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Don't give up your lawn—make it an environmental asset

June 9, 2011

Bob Mugaas' 7 tips to make turf care green and easy

Mowing grass A lawn provides a place to play, exercise, or while away the hours on a perfect summer day. Thick, green turfgrass beautifies a home. But taking lawn care to extremes isn't good for the ecosystem. Overdoing the chemicals and water isn't even good for the lawn.

University of Minnesota Extension turfgrass specialist Bob Mugaas teaches "low-input lawn care," which takes less time and chemical inputs. He said, "Planned and cared for properly, a lawn is actually an environmental asset. Turfgrass prevents erosion, controls dust and cools land surfaces." A thin, neglected lawn increases potential soil erosion because most weed roots don't hold the soil as well as grass roots.

Mugaas likes to say that healthy lawns are built from the ground up, but that doesn't mean you need to start over. Here are Mugaas' top tips, based on U of M research, to reduce inputs while preserving a healthy lawn:

  1. Begin with a soil test. Take five random samples of your soil, 3-6 inches deep, equaling about a pint of soil. Send it to the University of Minnesota Soil Testing Lab (follow directions for submitting). You'll get an analysis within days and fertilizer recommendations tailor-made for your site.
  2. Aerate to give grass roots some breathing room. Compacted soil promotes shallower roots, resulting in greater plant stress, disease, and weed invasion. Rent an aerator that removes plugs of soil about 2 or 3 inches deep. Make two to three passes and leave the plugs on the lawn.
  3. Overseed bare areas in your lawn. Use stress- and pest-resistant species and cultivars that suit your soil and sun/shade. Find out which cultivars are easy to maintain on the University's Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series (SULIS) grass selection chapter.
    Watch Bob Mugaas demonstrate overseeding in this YouTube video.
  4. Mow high, regularly, and leave the clippings. Your lawn is made up of thousands of little grass plants. When you let it get long, then shear off most of the length, you severely penalize each plant by removing much of its food-producing capacity and increasing plant stress. A good rule of thumb is to remove no more than about one-third of the grass height at each mowing. A regular mowing height of 2.5 to 3 inches is well-suited to most Minnesota lawns. Visit the SULIS mowing chapter for more information.

    There's no need to bag the clippings as they will provide the equivalent of about one fertilizer application annually and do not contribute to increased thatch (brown, fibrous-mat layer between growing grass and the soil) build-up.

  5. Go easy on the fertilizer, and time it right. With clippings left on the lawn, a once-annual fertilizer application around Labor Day may be all that's needed on a well adapted lower maintenance lawn. Apply just the amount and types of fertilizer that your lawn needs, such as nitrogen and potassium, and never apply on frozen ground or into lakes. Minnesota law prohibits the addition of phosphorus to established lawns unless a soil test prescribes it. Here is more information about preventing pollution problems from lawn and garden fertilizers.
  6. Vary watering practices during the growing season. During spring and fall dry periods water deeply but less frequently (an inch of water). During the summer months, water more frequently, but not as deeply. Always avoid overwatering. For more watering information, visit the SULIS watering chapter.
  7. Combat weeds with healthy grass instead of chemicals. The most effective weed management focuses on minimizing weed invasion by maintaining a healthy, dense lawn. If you have weeds that you need to control, you must first identify them. Visit Extension's "Is This Plant a Weed?" diagnostic tool for help with identification and control options.

For more information, visit the Lawns page of Extension's Garden website.

Native plants add punch to low-input landscapes

One way to vary your landscape and reduce the need for chemical inputs is to start a native-plant garden. Many natives, like brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), are easy to grow in a wide range of conditions.

University of Minnesota Extension horticulturist Mary Meyer said, "A native garden (also called a prairie garden) can be a rich but informal collection of ever-changing colors and textures. However, informality does not mean neglect. Keeping undesirable weeds out requires care." Let it go too much, and the weeds can choke out the desirable plants.

Some stages of your native garden may look unkempt to your neighbors. You can keep a nicely maintained plot of turfgrass for play and exercise, as well as to balance out the more natural areas.

If you choose to forego the turf altogether, you may want to tell your neighbors about your goals (such as creating butterfly habitats and food for honeybees) and ask for patience. Meyer said, "Remembering a few 'elements of care' can make a natural landscape acceptable. Consider decorative fencing around wildflower plantings, paths, signs, benches, and birdhouses. All of these show that the natural landscape is planned and meant-to-be."

For more information, visit Extension's Garden website, and read Common Questions about Wildflowers and Native Plants.

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