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Healthy Lawn Care Tips

Healthy Home 2008, Spring 2008

A thick, green lawn is a pleasure to look at, but maintaining that plushness and vibrant color takes work. Eighty percent of Americans have a lawn -- and they spend approximately $28 billion a year on lawn installation, care products, equipment, and maintenance.

Lawns do help the environment by generating oxygen and controlling erosion. But over the past half century, Americans' obsession with their yards has become anything but natural. Widespread use of pesticides (which include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides) has caused major environmental and health problems.

In fact, homeowners apply 10 times more pesticides per acre than farmers -- a total of 67 million pounds each year. Fortunately, long-term organic lawn care eventually cuts down on costs and lawn maintenance.

Avoid the need for pesticides by planting your lawn at the appropriate time -- and with the best type of grass -- for your climate. Ask a local nursery for advice, or visit or The right grass will cut down on the amount of fertilizer and care needed; mixing several similar cultivars will help increase resistance to stress and disease. Mowing with a freshly sharpened blade may also help stop diseases because the clean cut heals more quickly, creating less stress on the plant.

Remove no more than one-third of the blade with each cut to reduce stress. Watering irregularly, but deeply, is more effective at keeping grass green than a daily sprinkle; how often you water, though, will depend on your climate and type of grass. Watering early in the morning is best. At midday, water evaporates too quickly, and in the evening moisture can help grow undesirable fungi. If you must use pesticides on the yard, stay away from commercial "weed and feed" formulations, which typically contain herbicides like 2,4-D, MCPP (mecoprop), dicamba, or diazinon (all of which are suspected in health issues and environmental degradation; see Herbicides).

More Careful
Grass grows best in soil with a pH between 6 and 7, so start by getting a soil test through your local cooperative extension service and adding natural mineral amendments -- limestone for acidic soil, sulfur for alkaline soil -- to attain the optimum pH. If you hire a professional to take over your lawn care, specify that you want to use natural products. Many pros still consider the pesticides and nitrate-based fertilizers they use to be safe, despite a growing body of evidence that long-term exposure can be dangerous.

Most Careful
When mowing, don't bother bagging the clippings; instead, let them decompose on the lawn. Clippings add nitrogen back into the soil and cut down on the need for fertilizer. When choosing a fertilizer, look for products labeled "natural or organic (see Fertilizers) and use compost tea four times yearly to boost the natural health of your soil (visit for a recipe). During the fall, rake about a half-inch of compost over the grass. Also, consider alternative yard cover; convert part of the yard to groundcover, mulched beds with plants, wildflower meadows, or rain gardens (especially in shady spots). In hot, dry climates where a green lawn is hard to maintain, consider xeriscaping, a garden technique that replaces traditional lawns with drought-tolerant grasses, perennials, shrubs, and trees so that you don't need additional irrigation.

The best time to water your lawn? First thing in the morning.

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