Going green in your own yard can mean more than just cultivating a picture-perfect lawn. It can mean helping to protect the environment. Extending the methods of sustainable, non-polluting organic methods to lawn care can save money and have long-term benefits for the Vineyard.
A lawn can be a source of pride, not unlike dressing up for a party or having your car washed and waxed. It is a visible sign that you care.
Growing a lawn on the Vineyard is never an easy task. We are faced with an army of obstacles, not the least of which is a short growing season. Our oak tree- shaded, dandelion-loving, grub-infested, pet-overrun, skunk-dug yards give us pause. Our inconsistent rain, uncertain temperatures, and acidic, sand-and-clay topsoil, make growing a lawn challenging.
The predominant 20th-century methods for growing lawns involved expensive chemicals to deal with pesky weeds and insects. Many of those chemicals have been found to be harmful. Leaching fertilizers can put poisons into the water table, polluting our drinking water and killing the wildlife in our ponds and streams. Herbicides and pesticides can poison our pets, our songbirds, and our families.
Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS), said, “Improving the Vineyard’s water quality is one of VCS’s top priorities, and one of the best ways a home owner can help is by not using chemical fertilizers that might end up in the aquifer. We encourage people to talk to their landscapers and garden shops about suitable substitutes for potentially harmful chemicals.” He also recommends the planting of native species, many of which are drought-tolerant and require little care.
This is the 21st century. There are alternatives to chemically induced lawns and many of these alternatives are cheaper. The Times talked to two Island experts in organic landscaping who have the knowledge to help wean us from our horticultural chemical dependence.
Chuck Wiley, owner of Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury, said that he can, “…go on for hours about lawns and lawn care.” He gave us a few tips.
“If you are going to do just one thing for your lawn, lime.” He pointed out that lime is organic and it makes the nutrients in the soil more readily available for the grass. “Our soil is pretty acidic and that prevents the lawn from absorbing what it needs through the roots and up into the body and leaves of the plants.”
Organic fertilizers & grass selection
There are a host of very good organic fertilizers. “I highly recommend annual topdressing with a good rich compost,” Mr. Wiley said. “That would give you a golf course quality lawn without doing much else. It is expensive, but there is nothing you can do that is better for a lawn.
“Grass selection is very important. You want a grass that is disease-resistant. There are lot of new disease resistant grasses on the market.”
Jeff Carlson is an award-winning groundskeeper and knows a bit about growing grass. He is golf course superintendent at the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, and has become a global leader in organic course management techniques. He was recently chosen as a consultant to a team that will build an organically sensitive golf course for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. He offered a common-sense approach to growing an organic lawn.
All about the timing
The first thing to consider is fertilizer management, Mr. Carlson said. “Organic fertilizers are really only effective in the warmer part of the year, June through September. They are not as efficient outside that season and there is a greater chance that they will leach out into the water table.”
Mr. Carlson said there are many excellent natural organic fertilizers, but if they are applied when they aren’t effective they will leach out just like any other kind of fertilizer. “Timing is crucial. People don’t need to put down as much as is often recommended. Lawns need very little if any in the spring.”
Grass has enough carbohydrate reserves to get started in the spring without any help, Mr. Carlson said. “Fertilizer companies advertise fertilizing in the spring. It makes them look good because the grass will grow anyway.”
Hand weeding can be tedious but can be the best way to go, according to Mr. Carlson. Weed in the fall. “Anytime you break the surface of your lawn, you give weeds a chance to grow, but weeds don’t grow in the fall.”
Mr. Carlson said there is a new weed control product that gives weeds a big shot of iron. The iron helps the weeds grow themselves to death. Corn glutton has been a popular organic weed control agent, which Mr. Carlson does not like as much. It uses nitrogen as a stimulant to push the weeds through their cycle. There are methods of spot freezing and burning weeds. None of these methods harms the grass.
Insect and grub control is an ongoing issue for most gardeners. Mr. Carlson said that in northern climates like ours, beneficial nematodes can be an efficient way of dealing with grubs, which are beetle larva, and are best applied in May and August. He said that repellents such as cedar oil can work to run insects into your neighbors’ yards, but he is partial to artificial scents that are used to trap insects.
Water management is a primary issue in lawn maintenance, according to Mr. Carlson. “Don’t get your lawn too wet. There are many varieties of fungus that attack plants on the Island.” He said that fungus is a problem for lawns only if too much nitrogen (fertilizer) or too much water is used. “Fungus lives on the growing part of a plant. It will grow out.”
Imperfection is okay
Organic lawn care requires being able to accept a small level of imperfection, Mr. Carlson pointed out. “If you can put up with a little imperfection you can use a lot less pesticides and chemicals. Perfection requires high chemical use.”
Island lawns are often taken over by patches of moss. Mr. Carlson said moss is sometimes a function of not enough nitrogen and/or too much shade, and too much moisture. He said that if you have a lot of trees you should plant grass that is shade resistant in the shady areas and other types in the sunny parts of the yard. Sometimes you just have to cut out the moss and re-grass and that should be done in the fall, he said.
“I have not fertilized my lawn at home in a couple of years,” Mr. Carlson said, chuckling. “It takes care of itself.” He said he always mows the grass when it is dry and he lets the clippings go back into the yard. The clippings decompose, making their own nitrogen. “It is more sustainable that way.
“Mowing and bagging is terrible. You end up with a bag of clippings, yard waste. What are you going to do with them?” He said that organic gardening is often using a little common sense. “If a plant doesn’t grow in a particular location it’s probably not going to, regardless of what you do. Grass likes open space. You never see trees on a sod farm.”
Talk to your garden shop about organic products and methods to improve your lawn without doing harm. You may save money and time and the environment. That’s a win, win, win.