The suburban dream: a lush, thick lawn to make your neighbors green with envy.
The most common solution to lawn and garden problems is to liberally apply chemicals in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Unfortunately, compounds contained in these products have been shown to contaminate groundwater and contribute to the eutrophication that leads to decreased oxygen levels and harsher environmental conditions in nearby lakes.
So what can you do to minimize the impact of your gardening methods?
There are natural fixes to most common lawn concerns that are not only healthier and more beneficial to the environment, but also often less expensive than chemicals. Some fairly simple solutions are listed below as well as a few good sources if you’re interested in learning more about organic gardening methods.
The best way to remove unwanted weeds from a lawn is to encourage conditions that are favorable to grass growth, but less than ideal for weeds.
Set your mower on a high setting, 3-4” if possible. Although it sounds counterintuitive, allowing grass to grow taller will strengthen the plants and allow them to divert energy towards growing new shoots, rather than replacing the height lost after each mow. New shoots of grass can help choke out weeds.
Additionally, taller grass blocks the sun from new weed shoots; if the weeds are getting less sun than the grass, they won’t grow as well. More shade to the soil prevents evaporation, which means less watering.
How much should you water?
Frequent watering might sound great for your lawn, but it actually encourages shallow root systems. Infrequent watering will force grass to deepen their roots, ideally well below the root level of weeds; in the competition for nutrients between grass and weeds, the deepest roots get the most nutrients and water. Another disadvantage to frequent watering: every time you water your lawn, that water carries some of the soil’s nutrients away.
Only water when you see the first signs of wilting grass: curling at the tip of the blades. You can also test your soil with a shovel; if you don’t see any moisture, or if the soil is too compacted for the shovel blade to go in easily, it’s probably time to water.
Consider your soil pH
Another great way to discourage the growth of weeds is to maintain a soil pH of 6.5. Identify the weeds in your lawn, and determine how their preferred pH compares with this. For example, Dandelions grow best in soil with a pH of 7.5; if you bring the pH down, the pesky yellow flowers won’t grow as well as your grass. The best way to find out your soil’s pH is to have your lawn tested professionally. Michigan State University’s Kent County Extension has sample kits available at the bookstore; $20 will get you a sample bag, mail-in envelope and detailed information on what your results will mean.
The pH balance is also important to consider for vegetable gardens. Nutrients are absorbed differently at different pH ranges. For example, phosphorus, an essential plant nutrient, is absorbed best at a pH of 7, whereas plants are better able to absorb metals like iron at levels closer to 5 or 6. The organic gardening website GrowAnything.com has a great list of common vegetable garden plants and their preferred pH. Similar guidelines exist for flower gardens, but typically there is a much wider range of preferred pH among this group of plants. When dealing with pH units, remember that a small change means a lot because the numbers go up or down by a factor of ten; a pH of 6 is ten times more acidic than a pH of 7, and 100 times more acidic than a pH of 8.
Do your research
Knowing your land and the soil, plants, and animals in it is invaluable to creating beautiful and natural gardens and lawns. Soil texture and pH often dictate which plants will do well in your garden, and which ones won’t survive the first growing season. Native plant species are best suited to the ecosystems they are adapted for, so spend some time learning to cultivate native varieties of your favorite plants.
The city of Ann Arbor’s Natural Area Preservation organization publishes an introductory guide that includes some websites and reference books on gardening and landscaping with native plants.
Additionally, there are many websites devoted to organic gardening methods. Here’s a few you might want to check out: