Saving the Earth can start at home Lawns: You can reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals while growing grass.


Driving around the area on my way to and from work and on various errands, I am often struck by the number of Chesapeake Bay license plates on cars. This is a fine thing, and I heartily applaud all those who have chosen to make a contribution to one of our most important natural resources this way.

But there are other things, equally or more significant, that many of us can do without even leaving home.

What can you do to save the bay?

Well, if you have a lawn or garden (or both), that is a very good place to start.

It may be startling to realize, but of the pollution from fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that contaminate the bay, much originates from ordinary suburban yards. The runoff from these chemicals goes not only into the bay, but into our food and water supplies as well. It kills beneficial insects, birds and animals, (including pets) and can poison our children.

Reducing or eliminating the use of chemicals on your lawn and garden can also save you time, money and energy.

What a deal: By helping to protect one environment, you can improve your own immediate surroundings, too!

So, how do you go about getting unhooked from chemical dependency? What will become of your lawn? Doesn't it need all that stuff you have been relying on for years?

Well, no, actually, it doesn't.

What your lawn does need is a little bit more participation from you in the beginning -- and much less later on.

Soil testing

The first thing you should do is have your soil tested. The pH is especially important, because the grasses that do best in this area prefer a pH of between 5.5 and 7.5. This is a slightly acid to neutral soil (7.0 is exactly neutral).

Simple-to-use test kits are available in most garden supply centers, or you can contact the Home and Garden Information Center of the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Maryland at (800) 342-2507 to find out how to send samples in for testing by your county extension service.

After you know the soil's pH, you will know how to best proceed. If the pH is too low, which is most common in this area, you can raise it with lime or wood ashes. Your extension agent can recommend how much to use.

Rather than pouring on the chemicals, you should do what is much better for your lawn and add organic matter and nutrients in the form of compost, bone meal, peat moss or soybean meal.

This will build soil structure and create a nutrient reserve for your grass. Also, it will introduce microorganisms that will get rid of thatch and turn the decaying matter into additional food for the plants. This in turn means less watering during dry spells, and greener, healthier grass.

Appropriate grasses

Whether you are reseeding an area or starting a lawn from scratch, select grasses that are appropriate to your geographic area and to any out-of-the-ordinary conditions you may have. It is also better to use more than one kind of grass, as this will make your lawn more resistant to disease and less desirable to pests. Your extension agent should have information about varieties.

Grasses well adapted to this area are the turf-type tall fescues; Bermuda grass; zoysia; and the older, more common varieties of Kentucky bluegrass. Annual rye will give you a quick green-up, and can act as a "nurse" plant for the slower-growing turf grasses, especially in somewhat shady areas. (I lean toward a combination of buffalo grass and white Dutch clover, since neither grows more than 6 inches tall, but this is my own idiosyncrasy.)

You might consider adding some white Dutch clover to your lawn mix. The clover will fix nitrogen from the air in the soil and make it available for the grasses, so you do less fertilizing. It also stays green in the hottest weather, and its long roots help break up tough clay and subsoils, and bring up additional nutrients for other plants.

It will help your lawn to keep the grass longer, too -- never shorter than 2 1/2 -3 inches. This will reduce watering in summer, ++ because the roots are only as long as the grass, and longer roots have access to more water.

Make sure the mower blade is sharp, so that it cuts rather than tears the grass. Leave the clippings on the lawn to provide organic matter (if they are very long, you may want to run the mower over them again, or collect them for the compost pile).

Lighter and quieter

Speaking of mowers, you could consider getting an old-fashioned reel mower if your lawn isn't too large. This will help by lessening soil compaction, as reel mowers are much lighter than power mowers.

A reel mower is also much quieter than a power mower, and will give you some aerobic exercise to boot, saving you time and money at a health club, while impressing your neighbors with your commitment to environmental principles -- not to mention that you are much less likely to lose a toe with a reel mower or get pelted with flying debris from the mower blades.

When you water, water deeply, but infrequently. This will encourage longer roots and sturdier grass.

Try to water in the evening after the sun has gone down or early in the morning, so that the water has a chance to sink in, rather than mostly evaporating.

And, yes, when you first stop using a battalion of chemicals, pests and weeds may seem to think your lawn is an open buffet, but this phase is short-lived. Soon, beneficial insects and organisms will take over.

If you keep your lawn mowed, most weeds will give up and slowly waste away, and the healthier grass will crowd them out. If you are really bothered by the sight of a few weeds, you can get a spray bottle of herbicide and attack them individually -- just remember to aim only at the weeds!

Above all, be patient.

Give things time to work. This is not a "quick fix" you are applying that guarantees results in 48 hours. You are creating a work of art, restoring the healthy, natural balance of the earth.

Besides, you'll be able to go barefoot again -- and help save the bay.

Pub date: 3/2/97

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