It may seem early for you to think or read about your lawn – or turf, as it is called in the lawn and landscape business. February is indeed too early for us to do anything about the lawn, but it’s necessary to talk about it this soon for one reason: The lawn care ads begin this month. They glamorize perfect lawns and press you to commit to product lines that are allegedly the only way to have that kind of flawless green carpet. They are relentless.
The subliminal message is: If you don’t take these steps using these products you are a bad citizen and probably not much of a man. (The male of the species is heavily targeted.)
Last week landscapers and nursery professionals attended classes that were organized by Plant WNY (representing our Professional Landscape and Nursery Trades), all part of continuing education for the industry. Some attendees were possibly your landscapers, lawn care people, or retail staff who give advice and sell lawn care products.
It’s important that they (and you) know something about turf grass science so you don’t waste money – or more importantly – so you don’t use products that can be harmful to you or the environment when applied excessively, unnecessarily, or at the wrong time.
Most people in the regional industry know the teacher as “Mitch.” That’s because he (Tom Mitchell) taught hundreds of today’s landscapers during his 33 years at McKinley High School. He’s also a landscaper (Mitchell Landscaping Inc.), and teaches at Niagara County Community College.
He is among the now senior people in the industry who came through the chemical years. Pesticides, including herbicides, were developed during and after World War II and were considered solutions to most agricultural problems. They were considered miracles of human invention or American ingenuity. Many older farmers and growers (large or small scale) still tell of sticking their arms into barrels of pesticides such as DDT, and walking behind farm equipment breathing in the dust of products that are now known carcinogens. Mostly we didn’t know what we were doing.
Now we know more.
That background strengthens the impact of Mitchell’s message today: We need to do lawn and landscape care right and responsibly. As consumers and as industry workers, we need to know what products we’re using and how to use them. More is not better. Spreading fertilizers or pesticides “just in case” is not acceptable. There are safer products, alternative methods, more knowledge, and lower-input ‑ or no-input ‑ ways to get good results.
A few questions
Mitchell began that class with a question I suggest you ask yourself and your family – whoever uses or enjoys your lawn: “What do you want from your lawn?” “What’s important?” I’m betting that most of you will reply that you want a good-looking green lawn. A few weeds are OK just so it looks mostly even, like the rest of the neighborhood, especially in the suburbs.
Answers will vary of course. A few people still want a lawn like a golf green, no matter what it takes. A growing number of people ask for less lawn entirely. They want pollinator gardens, hedge rows, layered plantings, more native plants, more ground covers, and maybe even a meadow.
Neither of those groups seem to be the majority. Green lawns are still wanted. But Mitchell noted that there is one big difference compared to 10 or 20 years ago. More people who want attractive lawns do care how they get that way. Those people ask lawn care companies or landscapers to:
• Use fewer pesticides/herbicides and only if really necessarily (when weeds are taking over).
• Keep the cost down (mow as needed but cut back on monthly treatments).
• Don’t hurt the pollinators (and plant some flowers for them).
What we know now
Lawn care practices have evolved in the last decade or two, based on soil science, product development, improved seed and sod products, and ecological/environmental awareness.
Here are a few examples of our large learning curve:
• Soil and compost: We know we must prepare soil before planting, and compost is essential. The ideal soil base for a lawn would be about 4 inches of compost-rich topsoil, with a pH of 6.5 to 7, that drains well, is not compacted, with minimal tree root competition. Soil needs organic matter (with microbial life).
In the old days people lightened soil texture with various products. But they didn’t understand that you add organic matter (i.e. compost) to aerate the soil and to feed the living organisms that provide or transport soil nutrients so the plants can grow.
Mitchell addressed two ways to get that compost into or onto the lawn. The best way is to prepare the soil before planting the lawn (seed or sod). Rough up and grade the subsoil, and then mix compost into the existing topsoil or bring in compost-rich topsoil.
For an existing lawn, spread the compost product over the grass surface, and rake it in manually or use a core aerator. A de-thatcher is also effective (and leaving the cores to decompose is good practice if customers will tolerate the temporary messiness).
• Fertilizer knowledge is broader: Sometimes Cornell turfgrass educators recommend re-seeding rather than fertilizing some weak lawns. They teach that summer fertilization is counter-productive. Experts are choosing products that stimulate plant roots (such as a compost tea) to support sustainably healthy lawns.
• Rolling lawns damages soil structure: Except for tamping the soil when seeding, rollers don’t help the lawn. The weight compacts soil and crushes turf grass roots. Grandpa and Dad did it, but soil science wasn’t very developed.
There is much more to lawn care. Other topics are seed choices, when to seed or sod, best watering systems (crucial for new lawn survival), how to protect pollinators (maybe use clover?), pests and weeds – how to prevent and handle intolerable weeds and pests sustainably and effectively.
I recommend you learn more, make a plan with educated professionals, and don’t buy into everything the ads tell you.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.