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Building a sustainable lawn -- the hassle-free way

Posted 6/22/2009

By Susan Donaldson

Many Americans have love affairs with their lawns. They spend long summer days manicuring their turf areas so that they’ll be the greenest in the neighborhood. In fact, lawns have been estimated to be the nation’s largest irrigated crop by area, nearly 32 million acres! Many of us enjoy lawns as soft play areas for the kids, or for the cooling provided as the grass plants transpire water, but we’d just as soon spend less time maintaining our lawns.

In fact, lawns are such a popular subject that the May 2009 issue of Consumer’s Report devoted a large part of the magazine to information on "hassle-free" lawns. I’m in the "hassle-free" grouping, and I found the advice provided in the article to be appropriate for our Nevada lawns. I’ve added my own tips below to help you create a sustainable lawn — one that requires minimal inputs of outside materials, but that has positive environmental benefits.

  • It takes healthy soil to have a healthy lawn. Nevada soils are very low in organic matter and the soil microorganisms that play a part in soil health. Organic matter aids in moisture retention, adds slow-release nutrients to the soil and improves soil structure. When starting a lawn, invest in high-quality organic matter amendments to enrich your soil prior to planting. For existing lawns, aerate to reduce compaction, increase oxygen in the soil and improve water infiltration. After aerating, leave the soil cores on the lawn to decompose, and top-dress with compost.
  • Use a mulching mower and leave clippings on the lawn. It’s less work for you, and provides benefits for your lawn. A mulching mower shreds the pieces of grass that the mower cuts. The clippings decompose and return nutrients to the soil, reducing the amounts of fertilizer needed. They do not add to the thatch layer.
  • Mow high and sharp. In our climate, we plant cool-season grasses that can be mowed 2.5 to 3 inches tall. When you mow low, you remove a lot of the green blade surface that is needed to manufacture food for the plants. Mowing high promotes a deeper root system and helps conserve water. Avoid removing more than a third of the blade height each time you mow, or you’ll stress the roots. Each spring, have your mower blades sharpened to reduce stress on grass. Some experts recommend sharpening blades up to three times a year.
  • Fertilize according to lawn needs, not the directions on the bag of fertilizer. Test your soil to determine pH, missing nutrients, and how much to apply. The cost of the test will be recouped in the savings from the fertilizer you don’t apply. And, you’ll help protect our waterways from the impacts of nutrient pollution in runoff water.
  • Speaking of water...the largest expense of your lawn is likely to be the cost of water. The water we use on our lawns, if it comes from a municipal provider, is treated to drinking water standards. That makes it expensive, so avoid wasting it by checking your irrigation system for leaks and coverage, and adjusting as needed to avoid uneven watering and runoff. Adjust the amount of water applied with the season, and water in the early morning to avoid losses to wind and heat. Be sure to follow local watering schedules, watering only on your assigned days.

For more information on water quality issues, contact Susan Donaldson, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, (775) 784-4848 or

Susan Donaldson is water quality and weed specialist for the western area of University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

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