P.O. Box 40441, Providence, RI 02940

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(Sharing Information on Toxics in Everyday Life

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LAWN TIPS  Excerpted From “Safe and Easy Lawn Care:  The Complete Guide to Organic, Low-Maintenance Lawns”, Barbara Ellis, Editor, Frances Tenenbaum, Series Editor  (Taylor’s Weekend Gardening Guides Series) Houghton Mifflin, Boston/New York 1997


How Much Lawn Do You Need?  Don’t forget that the amount of maintenance is directly proportional to the amount of grass.  The larger your lawn, the more time you’ll spend mowing, fertilizing, raking and watering.  Lawns occupy such a large proportion of most lots, and tending them can take so much time and effort, it’s worth thinking carefully about how much lawn you need and what you need it for.  If you’re establishing a new lawn, you’ll soon learn that laying several thousand square feet of sod can be a pricey proposition; you may opt for a smaller lawn bordered by ground cover or natural areas.


Design:  From a design standpoint, the lawn’s most important function is to serve as a unifier.  It links a garden’s major elements, such as trees, shrubs, flower borders, walks, and pools.  A lawn is a transporter, taking you from one area of the property to another.  A lawn can enhance your other plantings by establishing interesting textural and color contrasts.  Try juxtaposing the rigid formality of a closely cropped lawn with a naturalistic woodland planting of dogwoods, native azaleas, and wildflowers.  Play off the smooth green surface of a lawn and contrast it with plantings of mixed ground covers like ajuga, junipers and English ivy.  A central rectangle or oval of lawn surrounded by mixed plantings of shrubs and perennials will make a small garden appear larger.  A curvilinear lawn is more difficult to design, as curves are harder to work with than straight lines.  Try using a garden hose to outline the proposed boundary of the lawn.  That way, you can eyeball the entire curve and adjust it so that it flows smoothly.


In many neighborhoods, lawns are essentially shapeless, blending into one another in a continuous strip of green down one side of the street.  This is unfortunate, for a well-defined lawn can be a dynamic part of your overall design.  To define the shape of your lawn in a neighborhood where lawns run into one another, try placing planting beds between it and the adjacent lawn.  Another way to emphasize the shape of your lawn is to edge it with brick.


Plan Ahead for Easier Care.  Minimize the number of sharp corners in the lawn so that you can mow the lawn smoothly instead of constantly stopping and backing up.  Design grass paths so they are a convenient width to mow.  If you have a 3-foot-wide mower, you can easily cut a 5 - to 5 1/2-foot-wide path in two passes.  Any wider, and you’ll probably have to make an extra pass to cut a 2- or 3-inch wide strip of grass that you missed.  Plan on covering high-traffic areas with pavers or decking so you don’t have to repeatedly deal with compacted soil and dying grass.  Leave sufficient space between trees in the lawn so you don’t have to repeatedly deal with compacted soil and dying grass.  If possible, design mulched beds around trees and shrubs so you don’t have to mow between them at all.  Place mailboxes, lampposts, and bird feeders in the middle of planting beds, not the lawn, so that you won’t have to mow or edge around them.  The most carefully chosen and tended grass will not grow well unless the soil beneath it is reasonably healthy.  Regrading, loosening compacted soil, adding organic matter, and improving drainage are all much more difficult once the lawn is in place, so take time for these steps before you sow seed, lay sod, or plant sprigs or plugs.


Is Lawn Grass the Best Choice?  There are situations in which lawn grass is not the answer for covering the ground.  Consider alternatives for spots that are too dry, too wet, or too steep to mow.  Don’t grow grass on steep slopes that are difficult and dangerous to mow.  Instead, plant an appropriate, low-maintenance ground cover.  For a sunny bank, consider ajuga, thyme, low-growing cotoneasters, or junipers.  For shady slopes, try English ivy, pachysandra, liriope or vinca.  Don’t plant grass in heavy shade – it won’t thrive.  Mulch the area or plant shade-loving ground covers, perennials, or shrubs instead.


Conserve Water.  Replace areas of lawn grass with plantings of drought-tolerant ornamental grasses, perennials, shrubs and other ground covers.  Conserve water by including areas of ground-level decking, mulched areas or paving stones interplanted with drought-tolerant plants like sedums and thyme.  A Win-Win Design TIP.  Cutting down the size of your lawn will help conserve water – and save time spent watering


Choosing Seed:  To plant a lawn that is vigorous and easy to keep healthy, start by choosing the right type of grass for your area and preparing the soil properly  The best way to reduce the maintenance requirements of your lawn is to grow a species of grass suited to your climate and to your tolerance for maintenance.  There are species of grass that resist drought, insects and diseases; ones that stand up to heavy foot traffic; grow well in adverse conditions such as shade and drought. and even types that need less frequent mowing.  Wider, coarse-bladed grasses (annual ryegrass, tall fescue and St. Augustine grass) can look weedy, but have other redeeming qualities such as durability and shade or drought resistance.  Bunchgrasses grow in clumps and spread only by expanding their basal growth.  They are often fast growers that stand up well to traffic. 


Buy the Best Seed.  Since poor-quality seed takes just as much work to sow as good-quality seed, buy the best mix available.  Look for blends of seed especially formulated for the type of site you have.  Mixes that contain more than 15 % annual ryegrass or annual bluegrass are generally poor quality.  Look for germination percentages above 85%.  Check the date it was tested and only buy seed tested within the last year.  The best mixes have less than 1% “other crop” seed listed on the label.  The Lawn Institute recommends that mixes contain no annual and rough bluegrass (Poa annua and P. trivalis) and no bentgrass.  Seed producers list percentages for non-noxious and noxious weeds on the label.  Buy mixes that contain no noxious weed seeds.  Seeds of non-noxious weeds are very difficult to remove entirely:  a bag or box should contain between 0.3 and 0.5 % by weight.  Read labels on seed bags or boxes.  Inert matter, which includes broken seeds that will not germinate and fillers, should be well below 1%.


The more weeds you can eradicate before installing a lawn, the fewer you’ll have to deal with later.  Through a process called solarization you can kill weed seeds and seedlings when you prepare your soil.  Solarize to kill weeds before installing your lawn.  Stretch a sheet – or several – of clear plastic tightly over tilled and thoroughly watered soil.  Leave the plastic in place for about four weeks.  Solarization will kill weeds and weed seeds in the top layer of soil.  Since it requires hot, sunny weather to be effective, you’ll have to time your  sowing schedule accordingly.  One way to eliminate weeds is by successive tillings.  Your first tilling will destroy established weeds while bringing new weed seeds to the surface to germinate.  Wait at least two weeks until a solid crop of new weeds sprouts, then do them in with another tilling. 


Soil & Drainage:  An easy way to assess your soil’s texture (sand, silt and clay content) is to take a handful of moist earth and feel how it responds when you rub and squeeze it.  If it feels gritty, it is high in sand.  It it feels sticky, it’s high in clay.  Sandy soils tend to drain quickly, and benefit from added organic matter (such as compost), which helps retain water and nutrients for healthy plant growth.  Clay soils tend to hold too much water, promoting root rots and other disease problems.  Adding organic matter will help by loosening the soil and improving drainage.  To test the soil’s overall drainage, dig one or more test holes about 2 feet deep.  Fill with water and check the bottom of the hole after 24 hours.  If all the water is gone, the drainage is fine.  If just a little remains, it’s okay for some plants, but not all.  If most of the water remains, drainage is very poor.  Before you think about adding amendments or loosening up the soil, check the grade.  Ideally, the soil surface should drop away from your house in all directions, about 1 foot for every 100 feet of distance.  Water may stand on flatter grades or run off steeper ones. Few gardeners are blessed with an ideal site.  Fortunately, small grade problems, such as bumps, potholes or low spots, can often be corrected with a shovel, rake, wheelbarrow & some elbow grease.  Take a close look at your soil’s structure.  Knowing whether you are working with sand, clay, loam or something in between will aid you in choosing grass types and in setting your irrigation schedule.  If your soil contains a large amount of clay or sand, dig or till at least a 2-inch layer of organic matter (compost, peat moss or dried manure), before spreading other amendments.  Or spread a 3-inch layer of rich topsoil and incorporate it into your soil by digging or tilling.


Handout provided by Toxics Information Project (TIP), P.O. Box 40441, Providence, RI 02940.  For further info, contact TIP at 401-351-9193, or  Website:

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