The U.S. is home to 32 million acres of lawn, or enough to cover the 100 largest U.S. cities almost twice, says Owen Dell, author of Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies. Lawns suck up 270 billion gallons of water a week and burn 800 million gallons of (mower) gas a year. And then there are the pesticides and the chemical-based fertilizers.
“I use this analogy,” Dell says. “If you take care of yourself—exercise, eat right, don’t drink too much alcohol, don’t use drugs—you’re going to have a much better chance of staying healthy. Similarly, if you keep the landscape healthy, whether it’s the lawn or anything else, you’re going to have fewer problems.”
How do you break free of the high-maintenance lawn care cycle? Drawing from interviews with Dell, Tom Christopher, editor of The New American Sustainable Garden (due out next year) and Annie Spiegelman, author of Talking Dirt assembled a list of basic tips to get you started.
1. Don’t overwater. Most people grossly overwater their lawns. Consider getting a free ‘water audit’ if your water company offers one, or just turn the sprinkler off and observe the results. If your grass doesn’t spring back when you step on it in the heat of the afternoon, it’s time to water. Watering four times a week is too much in most parts of the country.
2. Water deeply. It’s better to water deeply than frequently. Many lawns do well with 15 to 20 minutes at a time, once or twice a week. For maximum efficiency, give the water a chance to seep in: Water for 10 minutes, wait 20 minutes and then finish watering.
3. Get adequate coverage. If your sprinkler doesn’t cover a spot, you end up with a dry area or an overwatered lawn.
4. Give the soil breathing room. Aerate your lawn once or twice a year in the spring or fall with a gas- or foot-powered aerator. This loosens the roots and lets water and fertilizers penetrate.
5. Try a lush look. If you keep your grass 3 inches high, it will ‘shade out’ weeds, denying them the sun they need to grow and take over your lawn.
6. Reduce your lawn size. Less lawn means less watering. Consider a border planted with low-maintenance ground cover instead of grass.
7. Kick the chemical fertilizer habit. Don’t pump too many nutrients into your lawn. One fertilization with an organic fertilizer in early fall is plenty.
8. Go natural. Insecticides with ingredients such as vinegar and orange oil are sold at many nurseries and boiling water kills weeds.
9. Keep grass clippings. Rather than removing them, rake them gently over your lawn. They’re free and rich in the plant nutrient nitrogen.
10. Consider low-maintenance grass. Ask your local university extension program or agriculture department to recommend a low-maintenance grass (options include fine fescues and buffalograss) that grows well in your region. These easy-going grasses are designed for your region and will thrive with minimal water and mowing.
(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune.
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