Lawns absorb water, which helps reduce storm runoff and improve water quality. Lawns also have a significant cooling effect, provide oxygen, trap dust and dirt, promote healthful microorganisms, prevent erosion, and filter rainwater contaminants. And most importantly, lawns are where people and pets can play outside the house.
Lawn care, however, has come at a high cost to the environment. According to the U.S. National Wildlife Federation:
- 30% of water used on the East Coast goes to watering lawns; 60% on the West Coast.
- 18% of municipal solid waste is composed of yard waste.
- The average suburban lawn received 10 times as much chemical pesticide per acre as farmland.
- Over 70 million tons of fertilizers and pesticides are applied to residential lawns and gardens annually. (Read Healthy Lawns, Healthy Lungs).
- Per hour of operation, a gas lawn mower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as a typical auto. A weed eater emits 21 times more and a leaf blower 34 times more.
- Pesticides kill 60 – 90% of earthworms when applied. Earthworms are important for soil health.
Much of the environmental cost associated with lawn care can be avoided.
Healthy Lawn Basics
The only way to reduce a dependence on chemical fertilizers is to develop a healthy lawn that is naturally resistant to weeds, insects, and diseases. If you need to fertilize your lawn more than once a year, consider these ways of improving the natural health of your lawn.
1. Improve the Soil
The first step is to test the soil’s pH – it should read between 6.5 and 7.0, which is slightly acidic. Soil that is too acidic will need a sprinkling of lime; sulfur can be added to soil that’s not acidic enough. You can buy a pH test kit for less than $15 which also tests nutrient levels. Another solution is to have your soil tested professionally. First call your extension office: they often provide soil testing as a free service.
Lawns grow best in loamy soils that have a mix of clay, silt, and sand. Too much clay in the soil mix, or heavy use, can compact the soil and prevent air and nutrient flow. Compacted soil may need aeration (see below), a process of lifting small plugs of turf to create air spaces in the soil.
Organic matter, such as compost and grass clippings, will benefit any type of soil; it lightens soil that is heavy in clay, and it builds humus in sandy soils, which helps retain water and nutrients. Some lawn mowers are equipped with mulching attachments that break up the clippings and disperse them as you mow. To add minerals to your soil, consider products like glacial rock dust.
2. Choose a Locally Adapted Grass
Grasses vary in the type of climate they prefer, the amount of water and nutrients they require, how much shade they can tolerate, and the degree of wear they can withstand. Ask your local garden center to recommend the grass that is best adapted to your area.
If your soil is clayey or compacted, your lawn will benefit from annual aeration. Half of any healthy soil should be pore space, which allows the circulation of water, nutrients, and air. When soil particles are compressed so there aren’t enough of these spaces, plants can’t get the nutrients they need to thrive.
Aeration helps re-create these important spaces by removing finger-sized plugs of soil throughout the lawn. For best results, rent an aerator from your local garden center or tool share, or hire a lawn service to do the job. It’s best to aerate your lawn before top dressing and fertilizing.
4. Mow Often, But Not Too Short
Giving your lawn a “Marine cut” is not doing it a favor. Surface roots become exposed, the soil dries out faster, and surface aeration is reduced. As a general rule, don’t cut off more than one-third of the grass at any one time. Most turfgrass species are healthiest when kept between 2.5 and 3.5″ tall.
When the lawn is finished growing for the season, cut it a bit shorter, to about 2″. This will minimize the risk of mold build-up during winter.
5. Water Deeply But Not Too Often
Thorough watering encourages your lawn to develop deep root systems, which make the lawn hardier and more drought-resistant. Let the lawn dry out before re-watering; as a rule of thumb, the color should dull and footprints should stay compressed for more than a few seconds. When watering, put a cup in the sprinkler zone; it should get at least one inch (2.5cm) water. Most healthy lawns require only 1″ of water per week.
The best time for watering is early morning; less water will be lost to evaporation. Ideally, it’s better to water the first half-inch or so, then wait for an hour or two before watering the second half-inch.
6. Overseed Your Lawn
Overseeding is the process of adding grass seed to an existing lawn, which can be helpful for filling in thin or patchy areas of grass. In cooler climates, overseeding can be done in spring and fall when the soil is warm enough for the type of seed you’ve selected; in warmer climates, late spring to midsummer is the best time to plant warm season grass.
