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By Mary Beth Breckenridge

RISMEDIA, June 24, 2008-(MCT)-We Americans love our lawns. We love the cool softness underfoot, the brilliant emerald color, the sense of orderliness evoked by an unbroken stretch of groomed grass. Our culture considers a manicured lawn to be a badge of good citizenship, a sign that its owners care about their property and their community.

What we don’t always like is the price of such perfection.

Maintaining a nearly flawless lawn requires our time and labor, or else the money to pay for someone else’s. It requires water, sometimes more than what nature supplies. It requires additives, typically in the form of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. And it often requires the use of gasoline-powered equipment with two-cycle engines, which are far more polluting than automobiles.

Lawns, after all, are fussy things. They’re usually made up of non-native grasses that can’t thrive without human intervention. And they’re monocultures, which means a single pest or disease can do extensive damage. They lack the diversity that is nature’s defense mechanism.

If nature had its way, your lawn would revert to a meadow in a relatively short time and to a forest eventually. Keeping nature at bay is a constant battle, and the more effectively you’re determined to do that, the more weapons you need.

Funny thing is, many of us have reservations about our lawn-care practices. In a survey released just this week by the National Gardening Association, only one in five respondents gave current lawn and landscape maintenance practices a passing grade for environmentalism.

It’s a classic Catch-22, said Paul Robbins, a geography professor at the University of Arizona and a former faculty member at Ohio State University, who wrote the book “Lawn People: How grasses, weeds and chemicals make us who we are.” In his research, Robbins made a surprising discovery: The people who use synthetic lawn chemicals are also the most likely to characterize such chemicals as bad.

They tend to be better educated than the general public, he said, so they’re likely to know about the health and environmental effects of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. But they also tend to live in wealthier neighborhoods where manicured lawns are prized. Robbins said they feel a responsibility to keep up their lawns so they can fit in with neighborhood norms and maintain the value of their homes and their neighbors’.

He likened those people to drivers of sport utility vehicles who love the comfort, safety and cargo space but hate the big carbon footprint. “There’s an anxiety that comes with consumption,” he said.

If Americans love their lawns, however, it’s a relatively new romance.

Before World War II, few homes had lawns of any consequence, Robbins said. Most people either lived in cities or towns and had small yards, or they were farmers who devoted their land to crops or pasture.

The years immediately after the war, however, saw both the growth of suburbs and the introduction of petrochemical-based lawn products. For the first time, we had both the space to grow lawns and the means to do it.

And those chemicals worked. Most new lawns, especially in housing developments, were being started on lots that had been stripped of their fertile topsoil, Robbins noted. Chemical fertilizers were an easy way to put back what had been lost, and grass was an easy thing to grow in less-than-ideal soil.

Our obsession deepened with the advent of televised golf tournaments, said Paul Tukey, founder of the nonprofit organization and author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual. No longer were we satisfied with grass-and-clover yards punctuated by the occasional dandelion. Now we wanted lawns to rival the fairways at Augusta National. That desire has been fueled by aggressive marketing from the lawn-chemical industry, Robbins argues. As oil prices have risen and agricultural markets declined, he contends, that industry has focused on homeowners to shore up its business.

So now many of us find ourselves with both chemically dependent lawns and a guilt complex.

What’s a homeowner with high landscaping standards to do?

Here are some options:

Mow Properly. The grasses we typically use in our lawns are encouraged to tiller-that is, branch out from the base-by the act of mowing. That results in thicker lawns and less room for weeds. So mowing is actually good for turf grass, as long as it’s done properly, said horticulturist Melinda Myers, author of “The Ohio Lawn Guide.” Myers recommends mowing often enough that you never remove more than one-third of the grass blade at a time. If you let your grass grow taller-say, 3½ to 4 inches-you’ll need to mow a lot less often than if you keep the grass shorter. Taller grass also tolerates drought better and shades the soil, making it harder for weed seeds to germinate.

