A weekly blog for all things conservation
By: Kevin Brown, Agricultural Resource Specialist
We all know people who strive to have the best lawn in the neighborhood. If that is you, I am going to give you all the secrets you need to get you there. First off, have you ever thought, “what makes it the best lawn in the neighborhood”? Is it look? Is it because it is level and you can use it for many different things? Is it because it allows water to infiltrate into the ground which not only replaces the groundwater that you use for drinking and bathing, but also reduces flooding downstream? Is it the best based on functionality? I am not talking about what you can use it for. I am talking about how many life functions are going on in the lawn. What? What are you talking about? You have lost your mind? Stay with me a minute longer because I am first going to tell you that if you are one of the quintessential “best lawn in the neighborhood” people, you are probably doing just about everything wrong for the environment that you could do. Ouch, that hurt. Let me explain.
I will start with the easy things. If you mow your lawn shorter than 3”, you are really hurting the grass’s ability to continue to grow. If you are like some people who are trying to get it to never grow again because you hate mowing the lawn, have at it. However, if you want a healthy one, you must keep the mower raised. Grasses store all of their energy reserves in the bottom 3” of the plant. You mow that off and it has less resiliency to come back.
Secondly, a healthy microbe population in the soil is your best friend against diseases and insects, and the like. Sprays and fertilizer really hurt microbe populations. I am not totally against them, and they may need to be used in certain situations, but it will take a while for the microbes to recover. Microbes need food and water to grow, just like we do. Remove the lawn clippings, you remove their food (and nutrients for future growth). They die. Add fertilizer to replace it, you kill more of them. Fewer microbes = less soil health = decreased ability for the lawn to be able to handle any challenging situation.
I read a book the other day that got really in-depth on soil health (thanks Mary). They were saying that if you have a healthy lawn, even small branches that fall on your lawn can just be hit once or twice with the mower and the soil biology will take care of the rest. Wow, no more picking up branches every spring. I like that. I just cut down a bunch of ash trees and at the bottom of the trunks laid a large amount of bark that had been removed by the woodpeckers. As I collected it this weekend, to mulch other plants with, I noticed that they were covered with tons of “mold”. That is a good thing. It probably wasn’t mold at all. It was probably some kind of beneficial fungus (mycorrhizal?) that was doing just what it was supposed to do, break down residue so the soil biology could use it. Cool. The environment can be a really neat thing if we stand back and watch it instead of jumping in and “fixing” it.
This book also got into the fact that trees and grass lawns need, and usually have, two completely different microbiomes in the soil and around the plants. Trees need a soil heavily dominated with fungi. Grasses need to have a very bacterially dominated soil. Maybe a way to fool the tree is to mulch around it really well (correctly) making it think that it is in the woods and the soil can be fungally dominated. The rest of the lawn is left alone and is bacterially dominated as it needs to be. That is really getting involved, but I am just trying to show that the soil is a very complicated thing that we really don’t know a lot about yet.
So, want to have the best (healthiest) lawn in the neighborhood? Quit picking up grass clippings or leaves or even small branches for that matter. Let the biology work for you. Stop fertilizing or spraying, quit scalping the yard when you mow and when it quits growing (due to drought or end of season)- quit mowing it. The lawn should be a self-sustaining entity. Clip the top off every now and again and leave it alone. This will allow you to spend more time doing more important things and have a healthier lawn.
The Bradford County Conservation District is committed to helping people manage resources wisely. You can visit the Bradford County Conservation District at 200 Lake Rd in Wysox across from the Wysox Fire Hall. Contact us at (570) 485-3144 or visit our web page at www.bccdpa.com.
Various staff at the Bradford County Conservation District