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Connolly: Less is more with lawn care

The quarter-acre of grass surrounding your home or business may seem innocent enough, but looks can be deceiving. Among horticulturalists, as well as environmentalists, lawns are out of favor. For instance, the Connecticut Horticultural Society (CHS) made lawn reduction the theme of its 2013 Connecticut Flower Show display.

Yet lawns cover almost 8 percent of the state, according to data published by the University of Connecticut's Center for Land Use Education and Research (CLEAR). Connecticut lawn area increased 22 percent from 1985 to 2006. According to national studies, lawn grasses are America's No. 1 crop, accounting for 2 percent of the nation's land area.

Even if their proliferation slows, lawns are not going away any time soon. Since a big part of the objection to lawns is the way they are maintained, it's important to ask: Is there such a thing as low-impact lawn maintenance?

The answer from the field of turf science is a qualified yes, but you must do less, not more, to your lawn.

Cornell University turf expert Dr. Frank Rossi, for one, suggests that lawns - like trees - can help keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Rossi offers as evidence a number of serious academic studies that show how well established, healthy lawns actually become "carbon sinks" when best practices are followed and the underlying soil remains undisturbed.

What does a carbon-sequestering lawn look like? "It looks no different than a high-end lawn, done correctly," says Rossi. "When you mow less frequently and let grass grow higher, particularly in mid-summer, you're following current best practices."

And he adds, "When you eliminate a few mowings and allow the grass to grow a bit taller, you not only save money and time, but each gallon of gas you save eliminates about 20 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere." And that, he says, is just one benefit of doing less to the lawn.

Lawn fertilizers, particularly those rich in phosphates, have long been cited as a source of water pollution. (Phosphorous is signified by the middle number in the N-P-K label on the fertilizer package.) To counteract that problem, Rossi suggests fertilizing only in the fall when conditions are conducive to fertilizer uptake. In 2012, both the Massachusetts and Connecticut legislatures passed laws that require a soil test before phosphorous is applied.

The University of Connecticut's extension educator for sustainable lawn and landscape, Victoria Wallace, concurs that an established, dense, low-maintenance lawn can be a carbon sink. She points to fine fescues and turf-type tall fescues for lower maintenance needs.

She says that watering should be reduced. "Especially if the homeowner uses automatic irrigation, the system should be updated to include a water sensor," she says.

Got grubs? "Watering less frequently in June and July is an economical way of discouraging adult beetles from laying eggs that become lawn grubs," according to Wallace. "Reduced watering may reduce turf disease as well."

To build healthy soil, leave grass clippings on the lawn. "Clippings recycle nutrients back into the lawn," says Wallace. Another step is to spread a thin layer of compost on the lawn in the fall, which will become soil organic matter. "With healthy soil," she says, "roots grow deeper and that improves the overall health of the lawn." Organic matter also improves moisture retention and reduces the need for water. Ideally, organic matter should make up about 5 percent of soil.

Wallace concludes, "Always get a soil test before applying anything, even compost."

It is not often that we get to "do good" by doing less, but why not make lawn care one of those opportunities?

Landscape tips for right now

Get a soil test: Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (http://www.ct.gov/CAES)

Spread lawn lime, but only if indicated by soil test.

Thatch and aerate lawn.

Investigate low-maintenance grass seed for spring lawn repair. Fine fescues and turf-type tall fescues are great for this area. Wait until April 15-May 15 for planting.

If a soil test indicates the need for fertilizers, apply only between April 15 and Oct. 15 when plants are actively growing - or better yet, wait until September or October to fertilize as suggested by Cornell's Rossi. Keep fertilizers at least 20 feet from any body of water.

Kathy Connolly is a garden writer, landscape designer and speaker. Her email is Kathy@SpeakingofLandscapes.com. Find her blog and presentation schedule at www.SpeakingofLandscapes.com.

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