Going green with lawn care

When people talk of lawn and yard care, their conversations are often littered with the phrase blow-and-go, a style of maintenance gardening that consists of mowing, weed-eating, blowing around plants scraps, and maybe a sprinkling of chemical fertilizer.

Let's take a look at why the merits of green yard care provide a much more rewarding result compared with a quick-fix, wasteful, and environmentally damaging practices.

Green Yard Care vs. Quick-Fix: The Showdown
Any homeowner can save money and still have a refreshingly beautiful yard to enjoy by utilizing the inexpensive and low-tech organic yard care solutions.  Many of these green techniques are not new, but rather reinventions of old tried-and-true methods.  In keeping with the green-conscious philosophy of reuse, most green yard care techniques focus on buying less and utilizing more of the resources already available in the yard.

Going green with yard care is no longer just a moral imperative-it is an aesthetic and intelligent way to ensure that your yard sustains a healthy, natural, and long-lasting relationship with surrounding ecosystems.

When sustainable yard care methods are practiced instead of the convenient blow-and-go standard, yards will need less water, less fertilizer, and less general maintenance, with an astoundingly natural-looking result.  The blow-and-go method creates a continual dependence on chemical supplements to sustain plant health and vitality.  Green gardeners know that these fossil-fuel based additives are not necessary-not when a rich source of nutrients falls into what conventional gardeners consider garbage.  Plant scraps that normally appear in recycling bins post-maintenance day-lawn clippings, weeds, and fallen leaves-are all rich sources of minerals and nutrients that plants thrive on.  If you have chickens, rabbits, or other herbivores, their manure is perhaps the green gardener's most valuable soil amendment.

One way to understand the nutrient value of yard waste is to imagine that your soil is a bank account, and that nutrients are your assets.  Fertilizer, compost, and mulch act as deposits into the bank, while clippings, leaves, or other organic matter become withdrawals when removed from the yard.  The primary aim of green gardening is to reincorporate all withdrawals back into the soil as deposits, usually accomplished by adding compost, manure, and mulch to the soil.  Many green gardeners simply emulate nature by allowing all of the organic matter to fall and decompose in place.  This "mulch in place" technique is one of the easiest ways to build soil fertility.

Walk into any nursery or garden center and you will find an overwhelming variety of soil additives and "plant foods," ranging from gypsum to granular fertilizer.  What vendors typically omit from their product review is that healthy soil already has a complete set of fancy, nutrient-dense additives in it, and if organic matter is added from time to time, healthy soil can continue to manufacture its own nutrients and minerals-this is why plants in nature do not need fertilizer.

Lawn Care
Lawns, on the other hand, are typically grown in such a way that requires large amounts of fertilizer for optimal health.  This is mainly because each time that you mow, you make a significant nutrient withdrawal from the soil.  Mowing also stimulates fast re-growth that requires watering much more frequency than a normal plants need.  In the pre-fertilizer days, gardeners would place up to an inch of soil, compost, or manure on top of turf, a practice called topdressing that continues today amongst green gardeners.

Topdressing incorporates beneficial microbes into the soil along with organic matter and nutrients. The microbes in compost act like little fertilizer factories, processing organic matter and turning it into nutrients that plants require.  Unfortunately, these microbial populations are harmed by chemical fertilizers.  Since lawns grow quickly and are cut so often, they usually require a combination of topdressing and judiciously applied fertilizer.

Another practice that builds soil health is simply to leave your grass clippings in place after you mow-a technique called grasscycling.  By leaving your clippings in place, you allow your lawn to be naturally nourished with the nitrogen that maintains its lovely verdant appearance.  Recycling in this way also boosts soil fertility and water retention, which means that overall, your lawn will require less water and fertilizer.

Mulching mowers are specifically designed for grasscycling, but a regular mower will work just fine.  Since you will remove the collection bag from a traditional mower so the clippings fall naturally, make sure that yours has a safety cover over the opening-if it doesn't, you can purchase a retrofit kit at your local hardware store.  For effective grasscycling, follow these tips:

  • Mow with sharp blades when the grass is dry.
  • Mow often enough so you are removing no more than 1/3 of the grass blades (usually 1-2 inches).  Mowing once a week should be sufficient during growth season, and once every 7-14 days during times of slower growth.
  • Make sure that your clippings are small enough to sink down through remaining grass and into the soil so decomposition can begin.
  • Tired of mowing?  Many home gardeners like you are realizing the benefits of drought-tolerant perennial plantings, otherwise known as beds.

Let's review some of the benefits:

  • Unlike lawns, if you provide perennials with good soil (plenty of organic matter), and add mulch or compost every year, you will never need to fertilize!
  • If you use efficient drip irrigation and do not overwater, one application of compost per year is enough to sustain the nutrient needs of most perennials.
  • Not using fertilizer also reduces a plant's water needs and the chance of pest infestation (pests love to feed on fast fertilizer-induced growth).

Using the mantra "feed the soil not the plants," any home gardener can save money and labor while cultivating healthier plants.
 
Weeds
One of the most common gardener gripes is the everlasting duel with pernicious weeds.  Fortunately, there is an easy, green way to take care of these garden thugs-the answer lies in using newspaper instead of weed fabric.  Many home gardeners are familiar with weed fabric, the petroleum-based black mat used to discourage weed growth.  All too often, this fabric ends up in tiny shredded pieces that litter the soil like a thousand candy wrappers.  Newspaper on the other hand, decomposes into food for soil microbes and earthworms; after all, it's just carbon with some soy-based ink!  Sheet mulching, as it is called, involves the following steps:

  • Blanketing the soil with newspaper or cardboard, overlapping the pieces like fish scales.
  • Watering the paper so it sticks together.
  • Covering this paper mulch with 2-4 inches of compost or mulch.

This sheet mulching technique typically keeps weeds at bay for approximately one year, and after that the paper and mulch decompose to become topsoil.

If you hire blow-and-go gardeners to care for your yard, there's a good chance they will blow away valuable organic matter and they don't generally add anything more than harsh chemical fertilizer to your lawn.  Not to fret though-ask your gardener to use a broom and direct the leaves so they are used as mulch rather than being trucked to the dump.  You can also pickup a load of compost for the cost of a bag of fertilizer.

Going green with yard care is no longer just a moral imperative-it is an aesthetic and intelligent way to ensure that your yard sustains a healthy, natural, and long-lasting relationship with surrounding ecosystems.  With an open mind and a little creativity, homeowners can do a great service to the environment and to their pocketbooks in one fell swoop.