Americans are obsessed with having the perfect lawn but much of what it takes for that to happen is damaging to the environment around us. Lawn fertilizers do not stay on the lawn. The nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizers can travel great distances, ending up in the groundwater supply and the water we drink. They also damage the natural balance of water bodies such as lakes and ocean bays. Although a great idea is to eliminate a lawn and grow edible crops or to Xeriscape your property, some people just have to have the green under their feet. If you fall in that category, these 7 natural lawn and garden care tips can help you to reduce the water needed to maintain that green space and the damage from fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
1. Test your soil – The first step in natural lawn care is a soil test to identify the nutrients already present in your soil. This will help you to only apply the right amount of soil supplements that you soil need. This also applies to vegetable gardens and perennial beds. You can contact your area’s Cooperative Extension Service to find locations for soil testing and other valuable information.
2. Eliminate fertilizer use and use natural lawn and garden enhancers – With natural lawn and garden care, it’s all in the soil preparation before you plant. Often well-maintained lawns and gardens do not need any fertilizer. The results of a soil test and the type of grass or other plants you choose can make the difference when striving to embark on a natural lawn care program. If you have sandy soils or soils that dry out easily and have not been augmented to boost water retention and natural nutrient levels and are planting a new lawn or garden, supplementing the soil with topsoil and compost to have 6-8 inches of rich loam before planting is a start. A thick layer of loam will dramatically cut down your need for watering and fertilizing, and help reduce the spread of weeds. You can also look for natural composted soil supplements such as those from Coast of Maine, which offers a number of organic soil enhancers and mulch products.
If you do fertilize, use an organic product. An organic fertilizer refers to a soil amendment derived from natural sources that guarantees, at least, the minimum percentages of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash. Examples include plant and animal by-products, rock powders, seaweed, and conditioners. Espoma offers a full line of natural garden fertilizers that are readily available at nearly any garden store and even the big box retailers such as Lowes. If you have the room, you can also create your own compost pile. Better Homes & Gardens offers tips on how to create your own compost pile.
3. Select the right grass – If you must have grass, native grasses (or drought and disease tolerant species) require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides than non-native species. Seed mixes specifically formulated for your area are generally available at local garden stores. For example in sandy soil coastal areas a mix of fine-leafed or red fescues and perennial rye grass is a good choice as they are low maintenance, easy to grow, drought resistant, and require less fertilizer than other grasses. Other species like Kentucky Blue Grass may require twice as much water and fertilizer to keep green.
4. Consider Xeriscaping or Smart Scaping with drought and pest resistant plantings instead of a grassy lawn – Xeriscaping is landscaping or gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental water and is a great alternative. Selecting the right xeriscaping plants for your area is key as this varies greatly depending on the growing zone. Your Agricultural Extension Service can help or select on online resource that features your area. Take time to research before you plant to ensure that what you pick is tolerant of the location and the amount of watering you plan to do will make a huge difference in the beauty and environmental impact of the result. Another strategy is to plant the area tightly with plants that are drought tolerant so that the benefit of water from rainfall or periodic spot watering is longer lasting.
5. Mulching planting beds to conserve water – All mulch is not created equal. Many have dyes and chemicals to retain color and longevity. Avoid these when considering natural lawn and garden care. There are an abundance of natural mulches to choose from that will also enhance your soil as they break down. One of the best benefits of mulching is water retention but to achieve this you need to about 4 inches of mulch in garden and scrub areas. Mulch will also reduce the need to weed these areas. Natural cedar mulch is a good choice and is available at many garden centers.
6. Limit or eliminate pesticide use – We’ve all read about the loss of pollinators and the reduction of songbird populations due to pesticide use and the elimination of natural food sources. Did you also know that ridding you lawn of those early flowering dandelions is also harmful to pollinators that need sources of food in the early spring season? Even many biodegradable and “natural” pesticides can do a world of harm. Consider letting nature take it’s course and only intervene when the balance tips way our of line. And, when you do intervene choose a natural lawn and garden care solution that will not harm pollinators or have long-term ill affects on the soil and groundwater around you. Check out some options at Treehugger.com.
7. Minimize watering – If there are no water restrictions in your area and you must water, do so early in the morning to minimize evaporation into the air and apply 1 inch of water each time. Spot water by hand where needed if possible rather than using an irrigation system that waters everything whether needed or not. To measure how much you are really watering, set out a small tin can to collect the water.
For more tips on natural lawn and garden care, the Environmental Protection Agency offers a downloadable greenscaping brochure.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons; Bee in the Garden – Cole Keister on Unsplash; JEForbes