Everyday Gardener // Eco-friendly lawn care tips and some grass alternatives

In last month’s column, I aired my worries about the herbicide 2, 4-D, which is found in many lawn care products (and used by services that spray and then leave those little “Keep-Off-The-Grass-Until-Dry” signs). While it’s true, the FDA has deemed the product safe, studies have shown the chemical may pose some cancer risk, particularly for Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (even when dry for a period of time). That’s why many countries have banned its use, and even the local lawn care companies I called (You’ve seen their trucks. You know their names.) told me that they were “trying to phase it out” even though it does an excellent job of killing certain, annoying weeds. I know many people, me included, don’t like the look of a dead, brown lawn. But if these studies are correct, there may be a heavy price to pay for golf-course green.

So, even though I don’t ordinarily like to take up space in my gardening column to write about grass, I’m going to this week in order to share some tips for keeping lawns healthy without chemicals. I also want to offer up some resources for exploring options to traditional turf grass. I’m just learning about these alternatives myself, and I’ve found what I’ve read very interesting so far. If any of you try these, I hope you’ll let me know. I would love to find out about how well (or not) they work.

OK, first, grass may seem like a one-size-fits-all type of thing, but it isn’t. There are cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses and having the type best suited to the part of the country you live in will make all the difference in how your lawn looks and how much time you have to spend caring for it. Not surprisingly, ours is a cool-grass region so our lawns should be planted with perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass or tall fescue (most bagged mixes are a blend of at least two of these).

There are several things you can do to keep turf grass healthy. (Check out safelawns.org for lots of good ideas and instructional videos.) At the top of the list is mowing. Usually, a once-a-week schedule will do. But during the months when it grows vigorously, you may have to mow more often to keep grass from getting too tall. This is important because you don’t want to cut more than one-third of the grass height at one time because it is too stressful for grass plants and can cause problems later. Raising your mower height to 2½ to 3 inches is also good for grass because the extra length helps it to compete with nearby weeds and develop a stronger root system. Though it does bug some people, leaving clippings on the lawn each time you mow provides grass with extra nitrogen.

OK, on to watering. You’ve heard the mantra — water infrequently, but deeply. Water grass too often and it will literally drown while sending contaminated runoff straight down the nearest storm sewer. Let grass get too thirsty and you open the door to problems that will send you reaching for the chemicals you’re trying to avoid. As a rule, grass needs about ¾ to 1½ inches of water per week during the growing season (this includes rainfall) to stay green and keep the root system healthy. Of course, you can let your lawn turn brown and go dormant in hot, dry months. But this will make the grass more susceptible to weeds and disease.

As I said earlier, leaving grass clippings on the lawn adds nitrogen, which helps grass stay green. For some people, that may be enough to keep their grass healthy and looking good. For those who would like the added help of some kind of fertilizer, here’s what you need to know. Synthetic fertilizers may quickly make your lawn lush and green, but rather than helping to create a healthy soil environment, they damage lawn health by offering a burst of nutrients that quickly dissipates, leaving grass weak and wanting more, more, more. Beneficial soil organisms and insects suffer and die in this depleted environment, opening the door to damage and disease.

Natural, organic fertilizers like animal manure, compost, seaweed and Milorganite release nutrients slowly, allowing grass to take them up over a longer period of time. This preserves the quality of the soil and encourages healthy microbes and good bugs, like earthworms.

Of course, it is possible to abandon the whole idea of turf grass and go in a completely different direction. If you’re looking for a low-maintenance option, buffalograss might be just the thing. Though it’s really a warm-season grass, buffalograss is a North American native species that grows well in most parts of the country. In addition to being drought tolerant, it requires little mowing or fertilizing, but does need a good amount of sun. High Country Gardens (highcountrgardens.com) offers a Legacy buffalograss that can take heavy foot traffic. Plugs are fast growing, reaching only about 4–6 inches high.

Mixed Fescues are also getting attention these days for being low-maintenance. While they’re fairly slow growing, they require minimal water, fertilizer and mowing. Prairie Nursery (prairienursery.com) has two types of “No Mow” fescue mixes, which will grow to a height of 6–8 inches. One mix also contains rye grass for a greener look. Wildflower Farm’s (wildflowerfarm.com) fescue mix, “Eco-Lawn,” is drought tolerant and almost maintenance free. It also does well in sun or shade.

If you don’t have dogs and kids running all over your lawn, you have even more options to consider. Go to stepables.com and you’ll find an array of low-maintenance perennials that will hold up to foot traffic. (Honestly, I can’t see walking on some of these plants. But you give it a look and see what you think.) I also read something recently about a new site offering perennial groundcovers that make good substitutes for lawns. Their website is jeeperscreepers.info and, again, it takes some imagination to see some of these things looking okay after being walked on. But they do seem worth checking out.

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can email it to [email protected]