Archive for the ‘Lawns’ Category

Soil Compaction in Lawns

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

Soil Compaction, Over Seeding and Aeration

After a summer of kids and dogs pounding on the lawn and with temperatures dropping, fall is really the time to aerate and over seed the lawn.

Aeration is a process where holes are punched into the grass and ground allowing better gas exchange, loosening the soil and helping water floe to root zones. Though there are all kinds of gimmicky aeration devices, like the infamous clip on soles with 3” spikes coming out the bottom that you’re supposed to walk on your lawn with, only core aeration really is effective. Core aeration is a process where a cone like device pulls a soil core up and out of the ground as opposed to spiking the ground which has been proven far less effective in aerating root zones and dealing with compaction.

Compaction is a real issue in many lawns and an interesting, a piece in the New York Times on the lawns at Harvard showed that after a couple of years of compost tea applications, many compaction issues were relieved as microbial activity increased and broke down the elements contributing to compaction. A combination of aeration and compost tea are highly recommended for dealing with compaction issues.

While core aerating and turning up all that loose soil, over seeding at the same time will fill in those spaces made by the aerator, and the loose soil form the cores will help the seed to germinate. And sprout. Grass seed germinated and started out in the fall will come in much more strongly in the spring and be far less likely to fail in the heat of the summer than grass seeded in the spring.

If you have a particularly weedy lawn ( more than half your lawn is weeds) thanks to this year’s heavy moisture get rid of the weeds first either by hand removing or spot spraying weeds with a broadleaf herbicide. If the first application does not knock the weeds out, hit them again a week later. Wait at least one week after applying herbicides to aerate and over seed

By the way, herbicides are the antithesis of compost tea, they kill microbes in the soil contributing to compaction which favors weeds over grass. However, if you spot spray the weeds only you will minimize damage to the soil culture and by upping the compost tea, you can restart the microbial activity in these areas.

Weedy Lawns

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

Coming Back to Weeds

It has been one of the coolest, wettest summers on record and the weeds are loving it! By the end of July, we all had clover and dandelions all over our lawns. This month, crabgrass is making a comeback along with sedge and plantains.

Before chemical weed control and fertilization, clover was considered desirable because it fixes nitrogen in the soil (which is good for grass) and generally has a symbiotic relationship with grass. In fact, folks used to buy grass seed mixes with clover seed mixed in on purpose (gasp). Unless it’s a particularly wet year, clover won’t outrun your grass and even then, if you let the grass get tall in the heat of summer, that will allow the grass to keep the clover to at bay.

Crab grass is easily controlled with proper watering. Crab grass likes light daily water, fescues and Kentucky blue grass like heavy water every three days. Control the water and you master the crab grass. Plantains prefer compacted soil that is alkaline, aerate your soil and mind your PH and there will be minimal plantain which used to be used in salad by the way. Dandelions, also once used in salad like, acid soil and lots of moisture, and again can be controlled with proper ph and water management.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that all this soil management is a big pain in the neck and you want to apply a chemical weed control to just wipe out all these plants because we like our lawns to be outdoor carpets. To be clear, I am not a big fan of a lawn that is more “weed” than grass myself, but I do think people can be a little extreme about having perfect lawns.

So you want to wipe out the weeds chemically. The bad news is that all herbacides only work well in dry weather. If the weeds are fat with water and happy, they don’t absorb the herbicide and it is far less effective. Most of us will think that the herbicide just needs to be a little stronger to work. This is a HUGE mistake. The label is the law and if you are applying the herbicide at a rate stronger than recommended, you are not only breaking the law but risking the herbicide running off into long island sound, hanging around in your soil, and poisoning the local fauna.

You will need to apply your herbicide several times AT THE RECOMMENDED APPLIED RATE to get rid of the weeds in a summer like this one. In wet weather, spray the weeds every week to ten days preferably NOT before precipitation is expected and not immediately after it rains. Give the weeds time to get thirsty so they absorb the herbicide, but don’t wait too long because if it rains immediately after your application it will all wash away and you will need to start all over again as well as risk interrupting the natural cycles of the ecosystem.