Begin by preparing the area you intend to overseed by mowing grass very low and raking away grass clippings and other plant matter, so the seed can contact the soil. If possible, aerate before overseeding. Next, follow the directions on your seed mix package to determine seeding rate, since these will vary by type. After sowing keep seeds moist to encourage germination. Once the seeds have sprouted, follow your normal watering schedule. Wait to mow the overseeded area until grass has grown to at least one inch in height.
7. Control Thatch Build-Up
Thatch is the accumulation of above-soil runners, propagated by the grass. This layer should be about 1/2″ ( 1.25cm) on a healthy lawn, and kept in balance by natural decomposition, earthworms and microorganisms. Too much thatch prevents water and nutrients from reaching the grass roots. Before you resort to renting a dethatcher, however, effort should be made to improve aeration to control thatch build-up. Aeration brings microorganisms to the surface that will eat most of the thatch.
If you don’t aerate, the roots stay near the surface, contributing to thatch build-up. When you aerate once a year it breaks down the thatch, allowing the roots to get deeper in the soil. This leads to thicker grass, which naturally kills weeds too. While a dethatcher will reduce thatch build-up, it can also strip and thin the grass so much it allows weeds to germinate more easily. Ensure you don’t overuse your dethatcher. You can also reduce thatch with a steel rake.
8. Inspect Regularly for Pests
A number of pests can affect the health of your lawn, so keep an eye out for areas that look damaged. Moles are notorious wreckers of turf grass. If you see their tell tale tunnels poking up into your lawn, drive them away with granular mole repellent, which makes your yard taste bad, or try a sonic mole repellent. Both methods also drive away the voles that like to tunnel in your yard as well.
If you have insect damage, an application of beneficial nematodes or some BT (Bacillus thuringiensis galleriae), a nontoxic insecticide made from naturally occurring soil bacteria, can help eradicate grubs, beetles, and other common pests. Milky spore is also an effective way to target grubs. To determine exactly which insects are destroying your grass, pour a soap solution on the affected area and see which insects come out to escape drowning in soap. Different regions have different pests, so it’s best to consult with your local extension service for guidance.
9. Replace Grass with Pathways in High-Traffic Areas
Areas people walk on repeatedly can get compacted and worn, and may be better off as paths. You can lay paving stones or gravel for a no-maintenance path. Mulch can also work, but will need replenishing regularly, making pavers or stepping stones the more ecological and potentially more cost-effective option.
Watering Needs for Different Grass Types
How long can you wait between watering before the lawn starts to go brown?
- 12-21 Days: Bahia grass, Buffalo grass, Bermuda grass, St. Augustine grass, Centipede grass
- 8-12 Days: Carpet grass, Fine fescue, Kikuyu grass, Seashore paspalum, Tall fescue, Zoysia
- 5-7 Days: Ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, Bentgrass
The fine-leaved fescues as well as the “common” types of Kentucky bluegrasses, such as Park and Kenblue, require less water, fertilizer, and cutting than turf-type perennial ryegrass or many of the newer, “improved” types of Kentucky bluegrass.
Source: University of Georgia, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
The Next Generation of Reel Lawn Mowers
Times have changed. Push mowers (reel mowers) used to be heavy, clunky contraptions, which required great effort in cutting the lawn. A new generation of reel mowers has been designed that operate much more effectively with a fraction of the effort. The added benefits include a good light exercise and quiet, pollution-free lawn care.
Consider the Advantages of a Reel Mower:
Reel mowers shear the grass rather than tearing it. Most rotary mowers tear the grass, which leaves the tips shredded, and the tips soon turn brown. A sheared cut gives a greener lawn, and is preferred by lawn care professionals.
You can cut the lawn anytime without disturbing the neighbors or the wildlife. Listen to the birds as you cut the lawn!
The savings in fuel is significant to both the environment and your wallet. No more dead spark plugs, messy oil changes or stored fuel.
Today’s reel mowers are lighter, easier to push and more effective than the old push mowers. Their light weight also makes it easier to move from front to back yard, or to lift into a pickup.
Aside from the occasional drop of oil and blade sharpening, there’s little maintenance required. Some models have blades made of hardened steel, which do not require sharpening. These blades will last up to ten years before needing replacement.
With prices ranging from $100 to $350, the cost of a reel mower is less than half that of a lower-end power mower.
If you have a small to medium size lawn, switching from a gas mower to a reel mower may be the biggest environmental savings you can make from your home. If your lawn is large, you can use a reel mower for small or isolated sections, or for a helper to use. Whenever your reel mower is being used, the result is cleaner air.
