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Notes From the Garden: Take It Easy When Taking Care of the Lawn

I love lawns. Not big lawns, and they don’t need to be pure Kentucky bluegrass, either. I love a little bit of mowed green that has some grass and clover; it can have a few dandelions or bluets or violets, too. I can live with Creeping Charlie (also called ground ivy or by its scientific name, Glechoma hederacea). Overall my philosophy is this: If it’s green and you can mow it, it’s a lawn. Only thistles and other sharp things need to be dug out, but never nuked with chemicals.

Despite that philosophy, people often remark on how lush and thick my lawn is, and how nice it feels underfoot. Having a nice lawn is easy if you follow a few simple rules.

First, stop worrying about it. And certainly never add any chemicals to it. Weed-’n’-feed formulas not only kill off the broad-leafed plants like dandelions, they also diminish the biological activity in the soil. I want a healthy soil full of microbes (including bacteria and fungi) and know that many microbes are killed or adversely affected by chemicals.

Chemical fertilizers are made of salts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. These have the ability to dry out and kill microbes. And of course, if your product includes chemicals for killing moss, weeds, fungi or insects, all those chemicals add to the killing power. Your soil cringes when you load up the spreader with weed-’n’-feed.

If you want to have a good healthy lawn, you need good healthy soil. It needs about 6 inches of reasonably good soil that drains well (so as not to drown the lawn grasses), but is not so sandy that it dries out in an afternoon. Cut and peel back a one-foot square piece of sod after a rainstorm, and look at the soil. Grab a handful of soil. Does it form a cylinder in your hand when you squeeze it, and hold its shape when you open your fingers? If so, you have clay, or a clay-based soil.

If you perform the squeeze test on sandy soil, it will crumble apart when you open your fingers. When you rub the soil between your fingers, you will feel sharp grains of sand. But if you have a nice loam, the soil with be dark and the cylinder will fall apart if you touch it with a finger.

If you are not happy with your lawn, I suggest getting your soil tested. The Extension Service in most states will have online instructions on how to take a soil sample, and where to send it. Some garden centers have kits for sale. Find out what kind of soil you have, what it needs, and if your soil pH is in the right zone.

Soil pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline your soil is. Lawns do best when the soil pH is near neutral (which is 7.0) or slightly acidic. Our rain is acidic, and neglected soils — including most lawns — have soil that is pretty acidic. You can fix this easily by adding limestone to the lawn, and a pH test will tell you how much to add to balance it out. If your soil is too far from neutral, some soil minerals will become unavailable to the grass plants, even if the minerals are there. You can add limestone at any time, though most lawn experts recommend the fall so that it will have time to do its work before spring growth begins.

The other additive that helps an anemic lawn is compost or organic matter. Good crumbly compost can be flung around the lawn with a shovel and then raked out to provide even coverage. Doing that now would help. Earthworms in a healthy lawn will be more than willing to eat that compost and then excrete the nutritious ingredients into the soil.

Earthworms, fungi and bacteria also will help you improve your lawn by breaking down your grass clippings. Those clippings will add organic matter and enrich your soil. So cut your lawn regularly, avoiding a thick layer of clippings that needs to be bagged or raked.

Lawn height is critical for a good, easy-care lawn. Get out of the golf course mindset. This is a lawn, not a putting green! I set my mower, generally, one notch down from the highest setting. Right by the front door I keep it a little shorter at times.

Why keep your lawn long? Your lawn is made of millions of plants, and each one can create a healthy root system only if you let it have enough blade to create its own food by photosynthesis. Too short? The roots will be stunted, and the lawn will not be healthy. And the taller the grass, the more it can shade out annual weeds and crabgrass.

Think about it: If there were daffodils that we could mow down only to have them bloom again, we would pay big bucks for them. But call those yellow flowers dandelions, and it’s war. I hope you’ll rethink your position about lawn chemicals if you’re in the weed-’n’-feed school. Diversity of plant types in the lawn helps to create a lush, lovely green space.