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Natural Lawn Care

Posted by Kim Ellson - Gardening

"By making the transition from traditional to alternative lawn care, we can move away from a system that relies heavily on the input of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides", said Kim Ellson, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"We all love a luscious green lawn", Ellson said. "Lawns have become an integral part of our landscaping and it is hard to think them away. Preserving our immaculate lawns is a hobby, a business and even a family tradition."

"The widespread belief is that lawns cannot look aesthetically pleasing without the input of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides," noted Ellson. "As a society we reach for chemicals far too easily when it comes to gardening, and turf is a prime culprit."

Yet there is a balance that can be struck between maintaining an attractive lawn and being more environmentally friendly, and it does not have to involve spending all of ones time on hands and knees pulling weeds.

"There are some simple changes you can make that will reduce the environmental impact of your lawn, and help keep your lawn attractive" Ellson explained. "These include; using organic fertilizers and pesticides, grasscycling, mowing methods, alternative grass species and achieving healthy soils."

Turf grass in Northern Illinois is typically made up of cool season grasses that actively grow when temperatures are lower in spring and autumn. Fertilizer applications should be made during these times.

"The simplest change to reduce chemicals in one's environment is by replacing synthetic fertilizers with organic fertilizers" suggested Ellson. "Organic fertilizers are naturally slow-release and add organic matter to the soil with every application."

Another easy change is 'grasscycling'. Grasscycling is the practice of leaving lawn clippings to remain on the lawn, so that these can break down and serve as a soil amendment and recycle nutrients.

"For many people the thought of leaving grass clippings on their lawn is a frightful one" Ellson admitted. But if the grass is cut frequently the clippings will be short enough to fall between the existent grass and break down rapidly".

A dried hay appearance on the lawn means the clippings were too long and the grass should be cut more often. Soil health will also determine how rapidly grass clippings decompose as microorganisms aid decomposition.

"If short clippings fail to decompose cease all use of synthetic pesticides in your lawn, as these can have detrimental effects on earthworms and soil microorganisms" warned Ellson.

For those gardeners that rely on pesticides, use organic pesticides. These will not have the adverse environmental effects as their synthetic counterparts.

Corn gluten is an organic pre-emergent herbicide for example that is safe for established plants and additionally provides nitrogen fertilizer. Be sure to apply it prior to weed growth and reapply annually.

"As with all forms of gardening, one has to remain on top of things" Ellson advised. "Do not allow weeds to get out of control or set seed. A single weed plant can produce incredible amounts of seed."

"Proper mowing is a critical factor for management without chemicals. Allow lawns to remain between 2.5- 3" in height and do not cut more than a third at a time. Lawns cut too short become stressed and vulnerable to drought stress, weed competition, pests and diseases".

Keep mower blades sharp to ensure a clean cut and avoid shredding. This allows grass to heal efficiently and be less susceptible to diseases.

"No-mow lawns are starting to enter the market and offer an attractive, environmentally friendly alternative, especially suitable for areas in your yard that are not heavily frequented."

A more comprehensive or sustainable approach to lawn care looks at both turf and soil health. Achieving good soil health is a long-term project that will require repeated applications of soil amendments and avoiding the use of chemicals.

"Healthy soils have a high percentage of organic matter and microorganisms, even though we tend to forget about the latter. Adding a thin layer of fine compost to your lawn at least annually is an excellent way to amend your soil. Organic fertilizers and grass clippings also add organic matter, which feeds and sustains the microorganisms that support grass naturally."

For new lawns the selection of suitable grass types can ensure a turf that is more resilient to weather, weeds, pests and diseases.

"Ultimately the endurance and success of natural lawn care will be determined by people's mindset and their acceptance of lawns with a slight difference in character. Is the convenience of chemicals worth the environmental and health implications for our family and pets?" Ellson questioned.

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