Use a sharp blade, Myers said. Most people need to sharpen the blade at the beginning of the season and about halfway through, so she recommends buying an extra blade so you can switch off.

How do you know when the blade is getting dull? Look for ragged edges and a white tinge on the tip of the grass blade, a signal that the cut isn’t clean and the wound isn’t healing quickly.

Leave the grass clippings on the lawn, Tukey urged. As they decompose, they give nutrients back to the soil.

Choose the Right Plant for the Location. Any plant, grass included, does best in the conditions it likes. Some grasses like full sun. Some can take a little more shade. Some stand up well to foot traffic; others don’t. It’s important to match your grass to the conditions, Myers said. For example, you might choose a mix that includes Kentucky bluegrass for a front yard that’s used mostly for show, tougher tall fescue or perennial rye for a backyard play area and a shade mix for sections of the lawn that get partial shade.

And sometimes, grass just isn’t the best choice, she said. You’ll greatly cut down on your labor and on the need to add stuff to the soil if you plant things better suited to the conditions-for example, a shade-loving groundcover under a thick tree canopy or water-loving plants in an area that’s frequently saturated. Myers said native plants are a great choice, because if they’re planted in the right spot, they’ll thrive without human intervention.

Consider Low-Mow Grasses. New to the market are low- mow grasses, varieties such as buffalo grass and RTF (rhizomatous tall fescue) that grow slowly and stay fairly short. Consequently, they don’t need to be cut as often as more common turf grasses-about once a month to maintain the look of a lawn, and even less often if you’re satisfied with more of a meadow look.

Low-mow grasses are clumping types, so they don’t creep. That means you won’t have to pull grass out of your flower beds continually, noted Sabrena Schweyer, an Akron garden designer and sustainable-landscaping advocate who has low-mow grass in her side yard.

However, these grasses tend to lack the uniform perfection of a bluegrass lawn, and some types aren’t so soft underfoot. And because they’re slow-growing, a low-mow lawn is slower to get established, Schweyer said. Expect more weeding the first year until the grass fills in.

Her firm, Salsbury-Schweyer Inc., installed a low-mow lawn a few years ago in Moreland Hills. “The first two years they (the homeowners) had lots of messages in their mailbox from lawn-care companies wanting to help them,” she said with a laugh. But now that the lawn is established, it’s beautiful, she said.

Go Organic. One of the issues with synthetic lawn chemicals is that lawns become dependent on them, Tukey and Schweyer said. Those chemicals can kill off the organisms that keep soil healthy, they said, so the soil needs additional applications to get the nutrients essential for plant growth.

Switching to organic products and methods encourages beneficial organisms to return so they can rebuild healthy soil, which is the basis of plant health, Schweyer said. Organic products are becoming widely available, and more lawn-care companies are offering organic alternatives.

But be cautious, Schweyer said. Some products marketed as organic still contain synthetic chemicals, so read labels or talk to a knowledge salesperson.

If you switch to organic methods, be patient. Your lawn may need a few years’ transition time in which it might not look its best, Myers said.

And don’t expect the same fast results from organic products as you get from synthetic chemicals. Organics work more slowly, and they don’t always produce the same flawless results as chemicals.

Let Go of Some Lawn. As soon as she moved into her home in Milwaukee, Myers started tearing out parts of the lawn and replacing it with gardens. “I know my neighbors thought I was nuts,” she said.

Like those neighbors, we’re used to seeing lawns around homes, but some types of plantings can be easier to maintain if they’re suited to the climate and their sites and if they’re tough enough to choke out weeds, Myers and Schweyer said. So reducing the size of your lawn in favor of other plants is one way to cut down on the work and the need for additives.

Schweyer’s firm sometimes incorporates meadows into its landscapes, filled with grasses and flowering plants that are carefully selected for height and year-round colors. Even a prairie-an indigenous, sun-loving habitat that’s a little more wild- looking-could be a good choice in the right spot, she said.

Research shows a diverse landscape is less likely to be invaded by pests and diseases, Schweyer said. It’s also more hospitable to wildlife than a huge expanse of grass.

