Lowenfels on gardening: Forget the fairway look; today's lawns are more au naturel

Jeff Lowenfels

I always hate to disagree with the commercial fertilizer companies (no, I don't!), but now, not in early spring, is the time to make decisions about your lawn. If I know my Southcentral lawns, yours is growing like crazy and you actually have something to consider instead of making a knee-jerk decision in early spring.

I suppose before I go any further we should all consider what the ideal lawn is. Sometime in the early 1950s, color television was introduced and homeowners saw lush green, weed-free (aka dandelion-free) golf courses. America entered the post-war, fairway lawn era. The deep green, weed-free and crew-cut lawn became such an American icon that some towns banned anything but lawns in the front yard.

Each to his own (up to the point of doing harm to others and the environment), but we are coming out of that era. Like it or not, the current trend is one that promotes a much more natural-colored lawn on which to play. It's still green, just not that over-Photoshopped-looking green, which comes by way of chemicals. Weeds are permitted, in fact, many of my fellow garden writers won't walk on a lawn that doesn't have them. That should tell you something. So shoot for a nice looking, natural effect.

Of course, you may not have read my book "Teaming With Nutrients," so you didn't have your soil tested for nutrient deficiencies. This is the only way to know the nutrients your plants need to turn their true green. The tests come back and tell you exactly what you need to feed your grass.

You can green up a yellow lawn by providing some organic sources of nitrogen for the microbes in your soil. There are several commercial organic lawn foods available. You can also use soybean meal and granulated molasses. These all spread with drop spreaders. How much? It's up to you. You cannot over apply. I would use a mid- to low-setting, however. A few bags should do a typical lawn.

Aeration, which is getting air into the roots and into the soil, helps yellow lawns, too. The practice improves water retention and uptake and supports the all-important soil food web, which requires oxygen. You can rent an aerator for a few hours. Afterwards your lawn will look like an outhouse for a large flock of geese. Just leave the clots and let them disintegrate as a result of rain and mowing. If you think your lawn needs thickening up, you can sometimes accomplish this simply by adding new seed to the existing lawn. Now would be the time to do that.

Adding a quarter to half an inch of compost is another thing you can do. It may not be practical if you have a large lawn, but it sure works on thin spots here and there. Mix seed in with the compost.

OK, how about thatching. This is the removal of the dead and hard-to-decay stems that accumulate when there isn't enough biological activity. Cut a cross view of a few inches of your lawn. Is there a half inch or greater barrier of stems? (Blades do not contain as much hard-to-decay cellulose and don't count). If so, you can consider thatching. Use a hand rake or better yet, rent a machine or a professional with one. Thatching by rake is back-breaking work.

Ah, what to do with the lawn weeds? No dangerous chemicals, please! Hand control with tools or safe herbicides like A.D.I.O.S or BurnOut. Mow to keep them in check and their flowers out of sight. Careful use of a weed-eater will destroy all above-ground portions of weeds. A golf club can be an effective tool to knock off the heads of dandelions. And finally, mowing. During dandelion flushes, mow often and low to help keep plants from developing seeds. After the first flush, let the grass get to up to 3 or 3 1/2 inches. This will help the roots and may even out-compete some of those dandelions. Mow up to one inch off. Do not pick up the clippings unless you need them for mulch of for the compost pile. They will feed the lawn up to 90 percent of what it needs.


All area gardeners and families: Do not miss this event. Alaska Botanical Garden Boreal Garden and Arts Fest will be Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 a.m., with a member preview Saturday at 10 a.m. Arts, chef demos, plant vendors, art show and sale, gardening demos and how-tos, children's village, live music, bug safari, birds, baby goats and great food vendors, plus the Alaska Botanical Gardens. $8 includes free shuttle from parking lots at Alaska Club and Chugach Square

Jeff Lowenfels is co-author of "Teaming With Microbes" and author of "Teaming With Nutrients." Contact him on his website at teamingwithmicrobes.com.

By Jeff Lowenfels