Roots and Shoots: Lawn Makeovers

Do you really need all that grass?

By Pamela Doan

Cooler weather in the fall means that grass is less stressed and getting ready to wind down its growing season. September and October are ideal months to renovate a lawn that has become overrun by weeds or pests.

Done haphazardly, lawns can be a major source of environmental degradation. Overfertilizing or fertilizing in such a way that it runs off rather than soaking into the grass creates algal blooms in waterways. Pesticide applications harm pollinators.

Paying attention to the lawn in fall makes for easier upkeep next year. (Photo by P. Doan)

Paying attention to the lawn in fall makes for easier upkeep next year. (Photo by P. Doan)

Gas-powered lawn equipment emits carbon monoxide, which contributes to greenhouse gases and climate change. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, running a lawn mower for an hour emits the same amount of pollutants as eight new cars driving 55 mph for an hour.

Watering lawns uses up valuable resources that become scarce during a drought. Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a third of all residential water use goes to the landscape, using up to 9 billion gallons a day.

Here are some steps to rejuvenate your lawn this fall:

  • Test the soil to determine the pH balance. This demonstrates nutrient levels to make sure the grass can get what it needs and determines if fertilizer is necessary. Grass likes a soil pH between 6.5 to 7.0 on a scale from 1 to 14, or neutral.
  • Don’t despair if your soil is not within that range. Since soil will always revert back to its natural pH, you’ll have the least amount of maintenance by choosing a grass that will thrive. Soil around here tends to be more on the acidic side, lower on the scale.
  • Aerating the lawn breaks up compacted soil and helps air and water circulate. Use a core aerator to pull small plugs from the soil. After the plugs have dried, they can be raked back into the soil. If the thatch layer is thicker than one inch, dethatching the lawn will make sure grass roots receive water. If too thick, a thatch layer blocks the elements.
  • We’ve having another dry spell. Grass will naturally go dormant. Even if it looks brown, it isn’t dead and doesn’t need watering to survive, at least in current circumstances. Smart maintenance can help. Mowing high leaves the root systems of the grass intact and has the bonus of being less work. Letting cut grass tips stay on the lawn creates the healthy layer of mulch to protect the roots and hold moisture in. Certain grass types, like fescues, are more drought resistant. If having a green lawn matters, fescues use fewer natural resources to maintain.
  • Weeds take over because the grass is weak. Dense grass will help keep weeds out. If possible, hand pull weeds and then overseed. Herbicides should be a last resort. The best time to apply them is around the time of the fall frost. The cold temperatures will assist in killing the weeds. Grass can only be seeded as late as it will have time to settle before it gets too cold.
  • Grasses have different germination times. For example, ryegrass can establish in two to three weeks and if grass usually goes dormant in November, could be planted until early October. Kentucky bluegrass, however, takes 30 to 90 days and might not make it in time. Sod can be put down until temperatures dip below 40 degrees in the fall. Be careful to follow all the application instructions and do it in the most thoughtful way to prevent runoff.
  • Finally, do you need all that lawn? While grass prevents erosion, it doesn’t have a lot of other sustainable qualities. Rain gardens filled with plants that appreciate wet conditions filter water and have aesthetic value. A pollinator island could be planted with native perennials that will attract butterflies and other beneficial insects. Bushes with berries will attract birds and provide natural shelter and habitat. And shaving 15 minutes off the mowing each week gives you an extra hour a month to relax.

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