Remember that herbacides will also kill your soil culture. They will wipe out all the good microbes and fungi that help plants digest nutrients from the soil. Once you are “weed free”, if you want to minimize your ecological impact, get your soil tested, amend the ph, aerate, add composted materials  to the soil, spray with compost tea, and overseed three or four times a year. Maybe go after those weeds by hand so they don’t get away from you again (a stitch in time will save nine and all that). Start using proper watering and cutting practices so you don’t get in a weedy bind again.


Think About Your Lawn This Fall

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

Fall Is  A Great time For Over Seeding

If your lawn took a little bit of a beating this summer, as did mine, this is a great time to over seed it. Generally we all think of spring as seed time, but when it comes to lawns, fall is pretty ideal as well. First, weed your lawn and get out all those undesirable daisies, sedge grasses, crab grasses and anything else that does not belong there. Next figure out if you need sun or shade, or a sun shade mix.  Application rates for over seeding are about half of what is recommended for a new lawn.

Get yourself a seed spreader. If you don’t want to spring for a push spreader, a little hand spreader is just fine for this job. Over seed the whole lawn laying seed a little thicker in blank spots. Next put a thin layer of composted topsoil. Many folks like to use peat moss for this, but always remember that peat moss will make the soil more acidic. If your soil needs to be more acidic this is not a bad thing, but most of our lawns tend to be a little on the acid sign as it is. Overly acidic soil will inhibit the seeds form sprouting and encourage certain weeds. For example, if you tend to get a lot of dandelions, your soil is most likely on the acid side already; however, if you get plantain weed (big round low leaves) then your soil is alkaline and can stand a little peat moss.

Next most important step is making sure you water the freshly seeded lawn at least once a day. Seeds need damp soil to germinate. If it’s unseasonably warm like it was last week, you might want to water twice a week. Don’t cut the lawn for a good three weeks and avoid foot traffic. This will allow the seedlings, which are very tender, time to root and grow strong.

Consider looking for specialty seeds. There are new varieties of bluegrass and fescues that are very drought tolerant and generally use less water than the standard grasses we find at the big box stores. These are available on line for the most part; I haven’t seen them in stores yet. If you keep over seeding with these new tougher grasses, over the next year or two, they will eventually out compete the weaker grasses you have already established.

Cut Out The Gas When Cutting Grass

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Save Money & The Planet With Electric MowersIt is a little known fact that 5-10% of air pollution in the United States comes from lawnmowers. Though the EPA is moving to regulate the power equipment industry and mandate pollution control devices, it will take years for change in this area to take root. The surefire alternative is the push mower, with electric mowers coming in second. There are now battery powered mowers and electric robotic mowers that cost far less to run, are quieter, lighter, and come with u to a 19” blade.


Other alternatives are propane driven mowers, but these start at around $10,500.00 and are for commercial use.  There has been some success converting conventional mowers to run on biodiesel, however, this is an expensive process and no mass produced models have been made available yet.

Given the huge carbon footprint of the conventional gas mower, it behooves all of us to seriously consider the alternatives. A recent study on lawn carbon sequestration shows that though turf grass is quite good at storing carbon, using a gas mower negates some of these benefits. For every four pounds of carbon sequestered in the soil, one pound is put back into the atmosphere by a gas mower cutting it.

Las t week this column spoke of the reluctance of consumers to pay more now to save money later in organic lawn care. A problem incidentally, that has dogged almost every earth friendly idea on the face of the earth. Electricians for example install thinner gauge wire to land wiring jobs (consumers want to pay as little as possible) when in fact; more expensive thicker gauge wire would save the consumer thousands of dollars in electricity further down the line.  It is unfortunate that this may also be true of electric mowers. However, the difference in cost is made up very quickly in money saved on fuel. While a 19” electric mower costs about $ 100-150. More than a gas mower of the same size, the energy costs are as follows:


Approximate cost to run a gas mower:
YEAR 1: Gas and Oil: $35
YEAR 2: Gas and Oil: $35 / Tune-up: $60
YEAR 3: Gas and Oil: $35
YEAR 4: Gas and Oil: $35 / Tune-up: $60
TOTAL: $260

Approximate cost to run an electric mower:
YEAR 1: Electricity: $2.80
YEAR 2: Electricity: $2.80
YEAR 3: Electricity: $2.80
YEAR 4: Electricity: $2.80
TOTAL: $11.20


With savings like that, what is holding you back from changing mowers right now? If the reasons are that you contract grass cutting out, then maybe it’s time to look for a company that has some of the equipment described above.



