The Good, the Bad, and Your Lawn

March 21, 2011 | By | Comments (18)


“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, when everyone’s grass looks green and good. Won’t you be mine? Could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Ah yes, the immortal words of the lawn’s greatest champion, Frank Rogers (Fred’s illegitimate brother). Sadly, a lot of people today don’t agree with Frank. They think lawns are bad. They think all lawns harm the environment. Not Grumpy — aka Sustainability Steve. Grumpy says there are no bad lawns, just bad lawn owners.

Why Lawns Are Good

Despite the condemnations of the Lawn Haters, a properly maintained lawn does a lot of good for the environment. Let Sustainability Steve enumerate.

1. Lawns purify the air. Grass consists of mostly green leaves. These leaves absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and release O2 into it. That’s a good thing, right?

2. Lawns purify the water passing through them, absorbing excess nutrients and other harmful substances that would otherwise pollute our groundwater, streams, and lakes. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

3. Lawns cool the air. As they transpire moisture taken from the soil, they act like natural air conditioners. Ever notice that city centers are 10 degrees hotter than the suburbs in summer? Why is that? Because city centers are steel and concrete and the suburbs have nice, cool lawns. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

4. Lawns provide kids with safe, convenient places to play. There’s no way you can play a decent game of football running up a sand dune or dodging cacti in the desert. Lawns give kids a reason to put down their smart phones for at least 25 seconds a day. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

5. Lawn maintenance is good exercise. Unless you’re a member of Future Diabetics of America who cut 5,000 square-foot lawns using a riding mower, you will work up a sweat just about every week spring through fall while mowing your lawn. Regular lawn exercise lowers bad cholesterol, raises good cholesterol, and is free — which sitting on a bike in an exercise club isn’t. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

6. Despite what you’ve heard, lawns don’t have to be high-maintenance. Plant 5,000 square-feet with grass and then plant 5,000 square-feet with flowers and vegetables. You tell me which takes more work. Even if your lawn has lots of weeds, all you have to do to make it look good is mow it. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

7. Finally, a well-maintained lawn is pretty. It forms a lush, verdant stage for all the flowers, shrubs, and trees that surround it, like the photo above. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

Why Lawns Go Bad

Lawns go bad when we give them more than than need and less than they want. Example of the first: most people water and fertilize way too often. Example of the second: lawns need sun. Plant them in shade and they will become thin, weedy, and eroded.

Three practices in particular make for a bad lawn. The first is overwatering. One inch of water per week applied all at one time, whether by rain or sprinklers, is all most lawn grasses need. Warm-season grasses like Zoysia, Bermuda, buffalograss, and centipede don’t even need that. They’re naturally adapted to summer drought. When it gets dry, they turn brown and go dormant. One rain later and they’re green and growing again.

If there is one villain in the plague of overwatering, it is in-ground sprinkler systems. Sustainability Steve hates them, because they waste water and most people misuse them. People use sprinkler systems to water their entire landscapes — grass, shrubs, flowers — despite the fact that each of these has different water requirements. Which means if one is getting the right amount of water, the others are getting too much or too little.

If you have a lawn sprinkler system, use it to water your grass only. Water thoroughly once each week — say, for a hour — rather than 15 minutes each day. Turn it on in early morning, so the grass blades can dry out during the day and not fall victim to disease. If your system comes on at 4 AM, go out and watch it operate one morning. Grumpy has seen too many sprinklers shooting water directly into the street in the dead of night. If you don’t have a sprinkler system, good — don’t get one.

The second evil practice is overfertilizing. Grumpy says fertilizing your grass every month is no different than you scarfing down a bag of pork rinds every day. The result is flabby grass prone to disease. What nutrients the grass doesn’t use wash into streams, ponds, and rivers, depleting water oxygen and harming wildlife.

Sustainability Steve says fertilize no more than twice a year. Use a slow-release fertilizer formulated for your type of grass. For warm-season grasses (Zoysia, St. Augustine, Bermuda, buffalograss), fertilize in late spring and midsummer. That’s it. Fertilize centipede only once in spring. Any more and you’ll kill it. Feed cool-season grasses (Kentucky bluegrass, fescue, perennial rye) once in fall and once in spring. Fall feeding is the most important for them.

