Mike McGrath Caricature

Lawn & Garden Tips

The Climate Friendly Gardener


Gardener GuideSeventy percent of American households engage in some level of gardening or lawn care every year. Some do it for beautiful flowers, lush grass, or fresh fruits and vegetables; some for the peace and quiet or the connection to nature. But there is another reason to grow plants in your yard: certain gardening practices can help combat global warming. This guide from the Union of Concerned Scientists will show you how.

Get Your Lawn Off Drugs

Mike McGrath, host of "You Bet Your Garden" (Saturday mornings at 11 on WHYY 90.9FM), visited Lawrence Township to share his insights. He left the following simple tips for all us.

The 7 Secrets of Highly Successful Sod

© 2008 Mike McGrath; All rights reserved.
For the personal use of those who attended the June 2008 and March 2009 Sustainable Lawrence “Get Your Lawn Off Drugs” event. Not to be reprinted or otherwise disseminated in any manner without express written permission.

It’s Easy to Have a Healthy, Weed-Free Lawn Without Chemicals
Most lawn problems are caused by lawn owners who use unnecessary chemical fertilizers and pesticides, cut their grass WAY too short and water it all wrong. People, People, People!: Any gardener can assure you that grass is a VERY hardy and tenacious ‘weed’. If you simply stop trying to kill it, you should be able to achieve a lush weed-free sea of green with VERY little work. Just follow these 7 steps.

    1. Grow the right kind of grass for your region and conditions. Here in the North, you want to grow a ‘cool season’ grass like Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass or fescue. The only warm-season turf grown in PA is the famous zoysia, which is an excellent choice if you don’t mind it going brown and dormant in the winter. Sunny spots need a grass that thrives in lots of light, like Kentucky bluegrass or zoysia; use fescues in shady spots.
    2. Prevent weed seeds from sprouting with corn gluten meal. Applied in the Spring when the forsythia and redbuds begin to bloom, this all-natural by-product of corn processing stops new weeds, weakens old ones and gives your lawn the perfect amount of slow-release nitrogen for strong roots and beautiful green growth; without the nasty chemicals in conventional ‘weed and feed’ products that threaten people, pets and the environment. Note: The product must say “pre-emergent herbicide”; corn gluten sold as animal feed will not work. Some of the brands available at retail are from Espoma (the makers of Holly-Tone), Concern, and Cock-a-Doodle-Doo. Gardens Alive sells it mail order as “Wow” and “Wow Plus”.
    3. Cut your grass at the right height! Most people cut their grass way too short, thinking it will help them mow less often. But scalping your lawn forces the grass to try and grow super-fast to replace the solar collectors you just executed. This weak new growth looks terrible, so you cut it again—way too soon and way too short. And again…and…   Meanwhile, the roots aren’t growing at all—allowing weeds to throw wild parties with loose flora where your turf should be. Your lawn should be AT LEAST three inches high AFTER YOU CUT IT—a half-inch higher for shady lawns. And never cut off more than a third at any one time. Your grass will grow slower, look much greener, and form DEEP roots that crowd out weeds naturally. Dr. Nick Christians, turfgrass Professor at Iowa State University, explains that a fescue grass cut at two inches high will have 18-inch deep roots—which sounds pretty good, right? But if you raise the cutting height to the fescue-recommended three and a half inches, those roots will go down FOUR FEET. That’s a lawn that can find enough water and nutrients to take care of itself!
    1. Feed it right! Cool season grasses should get a big feeding in the Fall and a lighter one in the Spring. Never feed a cool-season lawn in hot weather! If you use a TRUE mulching mower to return the pulverized nitrogen-rich clippings to your turf, you can cut the amount of nitrogen in each feeding by half. An inch of compost raked into the turf makes the best fall food. Otherwise, use a bagged organic lawn food—not chemical trash that would otherwise be used to manufacture explosives.
    2. Water correctly! A light sprinkling every day is the worst thing you can do. With no need to reach for water down deep, the grass’ roots will stay shallow and weeds will move right in. Long, infrequent waterings = deep roots that stop weeds cold. Most lawns need an inch of water a week; if Nature provides this, sit on your hose. If she doesn’t, apply that weekly inch (use a rain gauge) all at once on lawns in clay soil. But break it up into two, ¾ inch-deep soakings per week if your soil is sandy. Lawns in sun need more water; lawns in shade, less. Some grasses, like Kentucky blue, are notoriously thirsty; others, like fescues, can take it much drier. It is never wrong to water a lawn in the early morning; but it is disease-inviting Death on a Stick to water in the evening.
    3. Consider letting your lawn go naturally dormant in the summer.  Zoysia grass owners realize that their warm-season turf goes dormant in the winter so that it can send its energy down to hide in its deep roots until warm weather returns. When bluegrass and other cool-season grasses try to do the same, their owners call the police. Then they relentlessly feed and water them, trying to force them to grow in weather they despise. NEVER FEED A DORMANT PLANT! That means no fertilizer on cool-season turfs over the summer; it only weakens them. (If you’re on the 4-step program, you need to try a 12-step program.) And if you choose not to water during an attempted dormancy, you’ll improve the overall health and vigor of your turf and deny Japanese beetle grubs a place to breed.
    4. Don’t be afraid to ‘Take The Pipe’ and start over. If your ‘lawn’ is more than 50% grass-free, start over. In the North, you should always wait till early Fall (August 15th to September 15th is the ideal window) to seed a new cool season lawn. Sod is much more expensive but can be laid Spring or Fall—just be sure and keep it well-watered till its roots establish. Any over-seeding of cool-season lawns should also be done in the Fall window. Because they are composed of clumping grasses, lawns in the shade need to be over-seeded every two years to fill in bare spots. Lawns in full sun are composed of ‘running’ grasses, and will fill in their own bare spots as soon as you stop trying to kill them.

© 2008 Mike McGrath; All rights reserved.
For the personal use of those who attended the June 2008 Sustainable Lawrence “Get Your Lawn Off Drugs” event. Not to be reprinted or otherwise disseminated in any manner without express written permission.