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Know your lawn and take better care of it

Spring arrived late this year, and with it came the weekend drone of lawnmowers. Many an otherwise perfect Sunday afternoon nap has been shattered by a neighbor’s noisy grass trimming machine.

And for what? To do it all over again in seven days.

Over the years, I have had neighbors who pay a service to come out and fertilize their lawns and treat them with an herbicide that kills everything save the grass. I’ve also heard people complain about their high water bills during the summer when without constant water, the lawn might turn brown.

One upside of last summer’s drought was that more people let their lawns go dormant, and went weeks at a time without mowing.

The grasses that comprise the typical American lawn – Kentucky bluegrass and various fescues – are referred to as “cool season” grasses for a reason. They prefer cool and moist conditions like one expects in the spring.

Most of the grasses in American lawns were imported from Europe. Early settlers found grasses native to the Colonies were less desirable for grazing by the livestock that were brought along from Europe.

Picture the British and northern European countryside with sheep grazing on lush green meadows. Now, imagine the weather – cool summers, mild winters and plenty of rain.

Then, think about a typical July day in McHenry County:  sunny, hot, humid, dry. Hardly ideal conditions for plants that like it moist and cool!

So, the first problem with the typical lawn is that the grass species aren’t right for our climate, and require large amounts of water and fertilizer to stay lush and green during the summer. The next problem arises from over-fertilization of lawns in residential areas.

Applying too much fertilizer too often is not only bad for the health of one’s lawn, but it will also have a negative impact on the water quality of local rivers and streams. Excess fertilizer (that which is not needed by the plants) will run-off with the storm water, which eventually arrives in a local creek.

A third concern related to lawn maintenance is air pollution.  A Swedish study conducted in 2001 concluded, “Air pollution from cutting grass for an hour with a gasoline powered lawn mower is about the same as that from a 100-mile automobile ride.” The small engine of a gas-powered lawn mower is very inefficient, and lawn mowing in the US has been estimated to account for up to five percent of air pollution in this country. New mowers are more efficient than older models, but a better alternative is to replace the gas mower with an electric model. Not only do they emit zero air pollution, they are quiet. Quiet enough that they will not spoil a good nap!

There are alternatives to the lawn. Beds of native plants, for example, are not only beautiful, but also easy to maintain. Native species can be found for any growing condition. 

Got shade? Try hazelnuts, wild ginger, Virginia bluebells and wild geraniums. Wet area? Nannyberry viburnum, river birch, sedges and Golden Alexanders are some species to consider. And for those hot, dry spots, I like New England aster, Compass plant, black-eyed Susan and Prairie coreopsis.

Before buying any new plants for one’s yard, check to make sure that the species chosen are not invasive in this area. The Chicago Botanic Garden maintains a handy guide to invasive plants that includes suggestions for alternatives.

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