Which of the following best describes your relationship with your yard? A) Most days, I’m just hoping to get out the door wearing a clean pair of pants and matching socks on both feet. I would like to spend the least amount of effort possible on my yard to avert public scorn and avoid poisoning children and small mammals. B) I don’t want to spend a ton of money, but I really do want my lawn to look nice. Though I’d like to be as environmentally conscious as possible, I’m not about to crawl around on my hands and knees picking crab grass and dandelions all day. C) I envision my yard as an oasis where my family and I can frolic and relax while joyfully providing nectar and habitat for passing birds and butterflies.
Early in the 20th century, the Garden Club of America encouraged uniformity in the suburban landscape, calling for tidy lawns “with a single type of grass with no intruding weeds, kept mown at a height of an inch and a half, uniformly green, and neatly edged.” Today’s modern society values diversity, however, so it’s more realistic to expect that our yards will reflect, rather than conceal, our different personalities, preferences and lifestyles. Furthermore, we live busy lives nowadays. Though we may like the idea of lush green grass in theory, the reality is that most of us aren’t willing to spend the time or money necessary to actually achieve a “perfect” lawn. In addition, we’re more aware of the potential impacts our yards can have on our health and the wellbeing of the environment. We want lawns that are safe for our kids and pets, and we also want healthy landscapes that support pollinators, birds and wildlife. We’re worried about the St. Croix River and local lakes, and also want to ensure that groundwater resources remain plentiful for future generations.
It occurred to me recently that you can categorize most healthy lawn care practices in one of three ways: 1) Simple changes that are free and don’t take extra time; 2) Low-cost, low-effort actions that can give you a better looking lawn and might save money in the long run; and 3) Bonus projects that will take a little more work, but will help to turn your yard into an oasis. Coincidentally, these categories line up well with the three lawn care personalities I described previously.
If, for example, you work full time, have two school-aged children and run 5K races on the weekends, you probably don’t have time to do more for your yard than occasionally mow the lawn. Even so, you can have healthier grass that needs less water and is more resistant to weeds, simply by setting your mower blade higher to three or four inches (3-4in tall), instead of one or two. Mow less frequently or skip it altogether during long, dry spells in the summer, and leave the grass clippings on the lawn to act as natural fertilizer. If you have an automated sprinkler system, turn it off so that you aren’t wasting water when it isn’t needed and turn the sprinklers on manually only if the lawn really needs it.
If you have a little more time on your hands and really want a vibrant lawn, look for low-cost options that will improve the health of your grass without impacting the environment. Get your soil tested before applying fertilizer to ensure that you’re applying the correct type and amount for your yard’s conditions ($17 for a test by the University of MN, http://soiltest.cfans.umn.edu). Install a rain sensor or soil moisture sensor on your irrigation system and program it to give your lawn no more than one inch (1in.) of water per week, including rain. Aerate your lawn once per year to help break up compacted soil. Avoid “weed and feed” mixes or broadcast applications of herbicide across the entire lawn; instead, spot treat weeds as needed. If you’re hiring someone else to do the work, download “What to ask for from your lawn care provider” (www.mnwcd.org/lawn-care) as a guide.
Last, but not least, if you are a nature-lover or gardener at heart, you probably already have hopes that your yard will one day be more than just a lawn. Challenge yourself to begin gradually removing the parts of your lawn that you don’t use and replace them with trees, shrubs, gardens and native plantings. Instead of attempting to transform your yard in one summer, try to do one new project per year and start with the areas that currently give you the most heartache. For example, plant a shady groundcover under a tree instead of killing yourself trying to grow grass in the shade. Over time, these plantings will bring multiple benefits to your yard, including adding beauty, improving habitat for pollinators and wildlife, reducing water runoff, and creating visual screening. To learn more about landscaping with native plants, visit www.dnr.state.mn.us/gardens/nativeplants or www.BlueThumb.org or contact the Washington Conservation District (651-330-8220) to schedule a free site visit and learn about grants for clean-water planting projects.
To learn more about healthy, beautiful lawns for busy people, come to one of two upcoming Healthy Lawn Workshops, Tue. April 21, 6-8pm at Central Park in Woodbury or Tuesday, April 28, 6-7pm at Hugo City Hall. Details at: www.mnwcd.org/events.