Caring for your lawn in an environmentally
sensible way can have a bigger impact than you might think. Your
lawn is only a small piece of land, but all the lawns across
the country cover a lot of ground. That means you and your lawn
care activities, along with everyone else's, can make a difference
to the environment. And that's why taking care of the environment
begins in our own backyards.
Working With Nature:
A Preventive Health Care Program For Your Lawn
To start, think about lawn care
as a preventive health care program, like one you would use to
keep up your own health. The idea is to prevent problems from
occurring so you don't have to treat them. As they say, an ounce
of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A healthy lawn can out-compete
most weeds, survive most insect attacks, and fend off most diseases--before
these problems ever get the upper hand.
Your lawn care program should be tailored to local conditions--the
amount of rainfall you get, for example, and the type of soil
you have. But no matter where you live, you can use the program
outlined as a general guide to growing a healthy lawn.
1. Develop Healthy Soil
Good soil is the foundation
of a healthy lawn. To grow well, your lawn needs soil with good
texture, some key nutrients, and the right pH, or acidity/alkalinity
Start by checking the texture
of your soil to see whether it's heavy with clay, light and sandy,
or somewhere in between. Lawns grow best in soil with intermediate
or "loamy" soils that have a mix of clay, silt, and
sand. Whatever soil type you have, you can probably improve it
by periodically adding organic matter like compost, manure, or
grass clippings. Organic matter helps to lighten a predominantly
clay soil and it helps sandy soil retain water and nutrients.
Also check to see if your soil
is packed down from lots of use or heavy clay content. This makes
it harder for air and water to penetrate, and for grass roots
to grow. To loosen compacted soil, some lawns may need to be
aerated several times a year. This process involves pulling out
plugs of soil to create air spaces, so water and nutrients can
again penetrate to the grass roots.
Most lawns need to be fertilized
every year, because they need more nitrogen, phosphorus, and
potassium than soils usually contain. These three elements are
the primary ingredients found in most lawn fertilizers. It's
important not to over-fertilize...you could do more harm to your
lawn than good...and it's best to use a slow-release fertilizer
that feeds the lawn slowly. It's also important to check the
soil's pH. Grass is best able to absorb nutrients in a slightly
acidic soil, with a pH of 6.5 to 7.0. Soil that is too acidic
can be "sweetened" with lime; soil that's not acid
enough can be made more sour by adding sulfur.
Have your soil tested periodically
to see whether it needs more organic matter or the pH needs adjusting.
Your county extension agent (listed in your phone book under
county government) or local nursery should be able to tell you
how to do this. These experts can also help you choose the right
fertilizer, compost, and other "soil amendments," and
they can advise you about aerating if your soil is compacted.
If a professional service takes care of your lawn, make sure
it takes these same steps to develop good soil. There's no getting
around it: your lawn's health is only as good as the soil it
2. Choose A Grass Type That
Thrives In Your Climate
The right type of grass--one
that suits your needs and likes the local weather--will always
give better results. Grasses vary in the type of climate they
prefer, the amount of water and nutrients they need, their resistance
to pests, their tolerance for shade, and the degree of wear they
If you are putting in a new
lawn, it will be worth your while to do some research to identify
the best grass type for your needs.
If you're working with an established lawn that fails to thrive
despite proper care, you might consider replanting with a different
type of grass.
Why struggle to grow grass that's
susceptible to fungal disease if you live in a humid climate?
Or a water-loving species if you live in an area with water shortages?
Grass that is well-adapted to your area will grow better and
resist local pests and diseases better. New grass varieties and
mixtures come out on the market every year.
3. Mow High, Often and With
Mowing high--that is, keeping
your lawn a bit long--will produce stronger, healthier grass
with fewer pest problems.
Longer grass has more leaf surface
to take in sunlight. This enables it to grow thicker and develop
a deeper root system, which in turn helps the grass survive drought,
tolerate insect damage, and fend off diseases. Longer grass also
shades the soil surface keeping it cooler, helping it retain
moisture, and making it difficult for weeds to germinate and
A lawn's ideal length will vary
with the type of grass, but many turf grass species are healthiest
when kept between 2-1/2 and 3-1/2 inches. The ruler at the back
of this brochure will help the best mowing height for your grass
variety. You may have to readjust your mower--most are set too
It's also important to mow with
sharp blades to prevent tearing and injuring the grass. And it's
best to mow often, because grass adjusts better to frequent than
infrequent mowing. The rule of thumb is to mow often enough that
you never cut more than one-third of the height of the grass
blades. Save some time and help your lawn and the environment
by leaving short clippings on the grass--where they recycle nitrogen--rather
than sending them in bags to the landfill.
You don't have to grow a foot-high
meadow to get good results. Just adding an inch will give most
lawns a real boost.
