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Lowenfels: Take steps to a lawn that's light on labor

Jeff Lowenfels

Lawns. Most homes have them. This is not a column about their worth (though I do think that many shortchange their benefits). If you have one and are keeping it, you might need some advice on caring for it.

First of all, by now your lawn should be greening up nicely. Water is all a lawn needs coming out of winter and you should be giving yours at least one inch every four or five days between you and Mother Nature. Dormancy is broken and new leaves are produced. The lawn greens up. You don't need to feed it. There are sugars stored in the plant roots and there are nutrients enough in the soil to start them out on their seasonal way.

Frankly, for most people, once the lawn has had enough water and greens up, that is all the work they need to do. The idea that a lawn needs fertilizer every spring and certainly that it needs it several times a season is the notion of those who seek to sell you fertilizer and make billions of dollars. It is not coming from me, your trusted garden columnist. I don't know where the idea you need to lime every year comes from, but I do know too much fertilizer results in the need. Good grief.

Mowing the lawn and leaving clippings and mowing the leaves and leaving them as mulch is pretty much all there is left to do. Sure, fill in some of the bare spots with compost and reseed.

If you are not satisfied with the color of your lawn, don't jump to the conclusion that you need to toss a few bags into the spreader and dust things up. What does the author of top-selling "Teaming With Nutrients" say? Get your lawn soil tested. You may find it has everything it needs. It may just lack mycorrhizal fungi. These can be applied with the soluble formulas, by the way, and are always a good idea for a first-year lawn.

If you have been using chemicals on your lawn, you may just need to return the other microbes you killed off. This can be done with compost tea applications or by spreading compost one-eighth to one-half inch thick.

Or you may actually need to apply some nitrogen. This will not be often if you leave those clippings, as they are full of nitrogen, up to 90 percent of what a lawn needs. Toss in those mulched leaves and you may never need to fertilize for nitrogen deficiency again.

Commercial chemical fertilizers? Not for me. I am organic, and you should be too. Gardeners use three times as much nitrogen fertilizers as do farmers on an acre-per-acre basis. For my money -- and as co-author of another book, "Teaming With Microbes" (shameless, I know, but it is a reference point for credibility purposes!) -- soy bean meal is the best stuff to toss out there. Mix in some granulated molasses if you want a bit faster greening. Aerating the lawn first is a good idea. Leave the plugs.

When is the best time to water? Morning. This is because the nutrients a plant needs are taken up with water and water moves through a plant for the most part because of transpiration. This only happens when the leaf openings are open which happens to be the day. So hit the lawn with water early in the day and keep those nutrients flowing. And consider warmer water (installing a hot water faucet) just as you should for your other plants.

Mow high. This will hide those dandelions when they are not in bloom. It will also grow a thicker lawn. And by all means mow in patterns that will express your inner artist. At a minimum mow diagonal to the house, not perpendicular. Lay a track out around your lawn for turning and then go for it. Circles around trees and shrubs, hearts every now and then. Go for it. Why should those guys who mow the lawns in baseball stadiums have all the fun?

That is all there is to it. Lawns don't need to be work. They will be if you listen to the Scotts and others who yell at you to feed, weed and feed, lime and turf build. None of that is necessary. Nor should it be for a meager three month season (I have saved you a ton of work).

Jeff Lowenfels' latest book is "Teaming With Nutrients: The Organic Gardener's Guide To Optimizing Plant Nutrition." Reach him at teamingwithmicrobes.com.