Myers recommended making the transition gradually, so you can make sure your new landscape is manageable. It’s also easier for the neighbors to accept smaller changes, she said.

Change Your Attitude. Do you really need a perfect lawn? Advocates of sustainable landscaping argue you don’t.

Schweyer recalled chatting with some highly regarded professionals in the landscape industry not long ago. When the conversation turned to lawns, they discovered that not one of them used chemicals or, for that matter, did much at all to their grass. “These are the scientists and the people who are the leaders in horticulture,” she said.

Of course, there’s a difference between tolerating a few weeds and letting them get out of control. But Myers said you can keep weeds in check by spot- treating problem areas rather than applying weed killer to the entire lawn. Identify the weeds to make sure you’re using the right product.

Or use the old-fashioned method of digging the weeds, Tukey said. Broad-leaf weeds have two leaves when they emerge; if you know that, you can dig them when they’re young and easy to remove, he said.

Remember that weeds are indicators of problems, such as poor draining, compacted soil or excess shade, Myers said. Better to fix the problem then fight the weeds.

If you choose to fertilize, Myers suggested cutting down to only one application a year, in the fall. She also suggested letting your lawn go dormant during dry periods rather than struggling to keep it green against its will. Dormancy is a natural defense mechanism for grass in summer, she said, just as dormancy helps trees survive winter.

Tukey insisted your lawn standards don’t have to fall far, however.

It’s possible to have a lawn that’s lush and attractive but is still 10% to 20% weeds, he said. “My advice to anybody would be, hey, take a deep breath and relax a little bit.”

Be an Opinion Leader. New ways of landscaping require new ways of thinking, but Robbins said the green movement may make people more open to alternatives.

One way of effecting change, he suggested, is for like-minded homeowners to band together to create demonstration projects and perhaps push for changes in local weed laws. If a few homeowners on a street can show that wildflower-studded meadows or swaths of taller grasses can be just as attractive as a closely shorn lawn, then maybe others in the neighborhood will be more willing to give such alternatives a try.

That just might lead to a whole new standard of lawn care, Robbins said.

And maybe someday, homeowners will feel the pressure to maintain a lawn that’s less than perfect.

How to Hire a Natural-Lawn Care Service

Thinking of hiring a natural-lawn-care service? Here are some questions to ask, from “The Organic Lawn Care Manual” by Paul Tukey:

– What is your experience? Being new to the business isn’t necessarily a drawback, but make sure the contractor has the necessary knowledge.
– May I have references? When you receive them, check them.
– Do you have licenses and insurance? In Ohio, a business that applies chemical fertilizer or any type of pesticide must be licensed by the state Department of Agriculture. The contractor should also have insurance, which would pay all medical expenses if he or she gets hurt on your property.
– What are your professional affiliations? Membership in a professional organization indicates a contractor probably takes steps to conduct business professionally.
– Do you offer a natural, pesticide-free lawn care program? If the contractor offers “organic-based” lawn care, dig deeper. Organic-based products may contain a large percentage of synthetic materials, which is why they’re often cheaper than true organic products.
– How will your program build my soil? A contractor offering organic lawn care will probably talk about things like beneficial micoorganisms, soil life, fungal content and the role of calcium and compost. If he or she talks a lot about adding nitrogen, look elsewhere.
– What is the game plan? Traditional lawn-care companies using synthetic chemicals often operate according to a present calendar. Companies offering natural lawn care make decisions according to the weather.
– What is my role in the process? Spell out which services will be provided by the contract and which (such as mowing) you’ll retain.
– How will my lawn look? You and the contractor should discuss your visions for your lawn in one, three and five years. Be ready to spend more money and time for a lawn that approaches perfection, but understand that a goal of no weeds or disease in unrealistic.
– Can I get it all in writing? This should include information on how the contractor charges for applications, which is typically based on time and materials rather than a preset fee schedule.

© 2008, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.