I'm getting ready to be the moderator of a teleconference on water and lawns next Wednesday, co-sponsored by the Garden Writers Association, of which I'm a member; The Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. and the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Chicago-based environmental organization that began as the Lake Michigan Federation. (Full disclosure: It was started in 1970 by my mother, Lee Botts, and I stuffed many of the first envelopes. My mother has always been a firm believer in child labor for good causes.)
The conference will be about how lawn care practices can be improved to protect waterways. The panelists are Terril Nell, professor and chairman of the environmental horticulture department at the University of Florida; Rich Shank, chief environmental officer of The Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.; Jonah Smith, director of sustainable business at the Alliance for the Great Lakes; and Gary Felton, associate professor of environmental science and technology at the University of Maryland.
The conference is aimed at garden writers. If you are a garden writer or a blogger and are interested in registering, e-mail Britt Svenson, public relations representative for Scott's, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scotts and the alliance have a partnership advocating thoughtful lawn care called Lawns and Lakes. Lawns are controversial in environmental circles. Fertilizer runoff is a pollution problem; a lot of water is wasted overwatering lawns; a lot of pesticides are applied to poison weeds and insects in lawns. But there is a lot that the alliance, Scotts and even I can agree on: common-sense lawn care wisdom that, if followed by homeowners, would reduce the impact of lawns on the Great Lakes by reducing fertilizer runoff and over-watering.
You can have a perfectly decent lawn, for example, while watering rarely if at all. Last year I spoke to Bruce Augustin, chief agronomist for Scotts, for a Chicago Tribune story. He told me that the lawn grasses typically grown around here need about 43 inches of rain a year and, on average, Chicago gets about 36. Meaning that, especially if you let your lawn go dormant in summer as nature intended, and especially if you use grass mixes with plenty of drought-tolerant fescues, you may never have to water except in severe drought years.
That 36-inch average also takes in years like this one, in which we have had, so far, 39 percent more than normal precipitation, according to the Illinois State Climatologist's Office. Anybody in the greater Chicago area who is not establishing new grass or sod and whose lawn sprinkler has left the garage is wasting water this year.
One simple thing that would make a lot of difference is if everyone would just mow high. Set your lawn mower as high as it will go and leave it there. Taller grass is far healthier, grows a better root system, out-competes weeds, shades weed seeds so they won't germinate and needs less watering. But people are conditioned to think taller grass looks untidy.
It's taken me years to persuade the neighbor who cuts our grass to mow high. He's tidy by temperment and and traditional in taste and 3-inch grass is hard for him. This spring, when it rained so much the grass grew practically before our eyes, he couldn't get it mowed often enough to avoid occasional shagginess. He told me he was embarrassed, compared to the neighbors up the street who scalp their turf. I told him we didn't need to let the neighbors dictate our lawn aesthetic.
About fertilizer: Surplus nitrogen and phosphorus are the big threats, because when they get into waterways they encourage runaway growth of algae and other organisms that throw aquatic and shoreline ecosystems out of whack. Phosphorus is banned in lawn fertilizer in some places, such as Minnesota and parts of Michigan.
The largest source of fertilizer pollution is from agriculture, not lawns. But lawn fertilizers still contribute -- especially the water-soluble kinds beloved of homeowners who want "fast green-up" and grass that grows on hyperdrive all summer.
To thrive, lawn grass does need more nitrogen than most of the rest of our plants. But grass naturally gets nitrogen from soil microorganisms breaking down plant matter, not from a pure chemical rush. You can avoid overdosing your lawn and harming your soil organisms by using a slow-release fertilizer rather than a five-times-a-year regimen of water-soluble fertilizer.
The Scotts/Alliance Lawn and Lakes Web site says lawns rarely need phosphorus after they are established. Phosphorus helps seed or sod develop roots, but once the root system gets going, there's no need to apply it unless a soil test reveals a deficiency. I've seen soil tests from around the Chicago area and I've never seen one that showed a phosphorus deficiency.
And you can avoid contributing to phosphorus pollution by looking for a fertilizer that has little or none. Look at the three-number ratio found on every fertilizer package. The first number is nitrogen; look for a number below 10, indicating it's the slow-release kind. The second number is phosphorus; look for 0, and settle for 2 if you have to. The third number is potassium; look for 0 to 2.
If I'm going to moderate a panel on lawns and water, it's reasonable to ask: What about your lawn? Well, probably the most important thing I've done about my lawn is to shrink it as much as possible. I've chipped away, installing perennials and ground covers at the shady edges, until grass occupies just about 800 square feet of our yard. There is grass only in the sunniest places where it can thrive. It's enough lawn for a lawn chair or for a toddler to play on. Everybody's happy, and I'm not wasting water or labor on more grass than absolutely necessary.
In drier years, I do water occasionally. I root up the occasional dandelion and delicately pull up a few creeping Charlie stems now and then. I welcome clover, which adds nitrogen. The lawn is small enough that weeding is never a burden and pesticides are not needed.
I keep an eye on that lawn mower to make sure it's set high. The mower is electric, with a cord, so it doesn't directly pollute the air. On the few occasions when I have to mow myself, I use a people-powered reel mower. It's not as neat but it gets the job done, and it's easier to haul up from the basement.
I feed the grass by raking in homemade compost a couple of times a year -- or rather, I feed compost to the soil microorganisms that release nutrients to be taken up by the roots of the grass. For a little extra nitrogen, once or twice a year I scatter Milorganite -- pelletized sewage sludge from the Milwaukee water treatment system. It provides a nice little bit of slow-release nitrogen in a microbe-friendly form. And I kind of like the idea that I'm fertilizing my lawn with sludge that was filtered from sewage to avoid polluting Lake Michigan.
I do use some Scott's products. I overseed every spring, often with Scott's seed. If I weren't satisfied with Milorganite, I might buy a slow-release, low-phosphorus lawn fertilizer from Scott's. But I think my lawn is doing just fine.
Scott's argues that they are in business to satisfy their customers, and different customers have different tastes in lawns. They offer five-times-a-year weed-and-feed products for those who want lawns like golf courses, and they offer all-organic slow-release low-phosphorus fertilizers for tree-huggers like me who are happy with shaggy lawns full of clover.
I'll be interested to see how the more contentious issues are addressed in this web conference. But there isn't anything in the Lawns and Lakes Web site that I can't endorse as a reasonable common ground.
Got a garden question? I recommend you call or e-mail the Plant Clinic of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the Master Gardeners of the University of Illinois Extension or the Plant Information Service of the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.
All contents of this post are copyright Beth Botts. Feel free to link or share a brief excerpt with a link, but please do not reproduce photos or any other part of this blog without my express permission.