Real Costs of Lawn care

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

Our company, Greener by Design, has had an upsurge in local calls for pricing on organic lawn care. Consequently, we have a price sheet similar to what chemical lawn care companies have pricing various programs in thousands of square feet per year. We are not unique in this, there is a national organic franchise offering services locally that operates similarly. Interestingly though, despite the growing concern for the environment, consumer preferences are still very price driven.

It is ironic that the same factor raises our concern for the environment and makes a more harmonious lifestyle seem too expense.  Specifically it is the price, and after effects of oil. Most of our environmental issues have to do with being a petrochemical industrial society. Carbon from oil production and usage accounts for a large percentage of our global warming issues. Plastic products and oil byproducts are the source for a good deal of our pollution. The fact that we are running out of oil has both made it (and our lives) more expensive and food prices are going up as more acreage is dedicated to growing alternatives. As a culture we are driven to alternatives that appear too expensive given how costly our lives have become, a “catch 22” situation.

The truth is however, that getting off of oil products like chemical fertilizers and pesticides is only expensive for the first year. Here is why; lawns and gardens that have chemical nitrogen and pest controls applied to them at the manufacturers recommended rates have dead soil. These chemicals basically kill all the biological agents in the soil that help plants digest organic material like leaves, and grass clippings for example. Chemical fertilizers feed plants directly, similar to if we were all to take food intravenously and kill off the symbiotic organisms in our intestines.

The result of killing the biological is that lawns can no longer digest mulched organic material like grass clipping and leaves and so develop “thatch” requiring additional services. Thatch is removed; leaves are blown and removed using more energy. Soil is further depleted and holds less water as it has less and less organic material, more water is needed to keep plant material alive as there is less organic material to hold moisture.

When you look at the cost as a whole, not even considering the carbon footprint left by chemical fertilizers, blowers, municipal trucks hauling leaves, etc, the chemical approach is more expensive in terms of labor, and water costs. Consumers tend to focus on the initial application cost alone and don’t see the increased water usage and the blower and leaf collection service cost (which is supplemented by municipal governments that collect and remove leaves with taxpayer dollars). 

To convert your lawn to organics from years of chemical use takes more than just putting some organic fertilizer down. Much like people who have had their intestines depleted by heavy antibiotic use are told to eat yogurt with live cultures in it to re-establish digestive agents in their intestines, it is necessary to restore the biological agents in the soil so that it is better able to digest the organic material. In addition to using chemical herbicides which are known to kill helpful biological agents in the soil, the national franchises miss this point as do many consumers. Consequently, the first year of organic lawn care can be more costly, but following years will be equal to or less than chemical applications. The reason is not the cost of the applications themselves by the way, but the fact that your lawn and garden is now a mulch eating machine. Grass clippings and leaves no longer need to be moved, but simply mulched into the lawn. Higher organic content means you use less water since the soil will retain moisture better. Live soil means deeper healthier roots and stronger more valuable plant material. Stronger plant material means less disease and insect infestations which in turn means lower mortality and replacement as well as little or no pesticide us. Less pesticide use and elimination of chemical fertilizers means stronger ecology and development of beneficial insects that prey on plan predators.

The punch line here is pay a little more in the first year to get your plants off of their chemical addiction and you will reap the benefits in healthier, stronger, more valuable plants in the years to come. You will reduce your water costs (which go up 6% a year), and eliminate the need for blowers on your property. You will be feeding the soil directly with the clippings and leaves that land on it and reducing the need to amend the soil and feed it as often as you did when you were chemically fertilizing, and you will turn your property in a carbon sequestering machine instead of increasing your carbon footprint by using chemical fertilizers and herbicides (6lbs of carbon released into the atmosphere to make 1 pound of chemical fertilizer).

Converting To Organics From Chemicals:

Monday, April 7th, 2008

      I converted my lawn from chemicals to organics by making it go “cold turkey”. I stopped applying pesticides and fertilizers  and  kept my fingers crossed. Anyone who has tried this knows exactly what happened, the lawn deteriorated steadily over a year and by the following spring I had a terrific lawn of crab and onion grass. It took me another full year to get it looking better and two years to have something my wife was proud of.

