2017-05-18 / House & Home

The Gardening Guy

Spring Lawn Care
Henry Homeyer

Use the back of a lawn rake to spread compostUse the back of a lawn rake to spread compostThis lawn is thin so it needed overseedingThis lawn is thin so it needed overseeding  Lawns? My philosophy is this: If it’s green and you can mow it, it’s a lawn. Dandelions? Who cares? Their blossoms are cheerful. Creeping Charlie, plantain? Pests, but not awful. And so on. I love a lawn with some biodiversity. But bare and thin spots I like to fill in or over-seed. Now is the time to do that.


          I recently called Paul Sachs of North Country Organics, manufacturer of Pro-Gro fertilizer and more, to talk about spring lawn care using organic products. Paul explained to me that all the New England states have laws against applying phosphate-containing fertilizer on lawns. Why? To minimize phosphate run-off into lakes, ponds and streams, thus reducing the growth of algae and other plants from running rampant and diminishing water quality.


          Mr. Sachs explained that this law makes it technically illegal to fertilize your lawn – unless the middle number on your bag of fertilizer is “0”. Farmers who spread manure on the fields are exempt from this provision, and their fields are much more likely than you to cause run-off of phosphates.


          There is a loop-hole to the law, however. Paul Sachs explained that you are allowed to fertilize with phosphate-containing fertilizers if you are also spreading seed. Most lawns have some thin spots, or bare spots, so adding seed makes sense. And if you use an organic fertilizer like Pro-Gro (a 5-3-4 fertilizer) there is very little soluble phosphate anyway. Its phosphorus content comes from rock phosphate, bone meal and bone char – all of which are only minimally soluble, and not normally a problem.


          What is involved in over-seeding? Basically, you need to spread 3 to 5 pounds of seed per 1,000 square feet of lawn (roughly 30 feet by 33 feet). First, cut the lawn a bit shorter than you would otherwise. Then rake the lawn to remove the cut grass and any dead material that is on the lawn. You want seed to be in contract with the soil. If you have the time and energy, you can scuff up the soil in bare spots with a garden rake before spreading the seed. You can spread seed with a mechanical seeder, or, for small spots, just fling it using your hands.


          I buy a small truckload of compost each year for use on my gardens and lawns. It is loose and fluffy and is easy to distribute. After spreading some seed, I fling compost with a shovel over the seed, and then smooth it out using a lawn rake turned upside down. My goal is to spread a quarter to a half an inch of compost on the lawn, at least in the areas that look the worst.


          Compost is not necessarily rich in nitrogen – the driver of green growth – but it has organic matter, beneficial microorganisms and micronutrients that would not be found in a chemical fertilizer. If you are really interested in a deep green lawn with lush growth, you could not only spread compost, but also some organic fertilizer – Mr. Sachs recommends about 20 pounds of Pro-Gro per 1,000 square feet of lawn.


          Almost any store that sells seed will have something called “Conservation Mix”. That is what I use. A typical mix might have 35 percent creeping red fescue, 25 percent turf type tall fescue, 10 percent Kentucky bluegrass, 12 percent turf type perennial ryegrass, 15 percent annual ryegrass, 3 percent white clover.


          A few words about clover. When I was a kid back in the 1950’s, we sometimes spent lazy afternoons rolling around on the lawn and looking for 4-leaf clovers, said to guarantee good luck. But since then chemical companies have perfected “Weed-n-Feed” products that provide herbicides along with fertilizers to “ensure a perfect lawn.” Those products kill clover. So what have they done? They have declared clover a weed.


          Clover is not a weed. It is a beneficial plant that actually takes nitrogen from the atmosphere and fixes it in the soil, essentially giving you free fertilizer. The seeds are tiny, so a little in a mix goes a long way. If you get an organic fertilizer it has no herbicides, so of course. And when you buy a bag of conservation mix, you may want to turn it upside down and shake it a little. Clover seeds tend to migrate toward the bottom of the bag, potentially giving an uneven distribution.


          A conservation mix has the advantage of biodiversity. If a pest or disease attacks one grass, another might not be affected. Kentucky blue grass, for example, is lush and gorgeous, but susceptible to many diseases. A little is better than a lot in a mix.


          Unless your lawn is right on the edge of a stream or lake, you probably will not be causing any problems by fertilizing your lawn a little. Lawn is a great filter, and will generally prevent the migration of fertilizer into water bodies. And there are organic fertilizers that have no phosphates at all: North Country Organics has a 6-0-6 called Natural No-Phos.


          I know that some gardeners remove their lawns and put plants everywhere. But before you do that, remember that lawn is the easiest of all plantings to maintain. A little work now, some mowing as needed, and it looks good. Especially if, like me, you are not worried too much about the presence of a few dandelions.


Read Henry’s twice-weekly blog at https://dailyuv.com/gardeningguy His e-mail ishenry.homeyer@comcast.net and his snail mail is P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746. Please include a SASE if asking for a mailed response to a question.

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