4. Water Deeply But Not Too
Watering properly will help
your lawn grow deep roots that make it stronger and less vulnerable
to drought. Most lawns are watered too often but with too little
water. It's best to water only when the lawn really needs it,
and then to water slowly and deeply. This trains the grass roots
down. Frequent shallow watering trains the roots to stay near
the surface, making the lawn less able to find moisture during
Every lawn's watering needs
are unique: they depend on local rainfall, the grass and soil
type, and the general health of the lawn. But even in very dry
areas, no established home lawn should require daily watering.
Try to water your lawn in a
way that imitates a slow, soaking rain, by using trickle irrigation,
soaker hoses, or other water-conserving methods. It's also best
to water in the early morning, especially during hot summer months,
to reduce evaporation. Apply about an inch of water--enough that
it soaks 6-8 inches into the soil. Then let the lawn dry out
thoroughly before watering it again.
The best rule is to water only
when the lawn begins to wilt from dryness--when the color dulls
and footprints stay compressed for more than a few seconds.
5. Correct Thatch Build-Up
All grass forms a layer of dead
plant material, known as thatch, between the grass blades and
the soil. When thatch gets too thick--deeper than one-half inch--it
prevents water and nutrients from penetrating to the soil and
grass roots. Some grasses tend to form a thick layer of thatch.
Overuse of fertilizer can also create a heavy layer of thatch.
You can reduce thatch by raking
the lawn or using a machine that slices through the thatch layer
to break it up. Sprinkling a thin layer of topsoil or compost
over the lawn will also help.
In a healthy lawn, microorganisms
and earthworms help keep the thatch layer in balance by decomposing
it and releasing the nutrients into the soil.
6. Set Realistic Goals
Setting realistic goals will
allow you to conduct an environmentally sensible lawn care program.
It's probably not necessary to aim for putting-green perfection.
Did you know that a lawn with 15 percent weeds can look practically
weed-free to the average observer? Even a healthy lawn is likely
to have some weeds or insect pests. But it will also have beneficial
insects and other organisms that help keep pests under control.
Also realize that grass just
can't grow well in certain spots. Why fight a losing battle with
your lawn, when you have other options? At the base of a tree,
for example, you might have better luck with wood chips or shade-loving
ornamental plants like ivy, periwinkle, or pachysandra. If your
climate is very dry, consider converting some of your lawn to
dry-garden landscaping. It could save time, money, and water
What Is IPM?
Integrated Pest Management is
essentially common-sense pest control. IPM is not a new concept;
some forms of it have been practiced for centuries.
IPM involves the carefully managed
use of three different pest control tactics--biological, cultural,
and chemical--to get the best long-term results with the least
disruption of the environment. Biological control means using
natural enemies of the pest, like lady bugs to control aphids.
Cultural or horticultural control involves the use of gardening
methods, like mowing high to shade out weeds. Chemical control
involves the judicious use of pesticides.
IPM is a highly effective approach
that minimizes the use of pesticides and maximizes the use of
natural processes. Lawn care professionals who use IPM should
have a sophisticated understanding of the ecosystem of your turf
and the available pest control tactics. Home gardeners can also
practice IPM by following the steps outlined in this brochure.
Tips For Using Pesticides
Sometimes, even with good lawn
care practices, weather conditions or other factors can cause
pest problems to develop. Pesticides can help control many lawn
pests. But pesticides have risks as well as benefits, and it's
important to use them properly.
The chemicals we call pesticides
include insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. These products
are designed to kill or control pest insects, weeds, and fungal
diseases. Pesticides can be very effective. But don't be tempted
to rely solely on pesticides as a quick-fix solution to any lawn
Serious, ongoing pest problems
are often a sign that your lawn is not getting everything it
needs. In other words, the pests may be a symptom of an underlying
problem. You need to correct the underlying problem to reduce
the chance that the pest will reappear.
All pesticides are toxic to
some degree. This means they can pose some risk to you, to your
children and pets, and to any wildlife that venture onto your
lawn--especially if these chemicals are overused or carelessly
applied. Pesticides can also kill earthworms and other beneficial
organisms, disrupting the ecological balance of your lawn.
Store pesticides out of children's
reach in a locked cabinet or garden shed.
When Spraying, Protect your
skin, your eyes, your lungs
Wash this clothing separately before using it again.
Before Using Any Pesticide, Be Sure To Review These Basic Rules
1. Take safety precautions.
Never assume a pesticide is harmless. Read the entire label and
follow its instructions. Use only the amount directed, at the
time and under the conditions specified, and for the purpose
Be sure to wear any protective
clothing--like gloves, long sleeves, and long pants--indicated
on the label. Wash this clothing separately before using it again.
Keep children and pets away
from pesticides, and make sure no one goes on a treated lawn
for at least the time prescribed by the pesticide label.
Remember to follow any state
or local requirements for posting your treated lawn or notifying
your neighbors that a pesticide has been applied.
