It has always been surprising to me that despite the fact that the cultivated lawn is a purely human invention, we should have such a tortured and painful relationship with our turf.
Lawns started out as a very public sign of wealth — think Downton Abbey and the like. If you could afford to have a crew of tweed-clad gardeners spend their days on hands and knees with little hand clippers and precision scythes, you were certainly worth inviting to the neighborhood barbeque. Later, the Levittown Lawn of the 1950s was a contractual requirement foisted on all of its new homeowners. And thus American lawn lust was born.
By the time I found myself sitting in late 1970s landscape architecture classes, it was clear that the tide had turned. By that time, a large lawn was considered only the property of the non-intellectual, suburban bourgeoisie who just didn’t know any better. Lawns were ecologically reprehensible and we were supposed to wipe them from the face of the earth.
And the horticultural weirdness didn’t stop there.
We were not only taught that lawns were bad — we were also instructed that no one, and I mean no one, should ever plant flowers in the front yard lest you distract unsuspecting visitors and upset the one true function of a front yard landscape design — to help your clueless visitors find the front door. Not that the big, red, rectangle with stairs leading to it with mailbox, brick walkway and other various signs of civilization couldn’t do that on their own …
Go ahead and scoff … but I can show you the textbooks! Anyone who dared spec a pot of annuals or, gasp … a herbaceous perennial … in the front yard was committing crimes against humanity and needed to be strapped to a tall stool, dressed in a dunce cap and locked in the town stocks for all to mock and ridicule. And if you wanted a big lawn for such subversive activities as a game of catch with your kids or badminton with the cousins, “well,” you were told, “that’s what parks are for.”
But despite our tortured past relationship with our lawns, there are some basics that we should all understand whether we are maintaining a vast Victorian landscape or a little patch of green in the backyard.
Why you need to water your lawn
Obviously, water is the life’s blood of a lawn. It takes only about one-fourth-inch of irrigation/rain a week to keep a lawn alive. That won’t keep it green, mind you. At that low level, the lawn may just go brown and dormant but it likely won’t die. An inch or so a week is better for keeping the lawn green. But just like watering trees, it’s better to water for longer periods at greater intervals than shorter waterings every day. The longer waterings send the water deeper into the soil profile and result in deeper roots and more resilient lawns.
Why you need to use lawn fertilizer
Mid-summer is not the time to be doing a whole lot of lawn fertilizing. If you think back to that vigorous, Emerald City lawn you were mowing back in May, you’ll understand why. You get out there in the spring and pump on the fertilizer. That, combined with April showers not only bring May flowers but tons of soft and luxurious grass growth that you have to mow about every 45 minutes. Trying to keep that kind of grass growth well hydrated through the heat of summer would be a Herculean task.
My advice is to hold off on the fertilizer in mid-summer, enjoy the reduced irrigation requirement, and the resultant reduction in necessary mowing. If you really feel the need (and a soil test indicates the requirement) you can do a little fertilizer dance in the fall.
Also, you’re probably mowing the lawn wrong
There’s rarely a magic bullet in any field of study but this one might be the exception. The single most effective thing you can do to improve the quality of your lawn and your relationship with that lawn is to get up off the couch right now, go out to the garage, pull out the mower and raise the blades as high as they will go — and leave them there forever!
First off, mowing your lawn at 3.5 inches or even 4.5 inches in height (if your mower will go that high) will allow your grass to better out-compete many weeds. It’s true. This research has been done and reported something like one hundred billion, trillion, gazillion times. Mowing your grass at a 2-inch height actually encourages non-grass weeds and puts your turfgrass at a competitive disadvantage.
Mowing at 4 inches also means you aren’t constantly scalping the lawn, bouncing the blades off tree roots and having to re-sharpen your blade every 20 seconds.
Secondly, mowing higher does not mean you have to mow more often. Set the mower’s height, take it for a spin once a week … and voila! … it doesn’t matter if you are mowing at 2 inches, 3 inches, or 12 inches … it’s still once a week.
Finally, longer grass is way kinder to bare feet. If there’s one thing that makes all that lawn maintenance work worth the time and energy, it’s a barefoot evening walk around the yard, cool drink in hand, while you watch your neighbor scalp his lawn … and you quietly snicker.
Paul Cappiello is the executive director at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, yewdellgardens.org.