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In Search of the Perfect Lawn
Centre of the City, Toronto, March/April 2006.

Do you dream of a perfect emerald lawn, stretching out in glorious, unbroken vistas, edged in a slightly bevelled edge at the sidewalk? It’s a lovely dream. You may want to keep that close to your heart, along with pedal-pushers, penny candy, and roller skates with metal wheels.

With the City of Toronto pesticide by-law, keeping a traditional lawn free of weeds is now going to take a bit more work. The by-law applies to both public and private property, and permits use of low-risk products on lawns and gardens to control infestations. However, the City does not consider weeds and common fungal diseases in lawns to be infestations.

To keep your lawn healthy, and to give you and your lawn a fighting chance against the advance of dandelions, crab grass, and the like, here are some maintenance tips that should help:

Tip #1 – De-thatch. Decomposing grass forms tightly woven layer of leaves, roots and stems in your lawn. When thatch accumulates past the healthy level of one or two centimeters, it can form a barrier to any treatments you may apply to your lawn. It’s also a preferred environment for cinch bugs. De-thatch in spring, once the lawn is no longer wet, by raking vigorously.

Tip #2 – Weed Control. Apply corn gluten meal, an organic pre-emergent herbicide, in early spring before weed seeds germinate. Crabgrass germinates when soil reaches 55 degrees F, so plan accordingly. Apply again in late summer for the winter weeds, and repeat each year. Corn gluten also inhibits grass seed, so don’t apply this within six weeks of seeding your lawn.

There is no similar treatment for existing weeds. Removal is manual, meaning you have to pull them or dig them out. This is best done when the soil is most, so the roots will pull up much easier, and try to get the entire root.

Tip #3 – Mowing. Ensure that your mower blades sharp so they don’t tear the grass. Mow only when your lawn reaches about 4.5 inches high, cutting it back to about 3 inches. Short grass exposes more soil to the air, and it is more likely to dry out. Longer grass holds moisture better. Added benefits: crabgrass does not like the shade of a long lawn, and beetles leading to white grub infestations prefer to lay eggs in short grass.

Tip #4 – Grasscycle. According to the City of Toronto, leaving grass clippings on your lawn (grasscycling) will decrease weeds by up to 60% and provides 30% of your lawn’s fertilizer needs. So unless you have a major problem like thatch, leave those cuttings on the lawn.

Tip #5 – Aerate. Rent a core aerator or use a pitch-fork and let some air into your lawn this spring. The ground surface can get compacted over time. Aeration allows much needed water, air and compost material get down to the roots of your lawn, and may reduce quack grass growth.

Tip #6 – Fertilize. Organic fertilizers provide a natural, slow-release of organic matter to promote healthy growth. Avoid fertilizing your lawn in summer – new growth requires more water, and it can get too hot, too fast, for you to keep up.

Tip #7 – Seeding. A thick, healthy lawn discourages weeds. Spread grass seed on thin patches of lawn in either spring or fall. Spreading compost before seeding can be helpful. For sunny areas, try Kentucky Bluegrass. Fescues are good for partially shady and dry conditions. Perennial Ryegrass grows quickly, is drought tolerant and pest-resistant.

Tip #8 – Watering. Water early in the morning and you’ll lose less water to evaporation. Sandy soils require 1.5 inches of water per week. Clay soils need 1 inch. Generally, if you have good soil, water 2 inches per week, to encourage healthy roots. Water once well, rather than several times, lightly.

Tip #9 – Holistic Approach. Your lawn is not separate from your flower beds. Add plants to your garden that will encourage birds, earthworms, butterflies, ladybugs and dragonflies. They’ll take care of many of the pests in your lawn. Treat the lawn for grubs with nematodes or other organic pesticides, once the weather warms up. The best times are usually late June and early August.

Tip #10 – Fall Cleanup. Remove fall leaves from the lawn for the winter. They encourage disease and slow spring growth.

If all of this sounds like too much work, maybe it’s time to change our image of what the ‘perfect lawn’ really looks like. Replacing the lawn with a wildflower garden is gaining in popularity, as is including ornamental grass. To keep the illusion of a lawn, without the grass, consider groundcovers such as Sweet Woodruff (for shade), Woolly Thyme, Ajuga (which can be evergreen), Irish or Scotch Moss, Periwinkle, or Creeping Jenny.

When choosing your new plants, keep in mind the amount of foot traffic your ‘lawn’ must accommodate. For a more durable surface, consider clover and other ‘walk-upons’ available at your local plant supplier.

Helen Kirkup
HMK Consultants
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Also by Helen Kirkup:
The Kirkups: Pioneers & Travellers
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