A Greener Lawn

Having a green lawn means more than just keeping it healthy and alive--read these lawn-care tips to care for your lawn from root to tip

Jun 25, 2009

Ways to go green: Take shorter showers. Recycle. Walk instead of drive. Tread carefully on the blades of grass beneath you?

With the evolution of green living, it’s easy to come up with ways to conserve our environment, but few would think to preserve something that’s already green. Lawn and landscape management involves more then just watering flowers and picking up after the family pup. Keep your landscape blooming with these soil and landscape architecture tips from the experts.

Do Not Reach Your Wilting Point

Flowers are in season, but have you researched your soil? If soil isn’t adequate for plant growth, you may be in for a flower graveyard rather than a bed of color. You can easily test the soil’s ability to hold water for specific plants by doing a flood test. UW–Madison assistant professor of soil science Nick Balster shares his method.

“I do a simple test where I flood the soil close to a dry weather period,” says Balster, whose particular method is detailed below. “I then let that soil dry out to its wilting point to determine the right amount of water to feed the plant.”

Your soil’s history is just as important as the current status or water holding capacity in sustaining plant growth. Find out how your bedrock came to be.

“Try to learn and understand the plants’ history and patterns that are reflective of their region,” suggests UW landscape architecture and environmental studies professor Janet Silbernagel.

“Materials typical of your region’s soil are usually the most sustainable.”

Pamper Your Lawn

“When fertilizing a lawn, the best thing to do is to get a soil plant and analysis lab test, which is inexpensive and will tell you what soil you’re starting with,” says Balster.

You can send your soil sample to the Soil and Plant Analysis Lab at UW. Once you determine the type of fertilizer your soil is craving, visit UW–Extension’s website (www.uwex.edu) to learn exactly how to read the back of a fertilizer bag. It’s similar to comparing the nutrient ingredients from a box of cereal, except you compare fillers instead of calories.

“Fertilizers are all the same, what’s different is the fillers that they add as ingredients,” says Balster, who adds that while fillers and micronutrients make a difference, packaging doesn’t matter to your lawn—so examine ingredients closely.

Peggy Chung, owner of the local Shooting-Star Landscape Architecture begs to differ on the topic of fertilizers.

“There are alternatives to traditional practices like fertilizing lawns with manmade chemicals,” says Chung. “The production of synthetic fertilizers involves highly mechanized systems where lots of energy and natural resources are used in production.”

On the other hand, organic fertilizers can easily be made from yard leaves, kitchen waste and other natural materials in the yard. Natural materials equal greater organic matter content which helps hold nutrients and water in the soil. Lesson being, if you do choose to use fertilizer, make sure you buy organic (or make it yourself!)

Exterior Decorating

Displaying an amusing land gnome in your back yard won’t affect the earth beneath it, but how you install certain lawn decorations can take a toll on the soil.

“Once you start moving and digging up the soil it will never be the same again. Fungus can enter into the roots in trees which can destroy the trunk,” says Chung, who thinks of going green as an older concept that’s transformed into a trend just recently. “With landscape design, older concepts and peoples’ personal preferences sometimes overtake their notion of environmental friendly concepts,” says Chung. “Outdoor lighting is one example that uses excess energy, and confuses the migration of birds.”

Dark Skies, a national nonprofit, advocates for families to turn off the lights at night to protect the birds and preserve the night sky. The organization also suggests alternatives to bright city and neighborhood lighting like using low glare lighting equipment or low glare luminaries that point downward to reduce light pollution and increase energy efficiency. Birds and other species may benefit from pools and lawn fountains, or from certain plants that carry fruit and nectar. Take all organisms, from microscopic bacteria to visiting wildlife, into consideration when working with your soil.

When All Else Fails ...

Call in reinforcement. Even the experts do! Chung looks to arborists, also known as tree specialists, to be advise her on proper shrub health and plant selection. This helps Chung determine how to provide her customers with a landscape that they can reasonably maintain. “When I plan my design, I design it to fix the problem while minimizing damage to the landscape,” says Chung. “I never want to use something invasive that is nonnative to plants. I like to place things so plants grow into their space and you don’t have to spend your whole life pruning them.”

Every little bit helps in restoring our natural habitat. Whether it involves our own lawn or not, we must work to preserve what Mother Nature gave us.

Professor Balster’s Wilting Point Test

Test your soil’s water holding capacity with certain plants by wetting the planted area and timing the drainage:

1. Saturate a volume of soil

2. Let drain for 24 hours. Continue to allow drainage until plants wilt.

3. Record the time from saturation to wilting—that number is the time it takes for the plants to drain the soil.

For more information, visit: uwex.edu, darksky.org/mc/page.do.

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