Growing a "Greener" Garden and Lawn

Does hot July find your lawn a patchy, scorched remnant of greener times? Perhaps it bothers you that your green recycling efforts may be countered by the water and chemicals that seem necessary to maintain the visible herbal greenness.

Why Even Have a Lawn?

Well, they're a terrific place for the kids to play. Summer evenings + cool, green lawn + kids = throwing a football. Red Light—Green Light. Badminton. Wading pools. Water games. Tire swings. Firefly captures. Etc.

But while the kids are merrily wearing themselves out on that manicured field of grass, they're coming into contact with more than just what nature puts there. Insecticides, weed killers, and so on. If all these chemicals were in your home, doubtless they'd be tucked out of harm's way and properly labeled. Does your lawn need a Mr. Yuck sticker? Perhaps you don't use chemicals, but your lawn is a blistered field of close-cropped grass.

Fortunately, there are environmentally friendly ways to maintain a reasonably attractive lawn.

To begin, choose the right grass. What kind you plant will determine how well it thrives and how much support it will need. You can check with your local cooperative extension office for suggestions. They can also tell you how to test your soil.

Don't over fertilize. Whether you ultimately choose chemical or organic fertilizers, don't add too much. Test your soil to determine the right amount for your lawn, and do your research to find more environmentally friendly products. Whatever fertilizer isn't absorbed by your lawn will find its way into the storm drains, from there into the rivers, and ultimately the oceans. Too much nitrogen in the water can kill oysters, crabs, fish, etc. In the Chesapeake, they call this phenomenon the Dead Zone, but it's a lot scarier than a Stephen King novel because it's real.

Little girl with a flowerAvoid pesticides. Pesticides can harm children, leading to increased rates of brain cancer, childhood leukemia, lymphoma, and asthma. Dogs that live at houses which use pesticides are also at greater risk for developing lymphomas.* The Safer Pest Control Project offers fact sheets on alternatives to chemical pesticides at This service does require a free sign up.

Don't cut it so close. Scalping your yard during a dry season is hard on your lawn. Adjust the blades of your mower for a longer cut.

Water in the morning. Assuming your community is not under a water restriction, watering in the morning is your best bet to maximize its benefits. The grass will take in all it can before the sun comes along and dries off the remainder. Too much water at the wrong time can either stress plants if done midday in the blistering sun or else promote diseases that use all that extra water as a conduit to ravage your yard.*

Using a lawn service. Perhaps you've decided how you want your lawn maintained, but now you realize you have no time to do it. Twenty years ago, it might have been difficult to find a lawn service which could accommodate environmental concerns, but not any longer. Discuss your concerns with the staff.

With the right approach, your lawn can give your family years of happy summer memories. To learn more, check out these books from the library, and browse these Web sites:

In the Library

Easy Lawns: Low Maintenance Native Grasses For Gardeners Everywhere edited by Stevie Daniels
"This easy-to-read, full-color guide will help anyone select the perfect grass for their environment. Native grasses are easier to care for than traditional high-maintenance grasses, and they help restore biodiversity because they don't disturb the surrounding natural habitat. Best of all, native grasses create a beautiful lawn. This guide offers everything readers need to know to choose, buy, plant, and maintain native lawns in any region: East, Northeast, Southeast, Florida, California, Colorado, high desert landscapes, and dry sites across the country."
(Publisher's description)

Environmental Gardening by Karen Arms
If you've considered the radical move of eliminating the lawn altogether in favor of even more environmentally friendly options, you may wish to delve into this one. The author writes of water and bog gardens, recycling garden waste, attracting wildlife, using native and heirloom plants, saving water and energy, and more.

The Everything Lawn Care Book by Douglas Green
In addition to more traditional, chemical approaches, Green includes many suggestions for greener alternatives in lawn care in this well-written, comprehensive book.

Groundwork: A Gardener's Ecology by Roger B. Swain
Although not a how-to book, this tome from a host of PBS' The Victory Garden has ten essays that will interest those to whom environmentally friendly gardening is a priority on topics including soil erosion, water conservation, food distribution, and more.

Lawns, Natural and Organic by Don Williamson
"Veteran garden writer and turf expert Williamson has written a timely new book that provides comprehensive knowledge and information on how to grow and maintain a chemical-free lawn."
(Publisher's description)

Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards by Sara Stein
A chatty and philosophical recounting of a woman's decision to change over her gardening techniques to be more environmentally friendly.

Safe & Easy Lawn Care: The Complete Guide to Organic, Low-maintenance Lawns edited by Barbara Ellis
Chapters include: Planning a Low-Maintenance Lawn; Planting a Healthy Lawn; Caring for Your Lawn; Renovating a Lawn; and Coping with Pests, Diseases, and Weeds. Part of Taylor's Weekend Gardening Guides series.

On the Web

For a "Green" Lawn, Focus on Mowing, Not Early Fertilizing
From Cornell University's Department of Horticulture. Tells how to mow properly and keep down phosphorus pollution from over fertilizing lawns while making sure the lawn has enough nitrogen.

Grow a Beautiful Lawn without Chemicals or Fossil Fuels
Mother Earth Living interviews a man who has chosen to "go green" yet still have an attractive and enjoyable lawn. Mother Earth Living is also available as an RSS feed.

Healthy Lawn, Healthy Environment
A friendly brochure from the Environmental Protection Agency outlines Integrated Pest Management and other strategies for a healthier lawn.

Lawn Fertilization in Virginia
Detailed information on how to determine what nutrients are needed for the best lawn care in Virginia.