Death To Lawns?

The perfect home lawn has been the illusive goal of many, and rarely achieved for any length of time by most. You see, new lawns have what is known as a “honeymoon period,” which could be compared to the “7 year itch,” since that’s about how long it takes for most new lawns to begin having problems.

The demise of many lawns is from years of over aggressive nitrogen fertilization that builds up a thick “thatch” layer. This layer not only serves as a great thatched roof for destructive insects, like C- shaped white grubs, but it also serves as an artificial layer for turfgrass to root too shallow, instead of those roots reaching deeper down into the soil.

Thatch isn’t all bad, as long it’s not over 0.25 to 0.5 inch (0.64 cm to 1.27 cm) thick. Most of the truly problem lawns I saw in all my years of landscaping had thatch layers approaching 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick. At that stage, it was often necessary to use a sod cutter to renovate the lawn by completely removing it; grass, thatch and all. One or two annual core aerations (see the photo above) would help keep homeowners out of that costly and unpleasant situation, while improving lawn health in the meantime.

But getting back to the title of my blog, “Death to Lawns?” we’re taking a look at them through an entirely different prism, as they relate to scarcer water resources, as well as chemical, fertilizer and air pollution. I read another blog and watched a video this morning titled, “Why Lawns Must Die” that got me thinking more about lawns.

The video points out that home lawns are a carryover from Colonialism, something we never thought anything about as we sweated and toiled to maintain or improve one! But as that videographer points out, home lawns are the largest crop by area, covering 40 million acres (62,500 square miles, or 16,187,440 hectares) which is about 40 percent more than the land area of Pennsylvania. Take that corn! And Soybeans!!

Lawns are BIG “Consumers!”
According to that video, lawns in the United States use 9 billion gallons of water per year, as well as 78 million pounds of pesticides, and 90 million pounds of fertilizer. You can “pick your poison” when it comes to those sorts of jaw dropping statistics! My previous blog, “Nonfunctional Grass” covered the growing water shortage problem, as it relates to turfgrass areas, and the steps being taken to reduce consumption of precious resources.

The Chesapeake Bay comes to mind when we talk about all the issues related to nutrient run- off and pollution, bringing to mind “dead zones.” Those Bay problems aren’t solely related to home lawn and farm fertilizers, but they play a big role. When we applied granular fertilizer to a new lawn we were seeding, we made sure to use a leaf blower or broom to put stray fertilizer granules back where they belong, on the lawn.

In the meantime, I’m constantly seeing home lawns that have been recently fertilized, where the fertilizer granules are scattered all over streets and sidewalks, increasing their likelihood of quick entry into storm drains and waterways. That skipped step not only signals a lazy, messy job, but it also adversely affects our streams, rivers and lakes. And some of these applicators call themselves “professionals?Hardly!

Overuse of Lawn Pesticides.
I knew it was a big number, but that statistic of 78 million pounds of pesticides in the video, even grabbed my attention! Grub control pesticides have long been an expensive add- on option, as part of the annual lawn fertilization programs offered by lawn care companies. I’ll never forget attending a lawn care conference a couple decades ago, when information was presented on a ‘grubicide‘ (is that even a word?) that was actually being used as a food source of lawn grubs! LOL! Insects evolve so quickly, that it’s easy for them to play catch- up fast.

The Bottom Line.
Yes, the “bottom line” indeed. Most commercial lawn care programs, in my humble opinion, are more designed for regular cash flow, than they are for lawn health. I’m reminded of this each and every year, when I see burned- out lawns being fertilized with quick release chemical fertilizers that are typically high in nitrogen. That’s right, the primary nutrient that pushes new growth, on a lawn that is dormant, and suffering through summer heat and drought. Most chemical fertilizers also have a high salt content, so there again, timing is geared mostly to the pocketbook, not the playbook!

The Rites of Spring.
My turfgrass science professor at Penn State often told our class that home lawns shouldn’t be fertilized until the first week of June. Say what? His contention was that winter snows, high in nitrogen content, already had lawns amped- up for strong Spring growth, and that pushing them further with high nitrogen fertilizer, to grow even faster, only led to problems with lawn diseases (and of course more mowing). That being said, crabgrass controls have to be in place, and watered- in, before the bright yellow Forsythia blossoms drop. Of course if crabgrass hasn’t been a past problem, is it really needed, or just plain excessive?

The Organic Movement and I.P.M.
It’s not just foods, but also lawn care products that are now more in vogue with everyday citizens. Integrated Pest Management (I.P.M.) is another ecological wave that may finally be sinking- in with people, since its tenets lead to better controlled and less extensive pesticide use. The basic tenet is that, “not quite perfect” is acceptable and fine. In other words, tolerate a little insect damage to lawns and plants to prevent excesses, and if you do apply a pesticide, take steps to ensure you are treating the right pest at the right time. And of course, “Read and follow label instructions.” That means don’t double the rate, thinking something will work better. Those labels are there to help you!

Work with the Seasons.
If you can wait to plant or improve a lawn in Pennsylvania until September, you’ll be working with the Seasons instead of against them. Seeding a lawn during “Lawn Month” works far better than trying to keep a new one irrigated in 90- degree heat. Timing is everything!

Changing attitudes (and laws).
Some towns and municipalities have ordinances requiring lawns to be kept mowed below a 6 inch (15 centimeter) height. While the purpose and intent of those sorts or ordinances are easy to understand, we’ve reached a point where many need to be re-examined so they allow for more natural environments, free of fertilizers, pesticides and weekly mowing. As the video summarized, there are at least 3 alternatives:

  • Xeriscaping with ornamental stone
  • Front yard vegetable gardens
  • Plantings of native perennials