Common misconceptions about landscaping practices that could be hurting your lawn.
Myth 1: There is a Program
The idea that there is a perfect, flawless plan of chemicals, irrigation and mowing that fits all landscapes is a myth. It’s one that evolved as commercial landscaping companies sought to systematize lawn care. They were searching for a process that could be easily packaged and applied, which would allow them to treat landscapes in assembly line fashion: Plant, Water, Fertilize, Cut, Repeat.
The problem is that landscapes are NOT machines: They are living things. Using a rigid, preset program to manage your landscape is like giving everyone the same medicine, regardless of his or her health. Imagine the doctor making his rounds, sticking his head in each patient’s room, prescribing penicillin to each and closing the door. It’s efficient, sure, but highly ineffective.
Some of those cases may benefit from the blindly prescribed penicillin, while others will certainly not. The reality is that landscapes differ as widely as humans; each has its own issues and needs. Applying a program blindly almost always results in needlessly wasted treatments and rarely solves the underlying issues. The solution is not a program; it’s a process that focuses on identifying the underlying issues of the landscape and working to resolve them.
Myth 2: Spray and Pray will Save the Day
It seems like no matter the problem, chemical companies have come up with a spray for it:
- Wilting leaves? Spray it.
- Brown spots on turf? Spray it.
- Grubs, ants, aphids? SPRAY IT!
They have created an army of Lawn Rambo’s with itchy trigger fingers ready to hose down any blade of grass that gets out of line.
The problem is that many of these treatments are like killing a fly with a sledgehammer. They work to eliminate the issue in the short term, but frequently come with unintended side effects. Harsh chemicals that are touted to be your lawn’s best friend actually kill many of the beneficial organisms in landscapes. These organisms have numerous benefits such as manufacturing fertilizer, fighting plant pathogens and increasing pore spaces in the soil. In fact, in many ways, the natural mechanisms plants use to defend themselves and to promote their health is far superior to any chemical we’ve been able to create.
Unnecessary chemical treatments are expensive and often are bad for your landscape. Why not keep the spray gun in your holster, your money in your wallet, and let nature do the work for you?
Myth 3: Much Toil makes Good Soil
As someone who works with landscapes, or even gardens in your own front yard, you are faced with two options: Either you live with bad soil, or you try to fix it. If you opt for the latter, then you’ll probably end up wrestling with a mechanical aerator or hire someone else to do so. A widespread belief is that the only way to fix bad soil is to aerate it once or twice a year.
Research shows the benefits of mechanical aeration will be gone within a 9 to 21 day period. The issue is that the fundamental causes of poor soil cannot be addressed with aeration. Bad soil is caused at the “micro” level. It’s a chemistry and biology problem. No matter how many holes you punch in the ground, the soil is still broken.
To fix it, you need a little help from science and a little more from nature. In other words, you can leave the aerators in the garage.
Myth 4: H2Overboard
We’ve all done it; the summer heat intensifies so we turn on the sprinklers. More heat, more water. Pretty soon we’re running it two, three times a day. Initially everything gets greener, but after a while it stops giving us the look we want. The soil turns into a rock, the turf thins out, and the trees start dying. Well, what do we do? MORE WATER?
Did you know that stressed plants look the same when they are overwatered as when they are under-watered? Irrigation water carries things that rainwater does not. Irrigation water contains much more than just H20 – including two of a landscape’s worst enemies – sodium and chlorine. Sodium destroys soil structure and chlorine kills microorganism communities that make landscapes healthy and self-sustaining. It is believed that the number one reason for tree and plant death on irrigated landscapes is OVERWATERING.
Unhealthy soil is one of the reasons we overwater. “Bad” soil can’t store the water it gets from the rain so we have to keep providing more. Using a soil conditioner can help to re-establish the small pores in the soil, which will allow space for water to be stored. You may also be able to use a wetting agent. These products help the water move deeper into the soil profile.
The other reason we overwater is because most irrigation systems still use “dumb” timers. These are timers that turn on and off based on a fixed schedule. To get the best results for your landscape, consider using an “intelligent” timer that adjusts its watering based on real-time weather data and local soil conditions. Such systems are more costly on the front end but typically pay for themselves in the first year or two by reducing the water bill and the cost of replacing dead trees and shrubs.