Store and dispose of pesticides
properly, according to the label directions and any state and
2. Use pesticides to minimize
pests, not eradicate them. The latter is often impossible and
3. Be sure you have accurately
identified the pest so you can choose the best pesticide for
the job and use it most effectively. Obtain professional advice
from your county extension agent or a local expert.
4. Spot treat whenever possible.
In most cases, it isn't necessary to treat the whole lawn with
pesticides if the problem is confined to certain areas. Spraying
more than necessary is wasteful and can be environmentally damaging.
Choosing A Lawn Care Service
Many people choose to hire a
professional company to help maintain their lawn. Lawn care companies
offer a range of services, from fertilizing and pest control
to aerating, mowing, and renovation.
Lawn care companies should follow
the same healthy lawn program outlined in this brochure. They
should also follow the same precautions for minimizing pesticide
How can you be sure that a service
will do these things? Start by asking questions like these:
Q. Is the company licensed?
A. Nearly all states require
lawn care companies to be licensed. The qualifications for obtaining
a license vary from state to state, but having a license is one
indication that the company is reputable and operating legally.
Q. Does the company have a good
A. Ask neighbors and friends
who have dealt with the company if they were satisfied with the
service they received. Call the Better Business Bureau or the
state or local consumer protection office listed in your phone
book; have they received any complaints about the company? Determine
from the state pesticide regulatory agency if the company has
a history of violations.
Q. Is the company affiliated
with a professional lawn care association?
A. Affiliation with a professional
association helps members to stay informed of new developments
in the lawn care field.
If you have questions about
a pesticide, call EPA's tollfree National Pesticide Telecommunications
Network (1-800-858-7378). For general information on minimizing
pesticide risks, call or write EPA for a free copy of the Citizen's
Guide to Pesticides. The number to call is 703-305-5017; the
address is: EPA, Office of Pesticide Programs, Field Operations
Division,H7506C, 401M Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20460.
Choosing A Lawn Care Service
Q. Does the company offer a
variety of pest management approaches? Does it apply pesticides
on a set schedule or only when they are really needed? Does it
use integrated pest management, or "IPM"--an approach
that often reduces pesticide use by combining it with other,
non-chemical methods of pest control?
A. More and more lawn companies
are offering integrated pest management (IPM) in response to
public concern about pesticides. Be aware that IPM is a general
term and that companies may use it to describe a wide range of
activities. Find out exactly what a company means if it says
it uses IPM.
Q. Is the company willing to
help you understand your lawn's problems and the solutions?
A. Lawn services generally apply
fertilizers and pesticides. But you may be the one who mows and
waters--and poor watering and mowing practices can lead to disappointing
results. The company should tell you how it plans to take care
of your lawn, and advise you about the work you need to do to
keep your lawn in good shape.
Q. Will the company tell you
what pesticides it applies to your lawn and why, and what health
and environmental risks may be presented by their use?
A. You have a right to this
information. If asked, the company should readily supply it.
All pesticides sold legally in the United States are registered
by EPA, but such registration is not a guarantee of safety. Ask
to see a copy of pesticide labels to make sure they bear an EPA
registration number, and to review the directions that should
be followed. If the company can't answer your questions about
the chemicals it uses, call NPTN (1-800-858-7378) for more information.
For More Information
Affiliated with the Land Grant
university in each state is a system of County Cooperative Extension
Offices. Usually listed in the telephone directory under county
or state government, these offices often have a range of resources
on lawn care and landscape maintenance, including plant selection,
pest control, and soil testing.
State agriculture and/or environmental
agencies may publish information on pests and pest management
strategies. The state pesticide regulatory agency can provide
information on pesticide regulations, and may also have information
on companies with a history of complaints or violations. NPTN
(see below) can identify the agency responsible for pesticide
regulation in each state.
The National Pesticide Telecommunications
Network is a tollfree, 24-hour information service that can be
reached by calling 1-800-858-7378 or by FAX at 806-743-3094.
The operators can provide a wide range of information about the
health effects of pesticides, and provide assistance in dealing
with pesticide-related emergencies.
Libraries, bookstores, and garden
centers usually have a wide selection of books that discuss lawn
care and other aspects of landscape management. Garden centers
may also have telephone hotlines or experts available on the
premises to answer your gardening questions.
The Environmental Protection
Agency can provide information on integrated pest management
strategies for lawn care. Write EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs,
Field Operations Division (H7506C), 401 M St., S.W., Washington,
Some suppliers of lawn care
products can provide helpful tips, answer questions, and help
identify problems. Look for information/hotline numbers on product
The Bio-Integral Resource Center
(BIRC), a non-profit organization formed in 1978 through an EPA
grant, has information on least-toxic methods for lawn care.
BIRC's address is: P.O. Box 7414, Berkeley, CA 94707.