Don’t use weed-and-feed fertilizers. These products combine weedkillers and fertilizer, so in theory you can kill two birds with one stone. Problem is, they hardly ever work right, because people apply them all wrong. Each granule of weedkiller has to stick to the leaf of an actively growing weed for at least a day in order to work. If it falls off or gets washed off by rain or watering, it does nothing. Instead of killing weeds, weed-and-feed ends up making them grow faster.

Also, don’t use any weedkiller that contains a chemical called atrazine. Atrazine is unique in that it both prevents weeds from germinating and kills existing weeds. Trouble is, it’s completely water soluble and washes out of the soil following heavy rain and pollutes lakes, streams, and rivers. It’s the only garden chemical my local waterworks tests for, which means it gets into the water I’m drinking. Atrazine has serious ill effects on wildlife. For more details about atrazine, see my blog post, “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places — Froggies Croak a Warning.”

The third evil is bagging the clippings after you mow and putting them out for the trash, so they wind up in landfills. This is so moronic. If you bag grass clippings, put them in your own composter and turn them into compost for your garden. Even better, don’t bag. Use a mulching mower to shred the clippings into tiny bits and return them and their nutrients to the soil surface. By doing this, you can cut in half the need for lawn fertilizer.

Read More About Sustainability from Grumpy’s Nice Friends

Virginia’s Jan Huston Doble, who writes the Thanks for Today  garden blog, has created the Gardeners Sustainable Living Project, where garden bloggers and plain old gardeners can share their ideas about sustainable gardening and win all sorts of neat prizes, like a rain barrel or composter. The contest runs through April 15. Jan also reminds you that Earth Day  is April 22. You might also want to take part in National Arbor Day on April 29.

Next Time — Detoxify Your Indoor Air

Did you know that one decent size houseplant can purify the air in an average room? It’s true. Get the details in your next exciting Grumpy Gardener!





  1. Karin/Southern Meadows

    Great post with wonderful information! One thing that was recommended to me years ago was to put iron on the lawn in the warmer months instead of fertilizer. It will green up the lawn but won’t make it grow like crazy, cutting down on the mowing.

    April 1, 2011 at 5:58 am
  2. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Dying roots on St. Augustine sounds like the work of a fungus called “take-all patch.” Unfortunately, there are no resistant forms of St. Augustine nor are there any chemical controls. The best things you can do to prevent this disease is avoid liming, keep the soil acid, and fertilize no more than twice a year with slow-release fertilizer.

    March 29, 2011 at 1:32 pm
  3. Mission Builders ~ Developers

    Buffalo grass (drought tolerant & no mow) is my next sod. Seeding it in did not work.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:16 pm
  4. Mission Builders ~ Developers

    Our St Augustine is getting what the locals are calling “Blight.” The roots die and you get dirt spots. Our community has had this problem for 2+ year. The lawn mow guy is probably spreading it. They do not wash off after each mow. No cure that I am aware of.

    March 28, 2011 at 2:13 pm
  5. karen

    Thanks again for the advice and will check the link

    March 25, 2011 at 5:28 pm
  6. linda

    We have mature silver maples (ugh!) and very little sun in our back yard. A few years ago my husband (a/k/a the Lawn Man,) discovered Poa Supina. It does GREAT even in areas that receive, at best, an hour (or less,) of dappled sunlight and even thrives in the root zone of the maples (which is basically the entire backyard.) Once established it needs very little supplemental watering.
    Please folks, avoid chemical fertilizers!

    March 25, 2011 at 11:41 am
  7. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    You have two problems — deer and watering. To help solve the first, here’s a link to Defining Your Home Garden, a blog written by a fried of mine in North Carolina, Freda Cameron, who’s an expert in deer-resistant gardening:
    The reason all of your other plants are dying sounds like overwatering and poor drainage. This ain’t San Francisco. With the heavy clay present in most Southeastern soils, overwatering kills more plants than underwatering. Once clay gets wet, it stays wet for a long time.
    So let me give you some suggestions to water your plants correctly.
    1. Don’t use your in-ground sprinkler system to water your trees and shrubs. These plants prefer you to use a hose to soak around their roots infrequently (once a week) but thoroughly. You have to get water down to the roots.
    2. Don’t wet the foliage when you water, as this promotes rot and disease.
    3. The best time to water is early morning.
    4. Plants don’t always wilt because they’re dry. Sometimes they wilt when the soil is wet. So use this test. If your plants are wilted in the morning when you first get up, water them. If they wilt in the sun, wait to see if they’re still wilted the next morning before watering.
    5. Keep working as much organic matter into that clay as you can. It’s the best way to lighten the soil, break up the clay, and provide a happy home for your plants.