For more information, read our article Switching to a Reel Mower, a first hand experience changing from power to push.
Buy a Reel Mower Online
You can buy a reel mower from Eartheasy’s online store. Click to see our collection of reel and electric mowers.
Electric Lawn Mowers
If a reel mower isn’t suited to your needs, choosing an electric rather than a gas mower can cut the pollution of lawn mowing significantly. Newer electric mowers are lighter and quieter than ever, and they have a number of advantages over gas mowers.
- Little pollution: Electric lawn mowers burn and spew zero fossil fuels. They are a cleaner option overall, even less if the electricity comes from clean power sources!
- Less noise than gas mowers: Some manufacturers have worked to make mowers as quiet as possible to limit the noise pollution associated with lawn care.
- Start easily: No more struggles to get a mower started: just push the ‘on’ button and your electric mower starts.
- No fuel to buy or store: No more refilling gas cans and tanks. Simply plug in your electric mower and go.
- Little maintenance required: Electric mower engines don’t require the regular tune-ups their gas-powered counterparts need. No gas combustion means no need to change oil, filters, or spark plugs.
Electric lawn mowers come with and without cords. While the battery-powered variety means you don’t have to worry about moving your cord periodically, as the battery loses charge the mower loses power, and pushing it may require more effort. You also have to make sure your mower is charged before using it. Note that electric mowers may have more trouble with rough or uneven surfaces than the gas powered types. When purchasing an electric mower, it’s also important to check the expected life of the battery.
Beneficial Lawn Residents
Not all insects in your lawn are pests. Some of them perform useful functions, such as eating other, more destructive insects or breaking down materials into nutrients that your plants can use.
Ladybugs, parasitic wasps, ground beetles, and other beneficial bugs help keep the insects you don’t want in your yard under control. Encourage them with well-mulched perennial beds. Their favorite habitats include shrubbery, native flowers, and piles of plant matter. Avoid pesticides, which would kill these desirable bugs along with their pest cousins.
Though we can’t see them, numerous types of soil organisms are constantly working to help deliver nutrients to our plants. Mycorrhizal fungi and soil bacteria are present in most healthy soil, though if your soil is poor or has had a history of chemical use, you can purchase products that may reintroduce these important components of your soil. Additionally, organic management practices like applying compost can help do the job.
Protect the balance of these organisms in your soil by avoiding synthetic fertilizers and other lawn chemicals.
Tips for Sustainable Lawn Care
How to spend less on fertilizer, pesticides, and water, and save energy and time on lawn maintenance:
Test Your Soil
Nutrient deficiencies can cause grass to turn yellow or brown or die. A simple soil test can let you know if you need to add nitrogen, iron, or other nutrients to enhance the health of your grass.
Water Early in the Morning
Much of the water from daytime watering is lost to evaporation. Avoid overwatering your lawn: it’s more damaging than not watering enough.
Don’t Mow When You Don’t Need To
Grass will grow at different rates when temperatures and moisture levels vary. Many lawn companies and homeowners mow weekly, even when it’s not needed. This wastes gas, money, and time, and makes our neighborhoods unnecessarily noisy. Mow when the lawn looks like it needs a trim and leave it be when it doesn’t.
Leave Clippings on the Lawn
Sometimes referred to as “grass-cycling”, this provides nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, water) equivalent to one application of fertilizer. Clippings do not cause thatch. Mulching mowers are also available which help the clippings hide in the grass. For effective grass cycling, wait until the lawn is 3″ tall, then set the mower height to remove 1″. The clippings left on the lawn will quickly disappear from view. Of course this technique also saves hauling yard waste to the landfill – some states have banned yard waste from landfills. For more information, read our article Grasscycling – The Easiest Way to Nurture Your Lawn.
Learn from the Weeds
Dandelions thrive at a pH level of about 7.5, and are a sign to add gardeners sulfur to lower the pH. Clover and medic are sign that your lawn may be nitrogen poor, and needs compost or a nitrogen-weighted fertilizer. To learn more, read our article about How to Read the Weeds for a Healthier Lawn.
