Fertilizing the Sustainable
The major nutrient that lawn grasses require is nitrogen, followed by phosphorous, potassium, and sometimes trace elements such as iron. Nitrogen is volatile and needs to be applied regularly. However, many people overapply lawn fertilizers thinking that more is always better. Instead, test your soil to find out exactly what the lawn needs (see Chapter 16).
If you have to fertilize your lawn, follow these simple guidelines:
- Go organic. Organic fertilizers nurture soil life; harsh chemical ones harm it. Organics last longer, won't burn the lawn if they're overapplied, are made from sustainable natural sources rather than fossil fuels, are less likely to leach into groundwater or streams, and are less expensive in the long run.
- Know how much fertilizer to apply. Lawns need 1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet at each application, with an annual total of 1 to 5 pounds, depending on soil type, grass variety, and growing conditions. The percentages of the Big Three (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) in a fertilizer are listed on the bag — shown as 10-5-5, for example, indicating 10 percent nitrogen and 5 percent each of phosphorous and potassium.
To avoid damage to waterways and groundwater through leaching of nutrients, replace only what's been used instead of dumping on a set amount of fertilizer each time.
✓ Know when to fertilize. Two feedings a year are usually enough to encourage good root development and prepare the grass for strong growth in spring. Make fall your primary feeding time. Avoid fertilizing too early in spring, because it encourages the development of diseases. Warm-season grasses should be fed in summer only; cool-season grasses shouldn't be fed in the heat of summer.
Organic fertilizers are dependent on soil microbes to convert their nutrients to a form that's available to the grass. The microbes are on duty when soil temperatures are on the warm side, so organic fertilizers won't do much good in cold weather.
There's more to good fertilizing than just nitrogen. Keep these tips in mind to keep your lawn looking lush:
- A monthly application of seaweed extract (kelp) provides valuable trace elements (nutrients needed in smaller quantities). This seaweed application is a natural way to boost the performance of your lawn.
- Good organic fertilizers contain humic acids, which increase the availability of nutrients, improve soil structure, enhance photosynthesis and protein synthesis, and improve root function. These fertilizers enable you to use less nitrogen, which means less waste and pollution.
- The pH (a measure of whether the soil is acidic or alkaline) of your lawn should be between 6.3 and 6.8. Adding lime to your soil (the mineral, not the fruit) can reduce acidity; adding sulfur can reduce alkalinity. Maintaining optimum pH helps keep weeds and diseases from becoming a problem, reducing or eliminating your need to use chemicals.
- Adding compost or compost tea (a specially prepared living solution of compost that's available at some nurseries) once or twice a year can revitalize the soil food web and contribute nutrients. (See Chapter 16 for details.)
Aeration is the practice of removing cores from the root zone of turf to reduce how compact the roots are and to allow water and fertilizers to penetrate. Clay soils are especially susceptible to compaction.
Aerate in spring or fall, when temperatures are low. Use a gas-powered or small foot-powered aerator that removes small cores of soil (see Figure 22-1). Don't use a spading fork or spikes that don't take cores, because they compact the sides of the holes they make. Remove nine to ten cores per square foot of lawn. Follow up by raking compost into the holes.
Renovation, also called dethatching, is a method of combing thatch (built-up dead grass) from the turf. Thatch inhibits the penetration of water, fertilizer, and air, and it can encourage certain diseases and pest problems. Thatch is most prevalent in lawns that are overfertilized, especially Kentucky bluegrass.
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