Keeping your lawn full, lush and green is one of the most dramatic ways to spruce up your property. And thanks to new fertilizers that are better for the environment, homeowners can now keep their lawn care “green” as well.
“The big industry players have eliminated phosphorous from their lawn fertilizers, except for starter and organic products,” says Charlotte Kidd, owner of In the Garden, a Flourtown, Pa., company that focuses on garden design, care and workshops. “Grass, once it’s established, doesn’t need a lot of phosphorous, so you don’t need to add it anyway.”
The nutrient that fluctuates in soil is nitrogen, which is plentiful in grass clippings. Kidd recommends letting them decompose in place after mowing. “If you put down a little compost or top dress your lawn lightly with humus [in the spring], that should be sufficient,” she says.
Don’t add any nutrients until you find out what kind of soil you already have. “Start with a soil test,” Kidd says. The results will include the soil pH as well. If you’ve added lime as a matter of habit, it’s possible the pH level is normal now and you don’t need to add it anymore.
“It’s important to have a healthy lawn to prevent erosion,” Kidd says, “so you want to keep your soil healthy” — but you probably don’t need chemical fertilizers for that.
Test your soil
The Extension office of Penn State’s agricultural school provides low-cost soil testing. The $10 fee covers a kit with instructions and report forms, a sample bag and a mailer. After you take the samples and mail them to University Park, the lab there will analyze the amounts of various nutrients in your soil. Their report will include those numbers, plus research-based recommendations for what additives, if any, you need to get the garden you want.
The Philadelphia office is at Two Penn Center Plaza, Suite 200; their phone number is 215-471-2200. They’re open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Click here to visit them online.
Put down that hose
Should you water your lawn during rain-free periods? Probably not. Usually grass doesn’t die, it just goes dormant when it’s not getting enough water, according to Kidd: “A healthy lawn will come through a drought just fine.”
If you are going to water, she recommends watering your trees, shrubs and perennials. “They’d be a lot more expensive to replace than a little grass.”
Leave the dandelions alone
“A healthy lawn will not a have a lot of weeds,” Kidd says. And if it does have clover, that’s good — clover fixes the nitrogen, keeping the nutrient available in the soil. Got dandelions? “Eat the young greens, then dig them out,” she says. “But is this the battle you want to fight? Would you rather spend your weekend digging out dandelions or doing something fun?”
Avoid glowing in the dark
Phosphorous is one of the main culprits in nutrient loading, where fertilizer runoff causes excess algae growth in rivers and bays. These unbalanced ecosystems become dead zones that can’t support fish, shellfish and water birds, and can sometimes lead to massive fish kills. Reducing phosphorous can help return water to a safe state for swimming and fishing.