Welcome Beneficial Weeds
Before the introduction of weed-killers in the mid twentieth century, people expected to see a mix of plants in a lawn. Many common plants like clover and dandelions actually benefit your lawn. Clover is a nitrogen-fixer, adding nutrition to the soil, and the long taproot that makes dandelions so difficult to eradicate is actually an effective aerator. Deep roots also bring useful minerals up to the surface where they can be used by other plants. Additionally, the flowers of these plants provide food for pollinators that don’t find much to eat in landscapes dominated by monoculture grass.
Allow Your Lawn to Go Dormant
Lawn grasses have an effective coping strategy when water is scarce: dormancy. While brown grass is not perhaps everyone’s ideal, letting plants go dormant can save a lot of water. Give grass a half-inch of water every other week during dry times and it should bounce back when conditions improve. It’s best to stay off drought-stressed grass.
Sharpen Mower Blades at Least Once a Year
You can tell when your mower blades are dull by looking at the grass tips. If they are brown and ragged, your blades are dull. Sharp mower blades not only make your lawn look greener, they help develop a healthier lawn.
Fertilize Once or Twice a Year
This is sufficient for an attractive lawn. Cool season grasses are semi-dormant in the summer; fertilizing during summer will be ineffective. Fertilizing in early fall promotes vigorous lawn growth the next spring.
Use a Fertilizer with Time-Released, Water Insoluble Nitrogen
These fertilizers are less likely to burn your lawn with excess nitrogen, and slow-release allows the roots to absorb the nutrients as needed. In most instances, choose fertilizers containing at least 35% – 50% of their nitrogen supply in the “slow-release” form, such as sulfur-coated urea, methylene urea or various natural organic products. With fast-acting fertilizers, some nutrients are washed away with watering or rain, and the wasted fertilizer pollutes groundwater supplies.
Convert Your Lawn to a Drought-Resistant, Low-Maintenance Eco-Lawn
Conventional lawn seed was originally developed to be fast growing to feed livestock. “Eco-Lawn” grass seed is a drought-resistant blend of grasses that requires little or no mowing and no fertilizer. The mix grows in full sun, partial shade, and even deep shade, making it one of the most versatile lawn seeds around. Its rich green blades are also less vulnerable to insects and grubs. To switch to this kind of lawn, use one of the following methods:
- Organic herbicides: Spray your old lawn with an organic herbicide every two weeks for up to eight weeks. Be sure to read the label carefully. Once your old lawn is dead, mow the dead grass as short as possible and roughen the area by raking hard. Seed the area with Eco-Lawn.
- Lawn stripping: Strip off the old lawn to a depth of 2 1/2 – 3 inches, removing it entirely. Lightly rototill the remaining soil or give it a hard raking to create a seed bed. Spread the seed, rake it into the soil, and compress flat with a lawn roller.
- Smothering: Cover your existing lawn with 4 inches of new soil. Spread your Eco-Lawn seed onto the new soil, rake it, and roll it in.
- Overseeding: Apply Eco-Lawn seed to an existing lawn every year for 4-5 years, or twice yearly until you see results. While this method takes some time, your lawn will eventually become a true Eco-Lawn. In the meantime, you will need to regularly mow the existing lawn.
Control Lawn Weeds with Corn Gluten
A nontoxic byproduct of corn processing, corn gluten kills weed seedlings within days of application. It also adds nitrogen to your soil. Just one application, before weeds emerge, reduced weed survival by 60%, according to research at Iowa State University. After several years, this method provides as much as 90% weed control. See our page on corn gluten for more information or purchase corn gluten for your yard and garden.
Keep Pesticide/Herbicide Use to a Minimum
Pesticides kill the soil organisms that contribute to a healthy lawn. The sooner you remove harsh chemicals, the faster your soil will recover. Repeated past use of toxic chemicals may have destroyed the microbiotic life that exists in healthy soil; it will take time, at least a season, for the soil to begin to recover. If you do use lawn chemicals, clean out pesticide and fertilizer applicators and empty containers on the lawn, where the residue will be utilized. Do not clean out on sidewalks or driveways, or residue will go directly into water supplies. For more information, read Lawn Care Chemicals: How Toxic Are They?
'Spot-Treat' Weeds with Vinegar to Minimize Herbicide Use
Where only a few scattered broadleaf weeds such as dandelions or plantain are present, consider spot-treating individual weeds with household vinegar rather than applying a broadcast treatment of an herbicide over the entire lawn. Mix 5 parts white vinegar, 2 parts water, 1 part dish soap, and apply with a hand pump sprayer. (Vinegar can burn grass and garden plants, so be sure to spot treat weeds only.)
