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  Friday, October 24, 2014  
   
 

 
Green is as Green Thumb Does
Keeping it Green  

From the air, a common American neighborhood probably appears as a patchwork quilt of green squares and toy houses. As Pete Seeger sang, we love our little boxes made of ticky tacky and we like to drink our martinis dry on our back porches gazing over our fabulously green yards. If there is one brown, sunburned yard on a street of plush green carpets, eyebrows are raised. If you have ever been that guy, or if you are the eye-brow raiser himself, surely the unspoken requirement of a green yard rings true.

What is it about the human experience that makes cultivating your yard indispensable? Perhaps it is a result of beginning in the perfection of the Garden of Eden. Or perhaps because working the good earth is infectious. Ask any frequent gardener why he exercises his green thumb. Working in a garden is in fact used as therapy, called horticultural therapy, which expanded as a practice after World War II to treat veterans and is now used worldwide.

Maybe it’s ego that drives us to toil for an emerald carpet. As Kevin Kerwin said in 47 Husband Mysteries Solved, “The lawn is the canvas upon which guys judge each other. It’s the great redeemer. If we aren’t great lawn men, we’re nothing.” In any case, working to green your lawn is worth it, if not for your sake, at least for your neighborhood’s.

Greening your yard is analogous to a blade of grass. We can minimally admire the blade, or we can dissect it and appreciate what a remarkable organism one sole blade is. “Until man duplicates a blade of grass, nature can laugh at his so called scientific knowledge,” said Thomas Edison. In parallel, solutions for greening your lawn range from merely watering to spreading some fertilizer to envisioning your lawn as a unique ecosystem which encompasses the birds and the bees. So even if you were not gifted with a green thumb, numerous resources are available to get green flowing in your yard.

Let us begin with the simplest, yet most essential, of resources—water. Watering your lawn can be more effectual and less wasteful if you are more systematic than simply breaking out the sprinkler to let the kids run through it. Some short-term practices are easily applicable to help you get more green for your gallon. Lawns needs about 1 inch of water per week. Water weekly, but also wait to see when your lawn actually needs water. If the blades are becoming dull in appearance, or if the grass holds on to your footprints after walking through it, it probably needs water. Water in the early morning as evaporation increases in the afternoon, and evening watering can actually produce mold or disease in the grass. As you water, if puddles develop, allow time for the water to soak in to the soil before continuing.

When Mother Nature blesses us with rain, catch it in rain barrels or large trash cans from the roof and recycle it in your yard. Use a soaker hose as opposed to a sprinkler which can save up to 50% more water. And be sure you are watering merely your grass and not your driveway.

For the more committed, longer term possibilities to efficient watering exist. Adding compost to the top layer of your lawn will permit greater absorption of the water. Compost can be purchased or made-from-scratch from your biodegradable wastes such as leftover fruits/vegetables from the kitchen, dead leaves, and grass clippings. A compost pile will take several months to decompose and reduce to dark, luxurious, nutrient-filled dirt. Not only does compost increase water absorption, the rich dirt replenishes nutrients in the soil on which grass can feed, and of course, be greener.

Being conscientious about grass seed choice can save you sleepless nights wondering how your grass is faring. Grass seeds that are native to our region, such as fescue and ryegrass, will adapt better to our local climate and rainfall. And it may seem stranger than fiction, but you can water, mow and fertilize your grass, and it may never be as green as your next door neighbor’s. Some grass seed is actually bred to be greener and darker. The future of breeding grass seed, according to current research, promises cross breeds of grass that will be resilient yet darker green. Scientists are developing a hybrid of ryegrass and fescue, to combine the resiliency of ryegrass with the darker green color of fescue.

Aside from watering, your mowing practices, not just carving perfect diagonals or rows in your yard, can also douse you with some green. Lawn experts recommend that grass should be about 2 to 3 inches high to produce more durable grass and to crowd out unfriendly weeds. Never cut your grass more than 1/3 of its height at one time as this can traumatize your grass and cause a need for therapy. If you return from vacation to find a jungle as a yard, resist the temptation to clip it back to normal height and cut it only by 1/3. Dull mower blades tend to tear grass instead of cut it; sharpened blades are preferable. The best time to mow grass is in the early evening, before the dew comes but after the sun is lower in the sky.

As you mow, another temptation to resist is consistently bagging the clippings. A common misconception is that leaving clippings contributes to increased thatch. Clippings and thatch are not related—not even cousins a few times removed. Thatch occurs because of dead grass roots, usually generated (or should we say degenerated?) by over fertilization of the soil using synthetic fertilizers. Beware of thatch. When too much thatch accumulates between the soil and live grass, the matter blocks water and sunlight from reaching the grass root and thereby inhibits growth. If thatch does build up, you can remove it by using a dethatching tool, either manual or electric. This process may be labor intensive, but you will burn some calories! Clippings do not contribute to thatch; they are your friend. Clippings will not sink in to your grass, or even just sit on top of your grass. They are 96% water and will biodegrade quickly. As you mow, though you may like the “cleaner” look of bagging your clippings, leaving them is a good dirty practice as it is a fabulous source of organic fertilizer. Studies show that you can provide 50% of your lawn’s fertilizer requirement just by allowing the clippings some leisure time on the lawn. If you are somewhat annoyed by the look of leaving clippings, try alternating bagging them and leaving them. If you do bag them, empty them into your new compost pile. There are two times, however, when you should bag the clippings: in the spring when the dandelions seed and in the fall when the crabgrass goes to seed.

