By Nara Schoenberg, Tribune Newspapers
9:32 AM CDT, April 16, 2010
Want to make the planet a little greener? Look no farther than your own backyard — or, for that matter, your own front yard.
The U.S. is home to 32 million acres of lawn, or enough to cover the 100 largest U.S. cities almost twice, says Owen Dell, author of "Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies" (For Dummies, 2009). Lawns suck up 270 billion gallons of water a week and burn 800 million gallons of (mower) gas a year.
And then there are the pesticides and the chemical-based fertilizers.
"I use this analogy," Dell says. "If you take care of yourself — exercise, eat right, don't drink too much alcohol, don't use drugs — you're going to have a much better chance of staying healthy. Similarly, if you keep the landscape healthy, whether it's the lawn or anything else, you're going to have fewer problems."
How do you break free of the high-maintenance lawn care cycle?
Drawing from interviews with Dell, Tom Christopher, editor of "The New American Sustainable Garden" (due out next year from Timber Press) and Annie Spiegelman, author of "Talking Dirt" (Perigee, 2010), we assembled a list of basic tips to get you started.
Don't overwater. "Most people grossly overwater their lawns," Dell says. Consider getting a free "water audit" if your water company offers one, or just turn the sprinkler off and observe the results. If your grass doesn't spring back when you step on it in the heat of the afternoon, it's time to water. Dell says watering four times a week is too much in most parts of the country (OK, Tucson, Ariz., might be an exception).
Water deeply. Spiegelman says it's better to water deeply than frequently. Many lawns do well with 15 to 20 minutes at a time, once or twice a week. For maximum efficiency, give the water a chance to seep in: Water for 10 minutes, wait 20 minutes and then finish watering.
Get adequate coverage. If your sprinkler doesn't cover a spot, Dell says, you end up with a dry area or an overwatered lawn.
Give the soil breathing room. Aerate your lawn once or twice a year in spring or fall with a gas- or foot-powered aerator. This loosens the roots and lets water and fertilizers to penetrate. Dell suggests removing 9 or 10 little soil "cores" per square foot of lawn and raking compost into the holes.
Try a lush look. If you keep your grass 3 inches high, it will "shade out" weeds, denying them the sun they need to grow and take over your lawn, Spiegelman says.
Reduce your lawn size. Less lawn means less watering, Spiegelman notes. Consider a border planted with low-maintenance ground cover instead of grass.
Kick the chemical fertilizer habit. "We pump these (lawns) up on nitrogen and other nutrients until they're like baseball players on steroids," Christopher says. "You don't have to do that. One fertilization with an organic fertilizer in early fall and your lawn will be just fine."
Go natural. Insecticides with ingredients such as vinegar and orange oil are sold at many nurseries, Spiegelman says, and boiling water kills weeds. She likes several organic lawn care products, including TerraCycle's liquid lawn fertilizer made with worm waste, available at its Web site (terracycle.net).
Keep grass clippings. Rather than removing them, rake them gently over your lawn, Spiegelman says. They're free and rich in the plant nutrient nitrogen.
Consider low-maintenance grass. Ask your local university extension program or agriculture department to recommend a low-maintenance grass (options include fine fescues and buffalograss) that grows well in your region, Christopher says. These easy-going grasses are designed for your region and will thrive with minimal water and mowing.