2018-09-14 / Community

Our Sustainable City

Take simple steps this fall to manage your lawn
By Julie Rosenbach, sustainability director and Jay Feldman, director of Beyond Pesticides

With the first season of the new pesticide ordinance in effect, many people are wondering how to maintain a lush, green lawn. This week’s column is dedicated to simple steps you can take to achieve this.

Did you know that fall is the best time to start transitioning your lawn to organic? The key to a healthy lawn is healthy soil and good mowing, watering, and fertilizing practices. Healthy soil supports the development of healthy grass that is naturally resistant to weeds and pests. In a healthy, fertile, and well maintained lawn, diseases and pest problems are rare.

But doesn’t it cost more, you ask? Even if your lawn has traditionally been managed with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, it should not be more expensive to restore the biological life in your soil as part of an organic system. In the long-term, it will actually cost you less money, as the soil cycles nutrients naturally. Once established, an organic lawn uses fewer inputs, such as water and fertilizers, and requires less labor for mowing and maintenance. More importantly, your lawn will be safe for children, pets, and the local waterways.

Getting Started in September

 Mow High until the Season Ends – Improper mowing practices cause more problems than any other practice. Keep your blades sharp; mowing with a dull blade makes the turf susceptible to disease. Mowing too low invites sunlight in for weeds to take hold. However, in the fall, mowing closely enables you to carry out practices that restore the lawn. For the last and first mowing of the season, mow down to 2 inches to prevent fungal problems. For the rest of the year keep it at 3 inches to shade out weeds and foster deep, drought resistant roots.

 Aerate – Soil compaction is an invitation for weeds. If your lawn is hard, compacted, and full of weeds or bare spots, aerate to help air, water, and fertilizer to enter. If you cannot stick a screwdriver easily into your soil, it is too compacted. You can rent an aerator, but they can be heavy and bulky to use, so you may want help. Lawncare companies can also aerate your lawn for you. Once you have an established, healthy lawn, worms and birds pecking at your soil will aerate it for free!

 Fertilize Organically – Fertilizing in early fall ensures good growth and root development for your grass. Compost is an ideal fertilizer, adding the much needed organic content to your soil and suppressing many turf pathogens. In the fall and spring, preferably after aerating, spread ¼ inch layer of organic or naturally based compost over your lawn. Compost tea and worm castings are also great additions. Be aware however, that too much nitrogen can weaken the grass, alter the pH of the soil, and can promote disease, insects, and thatch build up. A soil test will ensure that you apply only what you need. Did you know that in established lawns, grass clippings contain 58% of the nitrogen you would add with fertilizers, can suppress disease, and reduce thatch and crabgrass? So, leave the clippings on your lawn.

 Overseed with the Right Grass Seed – fall is the best time to seed your lawn. Grass varieties differ enormously in their resistance to certain pests, tolerance to climatic conditions, and appearance. Endophytic grass seed provides natural protection against some insects and fungal diseases major benefits for managing a lawn organically. Talk to your local nursery about the best seed for your lawn. Check to see the weed content of the grass seed and that there are no pesticide coatings.

 Rethink your lawn – Lastly, many plants that are considered weeds have beneficial qualities. For instance, clover can take nitrogen from the atmosphere and distribute it to the grass, which helps it grow. Clover roots are extensive and extremely drought resistant, providing significant resources to soil organisms, and staying green long after turf goes naturally dormant. Planting soil with grass seed will help it grow.

Our Sustainable City will be a recurring article in the Sentry intended to provide residents with news and information about our initiatives in South Portland. Upcoming articles will dig into how the city-wide food waste recycling program works, and keep residents plugged into the development of South Portland’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

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