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Make sure your lawn is a natural beauty

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Q. I don't want to give up a nice green lawn, but I would like to know about natural alternatives to commercial fertilizers and pesticides. My daughter came home from school last week questioning our gardening activities and our contribution to global warming. We have decided to make a family commitment towards a more environmentally friendly lifestyle and my husband is now looking to purchase a hybrid car. What alternatives would you recommend for the yard?
-- Jan H., South Brunswick

A. First, I want to congratulate you and your family for committing to a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Our children are often the best motivators for positive change. My family made the same commitment to do our part to be better stewards of our environment. My son convinced my wife and me to replace every light in the house with low-energy bulbs. In addition, we compost all vegetable and fruit scraps as well as leaves and other yard debris. We have reduced, and in many cases eliminated, the use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides and instead use Integrated Pest Management to control problems. You can have healthy plants and a great-looking landscape by learning how to work with nature.

Here are some tips:
-- Replace some of your commercial fertilizer applications with compost. You can top-dress your lawn with ¼-inch of well rotted compost once a month, in April, May and June, and again in September and October. This will add valuable nutrients and organic matter.

It can be a challenge to spread compost over a large area. If it has been screened and is somewhat dry, you may be able to distribute it with a rotary spreader that has a large opening. In the vegetable garden, it is easy to incorporate 2 inches or 3 inches of compost or peat moss into the top 8 inches of soil before planting.

-- Make compost or manure tea, a great supplement for lawns and ornamentals. Simply place 2 gallons to 3 gallons of compost or composted, dried manures in a burlap bag and tie off the top with a string. Place the burlap bag in a dark-colored trash can half filled with water. Place the garbage can with the compost tea bag in the sun for a week or two to allow the nutrients to go into the solution. Cover the trash can to prevent animals from disturbing it.

You may need to filter the solution through cheesecloth if you plan to use it in your traditional liquid fertilizer applicator. You can apply it as you would any soluble fertilizer. The same thing can be done with dried, composted manures.

Be sure not to spread any manure tea or compost tea over leafy vegetables. In the vegetable garden, use these products around roots only and avoid contact with edible leaves and fruit.

-- Recycle grass clippings, which can provide 30 percent or more of the nitrogen needs of turf grass. This practice has been proven effective by research at Rutgers and other universities. Recycled clippings reduce the need for commercial fertilizers and help the lawn stay greener longer from spring through fall. Clippings do not contribute to thatch and add valuable organic matter that improves soils.

-- Use an electric or reel mower. The new cordless electric mowers are great for lawns smaller than a third of an acre. Gas-powered lawnmowers produce more pollution pound for pound than the worst gas-guzzling cars. Look on the internet for solar-powered mowers. The removable solar panels can be placed on the roof of a shed or garage and used to charge the mower on sunny days.

For small lawns, there are new reel mowers with large wheels that are easier to push than older models. Reel mowers provide a nice clean cut and, for small areas, may only need sharpening every three or four years.

Use electric-powered yard equipment or tune up what you have. If you must have a leaf blower or other powered yard and garden equipment, look into battery-powered models. Two-cycle gas engines common on many of these trimmers and blowers produce a great deal of pollution. Be sure to tune up gas engines by replacing spark plugs, keeping air cleaners and carburetors clean and changing and adding oil as needed.

-- Properly dispose of pesticides and used oil. Take used oil from lawn equipment and cars to a local recycling center or gas station that collects such materials. Never dump oil, fuel or pesticides into the landscape, garden, sink, septic system or garbage. Old pesticides should be taken to hazardous materials collection facilities. Check with your municipality for locations.

-- Use Integrated Pest Management. One of the prime directives of our Master Gardener program is to teach proper and judicious use of pesticides and fertilizers with IPM and sound cultural management. Most pesticide use could be eliminated with proper preparation and management of soils as well as proper plant care and selection.

-- Alternatives to traditional pesticides. Some gardeners deal with lawn and garden pests with biological controls such as parasitic nematodes, neem oil and the beneficial insects found within the landscape. Encouraging earthworms can help to reduce thatch naturally. Some pesticides can decrease earthworm populations and throw off the natural balance of an ecosystem.

Look into classes provided by your county cooperative extension office to help you become a better environmental steward.

Q. I have an oval area in my yard where I cannot get grass to grow. The rest of the lawn looks okay, but all that I have are weeds in this one spot. The spot always stays the same size. I have reseeded the area and fertilized to no avail. What should I do?
-- Patrick H., Hillsborough

A. More than likely, a plant was removed from that area or poor-quality soil was used. The problem is not spreading, so we can likely discount the presence of a disease or insect problem. I would take a soil test in the problem area. It would be wise to amend soil with 3 inches or 4 inches of well-rotted compost or peat moss and roto-till it into the top ten inches of soil. Add other nutrients and amendments per the recommendations of the soil test. Reseed with a quality lawn seed at the proper rate and water regularly until the grass is fully established. Compaction and poor soil conditions can foster weeds and prevent the growth of healthy turfgrass. Proper amendments and culture should put your lawn back on track.