View from the Garden: Rethinking Lawns and Being ‘Green’

My father, without fail, fertilized the grass every spring, summer and fall. As I drive from client to client, I see people, professionals and homeowners, pushing the fertilizer spreader. There are more and more houses in this area with very large yards that are maintained with chemical fertilizers and herbicides to keep them constantly green and spotless.

The concept of lawns needs to be rethought. It’s creating major problems in our waters.

Nitrogen runoff from chemical fertilizers can cause algae bloom in surrounding waters, changing the natural ecology. Nitrogen that’s not absorbed by your lawn can leach into the aquifer, the sole supply for drinking water in Suffolk County.

An algae bloom from excess nitrogen blocks sunlight from reaching underwater vegetation, especially in wetlands, which are the spawning grounds for finfish and shellfish.

The brown tide that has regularly plagued our waters is suspected to have resulted from excess nitrogen in the water from lawn runoff and septic system leaching. Brown tide causes the loss of eel grass, which has led to a clam decline in the Great South Bay and the scallop harvest collapse. .

It’s time for homeowners and professional landscapers to become educated about lawn practices. All licensed landscapers are required by state law to take a fertilizer and turf management course. Establishments that sell fertilizer are required to have signs and supply brochures describing their proper use. Information is easily available online.

A carpet of green grass has been considered an essential part of our landscapes since the British upper classes began using lawns as part of their landscapes in the last part of the 19th century. But rethinking and reconfiguring our landscapes can provide enough grass for recreation; reduce the cost of lawn maintenance and supply techniques that can maintain grass without pollution. Why not make your landscape more beautiful, more enjoyable and increase your property value?

Parts of a lawn can be replaced with beds of shrubs or flowers that require little or no maintenance. How much lawn do you need for recreation? Patios and stone paths can be installed which, with related beds, will afford pleasant outdoor living. Grass that doesn’t get heavy use can be replaced with clover, which provides food for bees and feeds the soil by fixing nitrogen. Areas of ground covers reduce lawn size and increase soil health. Beds of ornamental grasses require almost no maintenance.

Though some think moss needs to be killed and replaced with grass, moss is actually harmless and can be both beautiful and beneficial. It grows where it grows because the conditions of soil pH, sunlight and moisture fit its exact needs. Attempts to replace it with grass will be short-lived, unless the specifics of the situation are changed. The moss will return. Observation of naturally growing plants will indicate conditions for plants that are introduced.

It’s often worthwhile to use the expertise of a professional landscaper to make decisions when making these changes. He or she should not only have a design sense that’s compatible with your taste but also be knowledgeable about plants that are suitable to your location and the degree of maintenance they need.

An increasing number of lawn care companies and individuals are using techniques that can keep your grass healthy without automatic chemical applications and mowing practices. Chemical fertilizers kill soil microorganisms, which feed plants, so a continuous flow of chemicals is then required.

Compost can be applied that will feed the soil. Grass clippings left on lawn cut no shorter than 3” feed the soil. Taller grass shades out weed seeds, eliminating the need for herbicides. This requires more frequent cutting with very sharp blades. The dense grass will retain moisture, thereby reducing water needs. With these techniques, your grass can become a lush carpet of healthy plants.

The ever-increasing density of population and homes require us to deliberately consider the natural environment of this area. We appreciate its beauty and want it to remain beautiful. But for that to happen, we will need to change some of our habits.

Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. jeanellemyersfinegardening.com

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