Lowenfels: Microbes do the job on a 'neglected' yard

GardeningSeptember 4, 2013 

For the first summer in 35-plus years of yardening here in Alaska, we did not water our lawns. What started as a temporary thing due to my beloved traveling lawn sprinkler refusing to move when set out this spring was compounded and extended by a back injury. Before I knew it, the challenge was on: Could I actually spend a summer on a lawn that was not watered at least once a week?

I can't blame the broken sprinkler on the fact that we didn't put any fertilizer or microbe food down this year either. The back had everything to do with that though the idea of adding "no fertilizer" to the challenge entered into the picture. Frankly, you would never know our lawn has been sustained by lawn clippings alone. It looks terrific.

Oh sure, when we had that steak of 70 degree plus weather the back lawn lost a bit of its color. And there was one section, fortunately in a hidden corner of the property that looked absolutely dead, Once it started to rain, however, the grass -- and frankly the moss -- in the lawns greened up instantly as if it had been feed once a week.

Of course this is the way it was with lawns before the advent of TV, before homeowners saw the green fairways of the first televised U.S. open. Before the end of World War II and the invention of the lawn fertilizer industry, people pretty much left their lawns alone save for mowing. This is how I grew up, mowing and weeding the lawns. My father didn't believe in fertilizing a lawn as he never had to do it when he was a kid and his father's yard look just fine. So we never did so, not one inch of our acres of simply majestic looking grass ever received fertilizer.

As for watering, I can remember one year during a drought that we watered a portion of the lawn. We had a well and ample water, but eventually stopped watering the lawns least our neighbors got jealous. When the drought ended, everyone's lawns came back.

Somehow, and again I blame television (as well as a whole generation of garden writers, of which I was one until my break in 1996), we have been brainwashed and brow-beaten into thinking that first, we have to thatch our lawns every year. Then we have to fertilize them at least a couple of times during the season and finally give them one more hit in the fall after they have gone dormant.

And, because we fertilize so much, we usually have to test and adjust pH with additions of lime, because our soils are impacted by the addition of all the high nitrogen lawn chemicals.

The advice to fertilize lawns in southcentral lawns began long before I arrived on these pages. We used to be advised to put down 8-32-16 every three weeks. Then came those lawn food commercials touting weed and feed formulas and special, early spring, summer and fall mixtures, liquid spray formulas and walk behind lawn food spreaders. Thatching and fertilizing the lawn became the first core of spring.

Looking back this year, I don't regret the money saved nor avoided work as a result of not watering and fertilizing the yard. I long ago gave up thatching because it simply is not needed when a lawn is heathy. Now I am pretty much convinced that if you leave the lawn clippings to decay and allow the leaves that fall from trees and shrubs to be mulched in as well, you don't need to fertilize much, if at all, and the same goes for watering as well. In short, we've been doing things the wrong way which almost always results in more work.

If you must work on your lawns, consider spending a couple of hours aerating them. Aeration breaks up compacted lawn soils, fostering a better environment for grass roots and associated microbial friends. It also improves drainage and makes the area more conducive to worms which will continue to aerate and increase the lawns fertility. Worm tunnels and burrows also act as reservoirs that hold water. Rent an aeration machine and spend a couple of hours. It isn't that difficult and can be done now, in the middle of summer or even in spring.

Fall is a good time to consider sprinkling some compost around the lawns especially on those patches that do tend to dry when it doesn't rain. Most important, even if you have been bagging lawn clippings all summer, now is a good time to leave yours on the ground. As the leaves start to fall from trees, mow these into the lawn as well. They will decay during the next few months and provide food for your lawn plants next spring.

In short, judging from our lawns, this teaming with microbes stuff works. They do the work for me and will for you, if you let them.

Jeff Lowenfels is co-author of "Teaming With Microbes" and author of "Teaming With Nutrients," available at tinyurl.com/TeamingWithMicrobes and tinyurl.com/TeamingWithNutrients

Garden calendar

ALASKA BOTANICAL GARDEN: VISIT THE GARDEN AT 4601 CAMPBELL AIRSTRIP ROAD. MUSHROOMS GALORE!

WINTER IS COMING: TIME TO HARVEST AND MOVE PLANTS INDOORS. YOU ONLY HAVE A COUPLE OF MORE WEEKS.

CLEAN UP: AGAIN, YOU ONLY HAVE A LIMITED AMOUNT OF TIME. START PUTTING THINGS AWAY. CLEAN UP.

TOMATOES: THESE ARE PERENNIALS AND WILL CONTINUE TO GROW AND PRODUCE IF YOU GIVE THEM ENOUGH LIGHT AND KEEP THEM IN TEMPERATURES OVER 55 DEGREES.

SPRING FLOWERING BULBS: BUY, PLANT AND MULCH WITH GRASS CLIPPINGS.

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