For a commercially available, nontoxic “spot treatment” for weeds, we recommend Burn Out Weed and Grass Killer.
Reseed and Overseed
If you are adding seed to cover bare spots or a thin lawn, use hardy perennial ryegrass and drought-tolerant fescue seed mix. Alternately, reseed with a drought-tolerant, low-maintenance Eco-Lawn seed.
Deal with Lawn Grubs
For lawn grubs, there is a natural remedy called milky spore. The granules are spread on the soil and cause the grubs to contract a disease that kills them. Only the grubs are affected, leaving beneficial organisms unharmed. Milky spore multiplies over time and will sit inactive, waiting for grubs to infect. One treatment is said to last 40 years. The grubs are actually the larvae of Japanese beetles. So, when you kill the grubs you kill the beetle.
Try Hand Raking
If the clippings are too long and must be raked, try hand raking. This light aerobic exercise will save you a trip to the gym. If you have fallen leaves to rake, don’t burn them – they make excellent mulch for flower or garden beds, or can be added to your compost pile where they’ll be converted to rich, organic humus for the garden.
Replace Lawn You Don’t Use
If there are areas in your yard that never get used for recreation, consider replacing them with perennial plants or trees that are more environmentally beneficial. Most yards have grassy areas that homeowners only set foot on for weekly mowing that might be put to more productive use capturing rainwater, storing carbon, or even growing food. A mixed planting of berry bushes and native flowers, for example, can provide food for your family and endangered pollinators.
Use Lawn Alternatives
If growing and maintaining a lawn on your property is proving too difficult or requiring too much water or other resources, you may want to consider alternatives to the standard grass lawn. We have prepared several articles to help you with alternative approaches to keeping a standard lawn. To learn more, please read:
Large Lawns and Golf Courses
Large lawns, and especially golf courses, require large amount of herbicides and chemical fertilizers to maintain their condition and appearance. The impact on the environment is considerable.
Recent experiments using organic compost have shown this method to be very promising. Generally, researchers and practitioners recognize that incorporating high-quality compost does several things:
- Adds food and nutrients for plants and organisms,
- Adds a diversity of organisms to the soil,
- Encourages plant growth promoting substances in soils.
For a detailed report on the science, application methods and results, read our article Using Compost to Improve Turf Ecology.
Sod vs. Grass Seed
When establishing a new lawn, homeowners must choose between seeding and laying sod. There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods.
- Cost effective
- Greater variety of seeds available suited to different growing conditions
- An easier DIY project than hauling in and laying heavy sod
- Timing is important to encourage germination of grass seeds, but not weeds
- Establishing a dense lawn can take awhile and may require reseeding
- Quick: sod provides an instant carpet of green
- Few weeds
- Reduced dust and erosion caused by exposed soil
- Can be planted any time during growing season as long as water is available
- Expensive: sodding can cost ten times as much as seeding
- Limited variety
- Typically not suited for shade
- Contact with soil is not always successful, and sod must be replaced
Site preparation for sodding and seeding is the same, requiring the soil to be weed-free and amended with organic matter and other missing nutrients. To help a newly sodded lawn succeed, look for sod grown in soil similar to where you will be planting it. Roll it following installation to ensure contact with existing soil and keep it well watered until established.
Natural Lawn Care Supplies
Corn Gluten for Natural Weed Control
All-natural pre-emergent corn gluten weed control adds nitrogen to your beautiful organic lawn while preventing new weeds from sprouting!
Apply in early spring, 3 – 5 weeks before weeds begin to sprout. Apply again in late fall.
A 40 lb bag of Corn Gluten, treats 2000 sq. ft. of lawn.
Milky Spore - Long-Lasting, Natural Control for Lawn Grubs
Produced to USDA standards, Milky Spore is the safest material ever developed for control over the larvae (grubs) of Japanese Beetles. Milky Spore is not harmful to beneficial insects, birds, bees, pets or man. It is safe to use around wells.
Eco-Lawn - For a Drought-Resistant, Low Maintenance Lawn
Eco-Lawn™ grows in full sun, part shade and even deep shade! Eco-Lawn™ is highly drought tolerant once established, and has a beautiful green colour. Eco-Lawn™ does not require fertilizing.
Convert your lawn clippings to valuable compost in as little as 13 days. Our line of fully sealed composting systems are also ideal for urban gardens and homes with small yards.
Visit our shop for more information or to buy compost tumblers.