Lawn care impacts environment

You don't usually associate lawns with saving the earth.

However, as the definite landscaping technique for 20 million acres in America, lawns suck up a lot of water and chemicals every summer.   They;re also responsible for a big chunk of the 35 million tons of yard trimmings that show up in landfills every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (1990 figures, published in 1992).

Homeowners in pursuit of the perfect lawn use   up to 10 times more synthetic chemicals per acre than farmers.  The average homeowner applies five to 10 pounds per lawn.  That's a nationwide total of some 25 to 50 million pounds.

However, a green, healthy lawn is possible without chemical pesticides and with less waste-creating care.

Do you really need a lawn?

Lawns are the most durable ground covers available for waling and playing.  Some new grass varieties (e.g., turf-type tall fescues require less fertilizer and less mowing than conventional bluegrass lawns.

Otherwise, any number of other ground covers will work, some of which give off lovely scents when walked on.  Also try landscaping with irregular flower beds, trees, rock gardens and paths.

That sounds like alot of work.  Initially, it may involve more work and more expense.  But properly mulched, this more creative form of landscaping will require less care and less money to maintain.

Beauty is, of course, in the eyes of the beholder, but landscaped gardens have an edge on vast expanses of lawn in most circles.

What if I love my lawn?

If you simply can't live without it, try living with less of it and/or caring for it differently.  First, some straight talk about the "ideal" lawn is in order.  Many Americans strive to have the greenest, most wee-free lawn on the block.  If someone says your lawn looks like a gold course, you may consider that a high compliment.  But lawns like that are actually quite unnatural and require exhausting care to keep from reverting to the natural habitat for a particular area.

In the early 1800's when Indiana was settled, this area was largely woodlands and wet-lands.  If you visit Conner Prairie, near Noblesville, which replicates an 1836 Indiana settlement, you'll be told that at the time a squirrel could travel all the way across the state without ever touching the ground.

We certainly can't return Indiana to its original state.  But taking into account what is native to the area can be a starting point for landscape design.  Native plants will survive with the least amount of care and help replace the dwindling habitat for birds and animals.

Still incorporating your lawn into the plan, try to adjust your idea of how your lawn should look.  Develop a tolerance for some weeds, and realize that during times of drought most lawns turn brown, or go dormant, as a protection against the lack of water.  They'll revive when normal rainfall resumes.

What's good for your lawn?


Watering properly will help your lawn grow deep roots that make it stronger and less vulnerable to drought.  Most lawns are watered too often with too little water.  It's best to water only when the lawn really needs it, than ten to water slowly and deeply.  This trains the grass roots down.   Frequent shallow watering trains the grass roots to stay near the surface, making the lawn less able to find moisture during dry periods.  The best rule is to water only when the lawn begins to wilt from dryness -- when the color dulls and footprints stay compressed for more than a few seconds.  Water during the times it's most effective and least likely to cause plant fungus -- the morning.


Generally, fertilize one to three times a year between September and November.  By fertilizing lawns at these times instead of the later winter or early spring, root growth instead of top growth will be encouraged.   The lawn will have a lengthened period of green in the fall and earlier spring green-up without excessive shoot growth.  The plant's energy reserves in the roots will also remain higher during spring and summer,  which can reduce the incidence of summer diseases.  Overfeeding with synthetic chemical treatments also encourages thatch build-up on your lawn.  Thatch is a layer of dead grass parts that forms just above the soil surface, and a certain amount is healthy to retain moisture and encourage root development.  If you're overfeeding, the chemicals slow normal decomposition, and the thatch layer builds up.  Eventually, it becomes thick enough to harbor pests and keep nutrients from making their way to the roots.

Pesticides and weed-killers

If you're following the guidelines listed here, consider whether you really need synthetic chemical pest-control at all.  If your lawn has a strong root system, it can survive some of the nastiest pest.  Many times there's a natural way to fight lawn diseases.  for example, grubs, which are the larvae of Japanese beetles and June bugs, can be successfully controlled by introduction of milky-spore disease, a bacterium that feeds on the larvae but won't hurt your grass.   Even though grubs sever lawn roots and make grass peel back like a carpet, lawns with healthy root systems will survive and eventually regenerate.  You'll need to be patient and give the milky spore disease a couple of years to work.

For more information

Check your library for "The Chemical-Free Lawn," written by Warren Schultz and published by Rodale Press, for suggestions for maintaining a green, healthy lawn without chemical pesticides.

Send for a copy of "Healthy Lawn, Healthy Environment," document 700-K-92-005, from the U.S. EPA, Office of Pesticide Programs, Field Operations Division (H7506C), 401 M St., SW, Washington, DC 20460.

Write the Bio-Integral Resource Center for information on least-toxic methods of lawn care, P.O. Box 7414, Berkeley, CA 64707.

Show your spirit

To encourage citizens not to overuse chemical lawn treatments, the Monroe County Solid Waste Management District gave away signs at a local farmers' market that declared, "I'm proud of my non-toxic lawn!"  For more information, call Jane St. John at 812-333-3866.

SOURCE:  Barbara Damrosch.  The Garden Primer. New York, Workman Publishing, 1988.