March 11, 2010


— The four-step fertilizer and pesticide method of treating lawns just isn't for everyone anymore. Lawns have to get greener, on both sides of the fence.

Regular readers of this column know that I am not a big fan of lawns. The grass at our house serves mostly as a path to perennial and shrub gardens.

And while many homeowners want a lawn where their children can play, our children are adults, and when the grandchildren visit we have a town-maintained ball field we can use less than 100 yards away.

But I won't go into my routine rant about planting vegetables or flower gardens where your lawn used to be. This column is for people who want to grow lawns successfully without using potentially harmful weed and insect killers, or excess fertilizer.

Three of the lectures at the Portland Flower Show last month were about growing lawns in a more environmentally friendly way. Gary Fish of the Maine Board of Pesticide Control took the middle approach, advocating a lot less in pesticides and pelletized lawn fertilizer than most lawn-maintenance companies and homeowners use.

Paul Tukey, author of ''The Organic Lawn Care Manual,'' took an organic approach during his lecture and then showed a film, Brett Plymale's ''Hudson: A Chemical Reaction,'' about efforts to ban lawn chemicals in Canada.

The Maine Yardscaping Partnership, of which the Board of Pesticide Control is a member, has just put out a pamphlet on how to have a lawn with a low environmental impact. Fish's talk was based largely on this pamphlet, and the pamphlet was based largely on research at Cornell University in New York and the University of Connecticut.

The most interesting piece of information in the pamphlet is that lawns that are more then 10 years old almost never need to be fertilized. Get a soil test to make sure, but that is probably what the test will show.

''Lawns 10 years old and older store necessary nutrients and may never need fertilizer,'' the pamphlet says. ''Grass clippings are free fertilizer -- if these are returned to the lawn with a mulching mower, chances are, additional fertilizer will not be needed.''

Second, if you do use fertilizer, use nitrogen only. Phosphorous and potassium are almost never needed. Fish recommended a fertilizer that has a 19-0-0 rating.

On the lawns that do need fertilizer, apply it in August or September. ''This approach provides fertilizer when the grass can best use it, not when it is likely to wash off into waterways.''

Fish said that when you dig out weeds from your garden or otherwise notice bare spots, you should loosen the soil and plant endophyte-enhanced perennial ryegrass in the bare spots. Endophyte-enhanced grasses are disease- and insect-resistant, and you are going to have to ask for them specifically.

Allen, Sterling & Lothrop has some, and calls it ''Trifecta Perennial Ryegrass,'' but you might have to ask the staff to get you some from out back. It wasn't on the shelves when I visited, but a store employee said it was available.

The instructions are quite specific. You are to put the seed down at an average rate of seven seeds per square inch, and add nitrogen at one-third of the recommended application rate.

While the ryegrass is recommended for filling in bare spots because it sprouts quickly and keeps out weeds, the recommended lawn seeds can also include fescues. The idea is to avoid Kentucky bluegrass, which requires more light, fertilizer and water than the fescues and ryegrass.

Tukey and Fish both recommended white clover in the lawn. Clover used to be a common ingredient in lawn mixes, but when weed-and-feed lawn fertilizers were developed, they killed clover -- so clover was no longer included in lawn mixes.

But clover (they recommend Dutch white) fixes nitrogen, so it essentially provides free fertilizer. In addition to clover, one approach suggests that people use black medic, which is similar to clover, and chamomile, an herb used in tea, in their lawns. This offers a wider range of plant material, and if one runs into trouble, the others will keep growing.

Other low-maintenance-lawn tips are to keep the mower height at three inches or more, core aerate an older lawn to reduce thatch and improve soil structure, water deeply and frequently (if at all), and keep mower blades sharp.

Tukey's plan for organic lawns uses many of the methods advocated by the Yardscaping group. But he stresses that people fill their soil with compost before the lawn is planted and use compost tea on them -- much as his grandmother did when he was growing up in Maine -- after they are established.

Chemical fertilizers feed the plants, but compost feeds the soil, which will then feed the plants, Tukey says.

Tukey's opposition to pesticides and fertilizer come from the time when he ran a lawn-care company and got sick from exposure to those chemicals. He wrote the ''Organic Lawn Care Manual'' in 2007 and founded SafeLawns at that same time.

More information on better lawns can be found at and

Contact Tom Atwell at 791-6362 or at:

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)