Earth-Friendly Lawn Care Around the Year

As we’re all increasingly concerned that our gardening practices might harm the environment, lawn care is a prime target of examination. Certain types of fertilizers, especially if applied in the spring, run off into waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and harm the fish and crabs there. There are concerns, as well, about pesticides and wasteful use of water.

But the good news is that not only is it possible to have a good-looking lawn without harming the environment; it’s actually less work than conventional, potentially harmful lawn care practices. Just follow this schedule and see your lawn flourish — without harming Mother Earth.


Weed Control: If your lawn is sunny and has a history of crabgrass, apply corn gluten, an organic pre-emergent weed killer, when the forsythia are blooming (or, according to other experts, when forsythia blooms are dropping). As an added bonus, corn gluten contains a small amount of nitrogen (10 percent by weight), so it helps to “green-up” your lawn in a safe, organic way. Remember to always read the instructions — and follow them.

Seeding: Seed bare spots in March. However, the best time to seed is fall.

To Fertilize or Not: A big jolt of fertilizer in the spring encourages top growth at the expense of root growth, promotes weeds, leads to extra mowing and, with spring rains, causes more nutrient run-off into waterways than feeding in the fall. On the other hand, one application of a slow-release organic fertilizer like Lawn Restore is fine to use in the spring (as well as one application in the fall) and recommended by many sources I respect.

There ARE alternatives to applying any fertilizer product.  Start by leaving your grass clippings on the lawn, which provides about a quarter of the nitrogen it needs.  More nitrogen can be provided by introducing clover to your lawn, a common practice in this country until a new weedkiller (2,4-D) was developed for lawns that unfortunately killed clover, so clover had to be rebranded as a weed.  Clover is nitrogen-fixing, so if you include it AND leave your clippings in place, that should do the trick.  Lots of organic gardeners also spread 1/4-inch of compost on their lawn once a year, which feeds the soil, as well as improving the drought-tolerance of your lawn.  And as stated above, the pre-emergent weedkiller corn gluten contains nitrogen, too.


Mowing: First, keeping your mower blades sharp and set high helps your lawn in many ways. Taller grass reduces weeds and encourages deeper roots, thus improving drought tolerance, while sharp mower blades increase your lawn’s resistance to disease. So set your mower height to 3 inches or higher. Then mow frequently, never removing more than 1/3 of the blade at a time if you can help it. (Recognizing that after a solid week of rain it may be corn-like before you can get back to mowing; I’ve been there.)

Since clippings act as a slow-release fertilizer, it helps to leave them on the lawn. And if you’re concerned that this will cause excess thatch, experts assure us it doesn’t and that thatch is actually caused by excess synthetic fertilizer. There’s that word again (see “Fall” for details.) And to prevent nitrogen runoff, don’t leave clippings on streets or sidewalks.

Watering: If you need to water, do it as early in the day as possible but never at night, and preferably when there isn’t much wind. Most importantly, water deeply, to one inch, in order to encourage deep roots, thereby increasing drought tolerance. In order to stay green, lawns need roughly an inch of water every 7 to 10 days, depending on the temperature. More frequent watering not only wastes water but encourages fungal disease and poor root development.

During the heat of the summer lawns naturally go brown and dormant and look rather sad but don’t fret; they green up again when the weather cools off.  And more importantly, that “sad” look – the natural shade of tan that lawns turn during the summer heat – is fast becoming a sign of eco-friendly lawn care. We’re seeing the slogan “Brown is the new green” popping up everywhere.

Weed Control: If you applied a pre-emergent crabgrass killer to your sunny spots in the spring, that’s the only weed control application you’ll need to do all year. There will be weeds, of course, so try a little attitude adjustment. As a Cooperative Extension agent once told me, “You gotta have weeds. If you don’t have weeds you’re spending too much on chemicals.” And the remedy for those weeds is sometimes called mechanical removal, which means grabbing your favorite weeding tool and getting some exercise. It’s less work in the long run if you remove weeds before they bloom and release their seeds — as many as hundreds of seeds per plant! Alternatively, you might decide that weeds contribute a little biodiversity to your lawn and that some of them aren’t so ugly after all. But rest assured that as you develop a denser, healthier lawn, most weed problems will go away.