    March 24, 2011 at 5:05 pm
  8. Kelsey

    I couldn’t agree more! In the past couple of years I feel like I must defend owning a lawn even though it is maintained organically and I spend hours and hours hand removing sand burrs rather than chemically treat for them! Thank you!

    March 23, 2011 at 11:55 pm
  9. karen

    I live in zone 7 (not sure if it’s a or b–halfway between williamsburg and richmond–very hard clay which we have done our best to amend and add more compost every time we plant something new. We have a pretty large yard that borders on some woods/wetlands. BIG deer issues. Much of the landscaping was done by contractor with our builder and according to ARB rules and regs, but we have added over the past 2+ years we have been here. I think for the most part, in the past, we have overwatered (sorry, we do have in ground sprinklers for much of the yard). I have had problems with black spot or fungus or whatever (can you tell I am new to gardening?) with some things like Hellebores, and my winterberries and some other srubs (otto luyken skip laurel). I had a container-planted mini-penny hydrangea on a balcony that developed fungus and finally died. I maybe watered it too much with the high temps when it looked really wilted in the heat. I think you get the idea. I moved here 2+ years ago from San Francisco Bay area (I think Sunset zone 17) where I had a postage stamp yard and not much time and less knowledge about gardening, but with the milder overall climate things were easier. I have grander plans now, more time, and eager to learn. I REALLY appreciate your blog and also Southern Living magazine for helpful information.

    March 23, 2011 at 7:47 pm
  10. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    I completely agree.

    March 23, 2011 at 4:50 pm
  11. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    In order to give you an accurate answer, I need to know what you’re growing and where you live.

    March 23, 2011 at 4:42 pm
  12. Jennifer Tidwell

    Any lawn or garden can be sustainable if you take steps to plant the right grasses and plants that are suited to our climate.
    I’ve been trying to replace the awful Bermuda grass and weeds in my yard with native grasses like buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) and carex (Carex pensylvanica) along with a mixture of less invasive grasses that can tolerate the extremes in temperature and moisture we experience here. I hate Bermuda grass with a passion, in case I didn’t make that clear.
    A little research and diligence on the part of the homeowner with respect to chemicals goes a long way. I have no problem with some chemicals as long as they are used responsibly.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:24 am
  13. karen

    Thank you for the info. We have fescue. How about perrenials and shrubs? I guess if they wilt in the heat and recover in the cooler am temps they are ok and if not they maybe need a drink?

    March 22, 2011 at 1:58 pm
  14. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    How much water grass requires during extended periods of hot, dry weather depends upon the type of grass. Warm-season grasses, such as Bermuda, Zoysia, and buffalograss, are used to the heat and need no more than an inch a week. Apply it in one watering, so it waters deeply, and do so when the air is cool, so a minimum will evaporate. Cool-season grasses, such as bluegrass and fescue, may need a little more, but not much. They go dormant in hot weather. You can greatly reduce your lawn’s water needs by not mowing in hot, dry weather.

    March 22, 2011 at 11:45 am
  15. j

    good stuff, thanks for the tips

    March 21, 2011 at 11:14 pm
  16. esh

    You forgot to mention that japanese beetle grubs love the tender roots of grass above all things. Certainly another good reason to have as much lawn as possible, right?

    March 21, 2011 at 9:41 pm
  17. Jan @ Thanks for today.

    Grumpy, er, Sustainability Steve–I’m happy to hear that one can be green and still have grass! Living in a community with an HOA, ripping up my lawn completely is literally against the rules! Thanks for all the tips-both humorous and serious-and for linking to my project. You are now qualified for one of the cool garden prizes! I hope your readers will check it out so they, too, can share with us their thoughts as well as qualify for a garden gift! Happy Spring.

    March 21, 2011 at 3:11 pm
  18. karen

    Dear Grump–what about the 1-inch-a-week-rule when we have a summer like last year? When temperatures are in triple digit range, especially for a sustained period of time, does the grass (and other plants) need additional water?

    March 21, 2011 at 12:11 pm

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