    The lawn, like any garden space, has to be fed, and weeds dealt with. Presumably if the root system is strong in any plant from tree to sod, than insect infestations will be minimal and manageable without pesticides, but going cold turkey simply weakens the plants and invites disease , weeds and insects. Whether it be a lawn or a perennial bed, the conversion from chemical care to organic means there will be a decline of some kind, but you can limit and shorten this decline by taking action.

    Chemical fertilizers  aside from having a huge carbon footprint, kill topsoil and the microbes that help topsoil, or humus, convert organic material into a form that plant root systems can absorb. Therefore the first action to take (besides stopping chemical feeding) is to restore organic content and begin to establish microbial activity. The most effective way to do this is with active compost of course, but let’s face it, if you have been chemically feeding your garden, you probably don’t have any compost.

There are a number of active products on the market that can help jump start your soil culture. Many folks recommend compost tea, this is tea made form live compost. It is also used for controlling some diseases in the garden, though there is much debate on the effectiveness of compost teas for this purpose.   Though some may question compost tea as a means of controlling disease, there is no doubt that saturating your soil with compost tea will help re-introduce active microbes into your soil.

 Another good product is plant healthcares bio-pack which also re-introduces live organisms into the soil. Basically, you will want to work with products that contain active Mycorrhizae

What are Mychorizae? 
Mycorrhizae are symbiotic associations that form between the roots of most plant species and fungi. This symbiotic relationship is characterized by the equitable movement of sugars to the fungus and inorganic nutrients fixed by the fungi move into the plant, thereby providing a critical linkage between the plant root and soil. The fungal hyphae take up nutrients from soil solution and transport them to the root. By this mechanism, mycorrhizae increase the effective absorptive surface area of the plant. In nutrient-poor or moisture-deficient soils, nutrients taken up by the extramatrical hyphae (hyphea existing within soil matrix) can lead to improved plant growth and reproduction. As a result, mycorrhizal plants are often more competitive and better able to tolerate environmental stresses than nonmycorrhizal plants.

Remember also to incorporate organic material into your soil. Orgnisms like mycorrhizae need organic material. Bagged compost, though sterilized, is rich in organic content. Products like peat moss however, tend to be acid based and should be used in limited quantities. Many environmentalists argue that peat moss is harvested much faster than it can produce and therefore is not a sustainable source for organic material. Also look for organic fertilizers. The kind of fertilizer you should use really depends so much on what type of soil you have. A great site for working out additives is the  extremely green gardening company site:

Greener Landcare Through Onsite Leaf Mulching

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

In an article on line in grounds magazine, Zac Reicher and Glenn Hardebeck Reviewed studies done at several well known universities on this topic. In reviewing these studies, leaves were mulched directly into the  turf. Formal mulching devices like the flowtron mulcher were not needed, instead, leaves  were mulched with a mulching mower on top of the turf:

“The easiest and cheapest way to dispose of leaves is to mulch them into the turf. This is not a new idea, but universities have only recently compiled enough data to determine that tree-leaf mulching has no long-term negative effects on the turf. Studies at Michigan State, Cornell, Rutgers and Purdue have concluded that mulching tree leaves is an excellent disposal method that does not harm healthy turf…… After application to the plots, we immediately mowed the leaves with a mulching mower”.

They did find that it was necessary to add nitrogen to the turf to balance out the high organic content of the leaves which are low in nitrogen, and found that there was literally no detrimental effect to mulching the leaves into the lawn:

“ We found that even the high rate of tree leaves had no effect on turf visual quality, color or growth. Although we expected tree leaves to tie up nitrogen in the soil, we saw no long-term effects of tree leaves on turf growth regardless of the nitrogen rate we applied”

The study found that by using a mulching mower, the leaves would reduce overall fertilization costs, and eliminate the cost of gathering the leaves, and trucking them out to a larger composting facility. The recommendation is that golf courses, ground maintenance crews, and by implication, communities of home owners could save money through simple on site mulching.

For more details on the results of this study, go to n

Lets give some serious thought to how we  manage leaves. Is it really so hard to mulch the leaves on site with a mulcher or a mulching mower rather than blowing them out to the curb and removing them? Might it not in fact be simpler and easier?