The Good, the Bad, and Your Lawn

"It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, when everyone's grass looks green and good. Won't you be mine? Could you be mine? Won't you be my neighbor?"

Ah yes, the immortal words of the lawn's greatest champion, Frank Rogers (Fred's illegitimate brother). Sadly, a lot of people today don't agree with Frank. They think lawns are bad. They think all lawns harm the environment. Not Grumpy -- aka Sustainability Steve. Grumpy says there are no bad lawns, just bad lawn owners.

Why Lawns Are Good

Despite the condemnations of the Lawn Haters, a properly maintained lawn does a lot of good for the environment. Let Sustainability Steve enumerate.

1. Lawns purify the air. Grass consists of mostly green leaves. These leaves absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and release O2 into it. That's a good thing, right?

2. Lawns purify the water passing through them, absorbing excess nutrients and other harmful substances that would otherwise pollute our groundwater, streams, and lakes. That's a good thing, isn't it?

3. Lawns cool the air. As they transpire moisture taken from the soil, they act like natural air conditioners. Ever notice that city centers are 10 degrees hotter than the suburbs in summer? Why is that? Because city centers are steel and concrete and the suburbs have nice, cool lawns. That's a good thing, isn't it?

4. Lawns provide kids with safe, convenient places to play. There's no way you can play a decent game of football running up a sand dune or dodging cacti in the desert. Lawns give kids a reason to put down their smart phones for at least 25 seconds a day. That's a good thing, isn't it?

5. Lawn maintenance is good exercise. Unless you're a member of Future Diabetics of America who cut 5,000 square-foot lawns using a riding mower, you will work up a sweat just about every week spring through fall while mowing your lawn. Regular lawn exercise lowers bad cholesterol, raises good cholesterol, and is free -- which sitting on a bike in an exercise club isn't. That's a good thing, isn't it?

6. Despite what you've heard, lawns don't have to be high-maintenance. Plant 5,000 square-feet with grass and then plant 5,000 square-feet with flowers and vegetables. You tell me which takes more work. Even if your lawn has lots of weeds, all you have to do to make it look good is mow it. That's a good thing, isn't it?

7. Finally, a well-maintained lawn is pretty. It forms a lush, verdant stage for all the flowers, shrubs, and trees that surround it, like the photo above. That's a good thing, isn't it?

Why Lawns Go Bad

Lawns go bad when we give them more than than need and less than they want. Example of the first: most people water and fertilize way too often. Example of the second: lawns need sun. Plant them in shade and they will become thin, weedy, and eroded.

Three practices in particular make for a bad lawn. The first is overwatering. One inch of water per week applied all at one time, whether by rain or sprinklers, is all most lawn grasses need. Warm-season grasses like Zoysia, Bermuda, buffalograss, and centipede don't even need that. They're naturally adapted to summer drought. When it gets dry, they turn brown and go dormant. One rain later and they're green and growing again.

If there is one villain in the plague of overwatering, it is in-ground sprinkler systems. Sustainability Steve hates them, because they waste water and most people misuse them. People use sprinkler systems to water their entire landscapes -- grass, shrubs, flowers -- despite the fact that each of these has different water requirements. Which means if one is getting the right amount of water, the others are getting too much or too little.

If you have a lawn sprinkler system, use it to water your grass only. Water thoroughly once each week -- say, for a hour -- rather than 15 minutes each day. Turn it on in early morning, so the grass blades can dry out during the day and not fall victim to disease. If your system comes on at 4 AM, go out and watch it operate one morning. Grumpy has seen too many sprinklers shooting water directly into the street in the dead of night. If you don't have a sprinkler system, good -- don't get one.

The second evil practice is overfertilizing. Grumpy says fertilizing your grass every month is no different than you scarfing down a bag of pork rinds every day. The result is flabby grass prone to disease. What nutrients the grass doesn't use wash into streams, ponds, and rivers, depleting water oxygen and harming wildlife.

Sustainability Steve says fertilize no more than twice a year. Use a slow-release fertilizer formulated for your type of grass. For warm-season grasses (Zoysia, St. Augustine, Bermuda, buffalograss), fertilize in late spring and midsummer. That's it. Fertilize centipede only once in spring. Any more and you'll kill it. Feed cool-season grasses (Kentucky bluegrass, fescue, perennial rye) once in fall and once in spring. Fall feeding is the most important for them.

Don't use weed-and-feed fertilizers. These products combine weedkillers and fertilizer, so in theory you can kill two birds with one stone. Problem is, they hardly ever work right, because people apply them all wrong. Each granule of weedkiller has to stick to the leaf of an actively growing weed for at least a day in order to work. If it falls off or gets washed off by rain or watering, it does nothing. Instead of killing weeds, weed-and-feed ends up making them grow faster.

Also, don't use any weedkiller that contains a chemical called atrazine. Atrazine is unique in that it both prevents weeds from germinating and kills existing weeds. Trouble is, it's completely water soluble and washes out of the soil following heavy rain and pollutes lakes, streams, and rivers. It's the only garden chemical my local waterworks tests for, which means it gets into the water I'm drinking. Atrazine has serious ill effects on wildlife. For more details about atrazine, see my blog post, "Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places -- Froggies Croak a Warning."

The third evil is bagging the clippings after you mow and putting them out for the trash, so they wind up in landfills. This is so moronic. If you bag grass clippings, put them in your own composter and turn them into compost for your garden. Even better, don't bag. Use a mulching mower to shred the clippings into tiny bits and return them and their nutrients to the soil surface. By doing this, you can cut in half the need for lawn fertilizer.

Read More About Sustainability from Grumpy's Nice Friends

Virginia's Jan Huston Doble, who writes the Thanks for Today garden blog, has created the Gardeners Sustainable Living Project, where garden bloggers and plain old gardeners can share their ideas about sustainable gardening and win all sorts of neat prizes, like a rain barrel or composter. The contest runs through April 15. Jan also reminds you that Earth Day is April 22. You might also want to take part in National Arbor Day on April 29.

Next Time -- Detoxify Your Indoor Air

Did you know that one decent size houseplant can purify the air in an average room? It's true. Get the details in your next exciting Grumpy Gardener!

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