to circulate through the crowns of the grass plants. The circulating air will discourage disease and breathe new life into the winter-tired plants.
- Aerate if necessary, but it is not always necessary to aerate. It is only helpful to aerate your lawn if there are patches that receive heavy foot traffic. Or if you grow your lawn on heavy clay with a shallow layer of top soil for grass plants to root in.
- Fertilize. Apply a good quality lawn fertilizer this time of year that is high in nitrogen (your lawn craves nitrogen more than any other element right now). Choose a fertilizer that contains a reliable slow release nitrogen ingredient. I use Golfgreen but other quality fertilizers also work well: look for brands that you trust. And forget about using ‘weed and feed’ or crabgrass control products in Ontario as all of them have been legislated off of the market. (I provide alternatives later… read on.)
- White powdery mildew? This is snow mold and there never was a need to spray for it – just rake your lawn as per step #1 and Mother Nature will take care of it as temperatures rise and breezes blow.
The two big ‘environmentally evil’ culprits of lawn care are watering and grass cutting. More precisely ‘over watering’ and cutting your lawn with dirty, 2 cycle lawn mowers or an old 4 cycle.
- Watering. In my opinion it is o.k. to water your lawn from time to time in an effort to keep it healthy – a healthy lawn after all will produce more oxygen and other ‘environmental’ benefits than a weak one.
- Only water once a week.
- Only water when the soil at the root zone is dry (which will not likely happen until late May or early June).
- Apply about 3 cm of water at a time (average 2 to 3 hours) to drive the water deep into the soil and to encourage grass roots to go deep in search of that moisture. Remember: the deeper the roots the stronger your lawn and the more drought resistant.
- When in a drought situation (which will not occur until summer, if at all), do not water your lawn at all. (Yes, it will grow brown and dormant but it will come back later in the season when rains arrive and evening temperatures cool down.)
- Grass cutting. The obvious answer to this one is to get yourself a manual, walk behind reel-type mower and enjoy the quiet and exercise of the thing. My retail sources tell me that sales of these mowers have skyrocketed over recent years. This is a practical answer for the urban gardener with sincere environmental ambitions and a desire to get a workout will grass cutting.
If the idea of a reel-type mower does not suit you consider:
- Getting rid of your old gas mower (if more than 10years old) and replace with a cleaner burning 4 cycle (pure gas/no oil mixing) Honda or MTD, the two machines rated highest for clean burning fuel.
- Replacing your current mower with an electric OR better still buy a new mower with a rechargeable battery. These machines just keep getting better and with the introduction of rechargeable NiCad batteries, they are better than ever.
- Use a mulching mower: it will return the grass clippings to the soil, where they belong. Mulching mowers DO NOT contribute to lawn thatch, which is made up solely of dead grass stolons and dead grass plants.
- Cut high. Raise your mower up to 6 or 8 cm (2 ½ to 3 inches). The City of Toronto has spent a lot of money over recent years telling us this for good reason: longer grass blades produce deeper roots, healthier grass plants and they shade out many lawn weeds.
Keep your knees dirty!