Myth 5: It’s a turf shortcut to cut turf short.
This is one of those times that common sense collides with science. It is common practice to cut turf grass short, with the goal of mowing less frequently. It seems reasonable; If you want the grass to be no more than 4 inches high, and you cut it to 2 inches instead of 3 inches, you’ll mow half as much, right? Wrong.
Like all living things, grass has one thing it must do in order to survive as a species: reproduce. To accomplish this, many grasses have to grow to the point where they can germinate seeds. The further away the grass is from seed-bearing height, the greater its need to grow.
Cutting grass short doesn’t just make it grow quicker; it also creates other problems.
When you cut grass by more than 20% of its length,
- The grass releases significant amounts of water and nutrients which:
- Stresses the grass and exposes it to attack by pathogens
- Requires you to irrigate more often in order to replace the lost water
- The “canopy” effect of the grass is reduced. When grass is long enough, it shelters the soil during hard rainstorms. Heavy rain falling full speed on the soil increases soil compaction, causes erosion, and creates runoff problems.
The ideal strategy with mowing is to grow the turf to 5 inches and cut to 4. This scenario will create the least amount of stress on the grass and soils, while still giving you the clean, tidy look of groomed turf. It also allows you to use less fertilizer and irrigation water and leaves more of the turf canopy in place to reduce soil compaction and erosion.
Myth 6: Fertilizer makes grass green
Fertilizer does NOT make grass green. It makes grass grow. Nitrogen is the main ingredient in fertilizer. Nitrogen is what plants need to grow their structure. Grass is green due to chlorophyll, which utilizes Magnesium and Iron.
The goal with grass should ONLY be to grow it enough to replace damaged tips, not “blow it out of the ground.” Excessive applications of fertilizer are expensive, unnecessary, and harmful to turf. In most cases, there is enough nitrogen available to turf grass from natural sources. Adding extra nitrogen may encourage the grass to consume it’s own root system as a carbon source when it’s growing rapidly.
Additionally, excessive growth can result in cutting as much as 50% of the leaf tissue when mowing. This happens when over-fertilized turf is growing rapidly and a delay stretches out the mow cycle to 10 or more days. Not only does this result in a clumpy, uneven mow, it can also create health issues with the turf (as mentioned above).
Excessive synthetic fertilizer is also destructive to the soil microbial community. Synthetic fertilizers are high in salts, and as they come in contact with the microbes, they suck the moisture right out of the microbes. On landscapes where heavy use of fertilizers is the norm, we frequently find dead, compacted soils as well.
The fertilizer plan should fit the landscape use. Sports fields have turf that is constantly being abused and therefore needs more growth. Ornamental turf areas that are rarely walked on can use less (sometimes no) fertilizer. Less growth means less mowing and irrigation. Using the right amount of fertilizer is almost as important as using the right kind.
Myth 7: Sustainable Landscapes are expensive or ugly…or both
Sustainable landscaping has largely been centered on using drought-tolerant plants along with an abundance of rock, mulch and hardscapes. This is a concept sometimes referred to as “Cactus and Concrete.” Yes, it’s low maintenance, but it doesn’t exactly fit the bill for the luxurious, lush landscape most properties are after. While minimalist landscapes have their place in the sustainable discussion, this approach doesn’t address the many current landscapes that have large turf and tree areas, without requiring expensive retrofits. It also doesn’t acknowledge the fact that many people still want (or may be required to have) turf grass, succulent plants and native trees as part of their landscape.
We don’t believe this is an either/or choice. In many environments, rainfall is sufficient for lush landscapes, especially if the soils are healthy enough to store rainwater and grow deep roots. In cases where irrigation is in place, smart watering systems can dramatically reduce irrigation needs when compared to the traditional approach. Also, using organic fertilizers and non-synthetic soil conditioners can dramatically reduce dependence on synthetic chemicals.
When sustainability hardliners make no allowance for higher input options, they alienate a large part of the community who may be willing to take steps towards sustainability even if they aren’t ready to jump in with both feet.
In conclusion, when we combine the best available science with the power and wisdom of nature, we can achieve more sustainable landscapes for everyone. Embracing this strategy will lower our dependence on chemicals, reduce water usage, increase biodiversity and add value to the places we live, work and play.