Moving up on the complexity scale, fertilization is a very popular option for feeding the grass and the soil. As you shop for fertilizers, be aware that fertilization may not be as straightforward as buying a bag of fertilizer and dispersing it. Nowadays, we have options for syn­thetic and organic fertilizers, which have vastly different ingredients and purposes.

Common synthetic fertilizers are quick-release products that produce greener grass sometimes in a few days. They are essentially plant flood. They use a nitrogen, phosphate and potash (N-P-K) mix to encourage foliage growth. You can use these fertilizers without a soil test because they aim to nourish the plant and not the soil. Timing of fertilization will make synthetic products more effective. The grass seed in your yard is the best indicator of when to fertilize. Cool grasses and warm grasses are fertilized at different times, the fall being the best time for cool grasses and early spring for warm grasses. In our area, cool grasses such as fescue, bentgrass or ryegrass are common. If you choose synthetic fertilizers, be aware that over time, the salts in the fertilizers can build up in the soil and later damage plant growth.

Organic matter fertilizers, in contrast to synthetic fertilizers, aim to nourish the soil first. Inserting organic matter into the soil produces “sweeter” soil and healthier root systems. With strong roots, grass can survive droughts and severe cold. Organic matter fertilizers are slow-release, non-petroleum, non-nitrogen and non-salt fertilizers. They are derived from naturally occurring wasteful resources such as compost, bio solids, chicken manure, seaweed extracts, bone meal and blood meals. Proponents of organic fertilizers emphasize that the quality of grass is rooted in the quality of the soil. Soil needs to be nourished and watered to support healthy plants over the long term.

If you choose to use organic fertilizers, a soil test is a smart way to start. The purpose of the soil test is quite logical—you can discover exactly what your lawn needs to grow healthy grass. Dig four to six inches into your soil to the root zone and send it to a qualified soil lab. The test will tell you what the pH of your soil is and how much nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium you have. Along with the test, recommendations are available showing you what your soil needs. If you need potassium, for example, you can begin to educate yourself about products containing potassium.

A conscientious reason to choose organic fertilizers is the long-term health of the environment. Ironically, in an effort to create greener lawns, we have birthed “non-green” environmental complications. Synthetic fertilizer spurns abundant foliage, yet causes nitrogen leaching from the soil. The excess nitrogen is carried by ground water into our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, causing more algae growth and decreasing oxygen levels in the water, which harms plant and animal life. Granted, the larger part of nitrogen pollution comes from large lots such as golf courses, but let’s not under estimate the little guy.

While grass is a significant part of your yard’s community, other members hold seats on the town green committee, such as the soil, good and “bad” plants, birds and insects. As you are working towards well-fed soil, do not let your pains be foiled by soil erosion. Rainfall, melting ice, and strong winds can whisk away your topsoil. Planting flowers or trees in the affected areas will strengthen the soil by their root systems and grant a natural shield from the elements. Laying mulch prevents run-off by absorbing excess water easily. Matting comprised of wood-fibers will keep a firm hold on topsoil, and allow plants to grow through it. If soil is running off of a hill, creeping plants are an excellent covering. Finally, a small retaining wall around flowers beds or trees creates a barrier against erosion.

Weeds can also play the bad guy in your yard’s world. Eliminating them as naturally as possible will be kinder to the good guys. Instead of spraying with anti-weed chemicals, go greener by using vinegar based products. These are available at lawn/garden stores, or you can consult a local organic lawn specialist to locate organic products. Another purchase available at lawn/garden store is corn-gluten meal. After a nice rain when the soil is damp, dig up the whole roots of weeds. Fill in the hole with the corn-gluten meal to suppress weed seeds that may remain. Simply mulching around trees and bushes will suffocate weeds. Over-seeding the grass frequently prevents weeds from over-taking the grass. We cut grass before it goes to seed, never giving it the chance to reproduce by itself, making it all too easy for weeds to reproduce and fill in bare spots in the yard.

While battling weeds, you can be intentional about introducing plants to your yard that will attract birds and “good” insects. Birds feed on pesky insects and keep you from having a heyday with insecticide, which is harmful to more than six-legged invaders. Birds need to have a combination of shelter and food. Small trees such as bayberry, cherry dogwood, and eastern hemlock are trees in our region where birds can shelter. Virginia creeper, juniper, myrtle, holly and boxwood are excellent vines and bushes that are bird friendly. Plant flowers such as aster, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum, marigold, sunflower, or columbine as flowering possibilities for food. Bird-feeders, bird baths and solar powered fountains can transform your yard into a bird resort.

A further way to fend off insects naturally is to plant flowers and trees which attract “good” insects, such as ladybugs, lacewings, hoverflies and damsel bugs. Dill, coriander, dandelion, fennel, cinquefoil, speedwell, Queen Anne’s Lace, spearmint and marigold all attract various species of “good” insects to come out and hunt the bad guys. A few other practical ways to eliminate pests naturally: purchase ladybugs to release in your yard; pour boiling water on anthills; place plastic under trees and bushes, shake them hardily, and throw away the caterpillars that fall. If you see a blue one smoking a pipe, however, be sure to call Alice.

Hopefully greening your yard will be an adventure in the wonderland of cultivating a green thumb and a green yard. As you experiment with simple or sophisticated efforts this season, remember that this is not a one shot deal. Summer is not endless and cold weather is a great equalizer. After all, the good thing about snow is that it makes each yard on the patchwork quilt of the neighborhood as white as the next.

—By Rebekah Spraitzar Madren