Growing the Non-Toxic Lawn

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(Host) Commentator Henry Homeyer observes that the lawn care season is upon us, and he offers some of his favorite tips for keeping your lawn green and healthy.

(Homeyer) The old ditty goes, Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the flowers is? Well, my lawn has riz, and it looks good to me – even though I’m ignoring all the recommendations of the American lawn care industry.

They want me to apply chemicals to my lawn at least four times a year, and thank you very much, I choose not to. I must be missing some DNA in my genes, but I don’t care if a few dandelions grow in my lawn. In fact, I like them. They’re cheerful. And while I wouldn’t plant crabgrass, I don’t lose sleep if some grows in my lawn. Somehow it just doesn’t seem important.

The chemical giants have somehow infused many homeowners with a Barbie Doll mentality: you’re a failure unless your lawn looks just so. They want you to keep it short, and to fertilize frequently. They want to sell toxins to kill weeds and grubs, and to prevent the growth of fungus. Just reading the warning label on the bags of lawn care chemicals makes me nervous. If I need to wear a mask while applying a pesticide, or if I need to keep kids and dogs off the lawn afterwards, I don’t want it.

But there are alternatives to the chemically dependent lawn. Instead of adding chemicals, how about adding composted manure? It’s available in bags at the garden center. Take a shovel and a rake, and spread a thin layer over the lawn. Half an inch of compost will encourage earthworms to live there, and worms are great for aerating the lawn. Compost will introduce beneficial bacteria and fungi, things that help your plants to use the minerals in the soil.

And save yourself some work this summer. Let your lawn grow longer. Three and a half inches is ideal. This allows each grass plant to have more surface area for photosynthesis. This, in turn, produces more food to feed the roots. Bigger root systems help your lawn to survive drought better. Keeping the lawn longer also helps to shade out annual weeds and grasses that want to invade.

Take the bagger off your lawn mower. The grass clippings are great worm food. The reason people get a “thatch problem” is simply that they have a sterile lawn: no earthworms, no bacteria or other organisms to help break down the grass clippings, which then accumulate. This is common on chemically treated lawns, but not on natural lawns.

Chemical manufacturers try hard to convince us that all their products are safe, but I’m not convinced. The government has approved pesticides in the past, things like DDT and Diazinon, only to reverse itself years later. So my lawn might not be perfect by some standards, but I’m not afraid to eat my dandelion greens.

This is the gardening guy, Henry Homeyer, from Cornish Flat, New Hampshire.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist.

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