Love your lawn (and the Earth too)

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By Cynthia Ramnarace
From Green Goes Simple

Maintaining a lush, healthy lawn without resorting to harsh chemicals is no easy task. Fortunately, you don't have to have a supremely green thumb to keep your lawn naturally vibrant.

According to Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual, a truly "green" lawn requires patience, diligence and, most importantly, a pair of blinders. "Most people use herbicides because they're worried about what their neighbor's thinking," says Tukey, who is also the founder of, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting natural lawn care. "You have this aesthetic expectation that gets out, this ‘You're not fit to live in the neighborhood if you let dandelions grow on the lawn.'"

So forget the neighbors and embrace these chemical-free and resource-reducing suggestions for a natural -- and beautiful -- lawn.

Apply organic fertilizer … and wait.

Commercial fertilizers spoil lawn owners by producing overnight greenness. Organic fertilizers work by feeding the soil, not the plant, and so it takes weeks before the blades absorb those new nutrients.

"Until your soil is brought back to life with earthworms and all kinds of microscopic organisms that you don't even think about, your lawn is not going to turn green," says Tukey.

Spread organic compost.

Add about a 1/4- to 1/2-inch of compost across the entire lawn, suggests Tukey. Then water with compost tea (2 pounds of compost for 5 gallons of water). "The nutrients will begin to bring the soil back to life," he says.

Respect your weeds.

Although they can be a nuisance, weeds hold more information than you may think. "Weeds are messengers sent by Mother Nature to tell us something about the soil," says Tukey.

For instance, if you have a lot of dandelions, the soil lacks calcium. "Put down high-calcium limestone and come back in a couple of years," says Tukey. "There won't be any dandelions." Can't wait that long? Dig them up, flame them -- which you do by torching the seeds before they can spread -- or spray them with a vinegar-based weed killer.

Keep seeding your lawn.

Try not to use the ever-popular Kentucky bluegrass variety of grass, which grows quickly. Instead, opt for a slow-growing variety, such as buffalo grass in arid environments and turf-type tall fescue in regions that get regular rain.

"There are plenty of lawn grass species out there now that grow more slowly, require fewer resources and have you mowing only every three or four weeks," says Tukey.

Make sure your grass is at least 3 inches tall.

Doing so will shade out the weeds, making it more difficult for them to grow and keeping the ground moist. The shorter your grass is, the more frequently it will need to be watered.

Don't blow your leaves away.

Instead, mulch them with a mulching or push mower. The leaves, like grass clippings, feed the soil.

Turn off your automatic sprinkler.

Defaulting to an automatic watering system means you may be wasting water. See if your soil really needs it by digging a hole that is 6 or 8 inches deep, then feeling the earth. If it's dry, water your lawn until the ground is saturated. If not, wait a few days and test it again.

"Once the soil surface dries out, the roots will naturally gravitate downward to where the moisture is," says Tukey. "If you water daily, your roots learn to stay near the surface, waiting for their next drink. If they dig down deep, you can go away on vacation for a week and your grass will still be OK."

Cynthia Ramnarace is a freelance writer in Queens, N.Y. She is a regular contributor to and AARP Bulletin. Her work also appears frequently in American Baby and Kiwi magazines. 

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