Your Lawn and the Environment

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Virginia Cooperative Extension - Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Your Lawn and the Environment

Crop and Soil Environmental News, March 2008

Author: Mike Goatley, Associate Professor and Extension Turfgrass Specialist, Virginia Tech

If you take care of your lawn (or pay someone to do it for you) then YOU have a chance to be an environmental steward.  Spring is rapidly approaching and there will soon be great interest in returning to work in our lawns and landscapes and enjoying them for both their beauty and their function.   Numerous educational efforts are underway advising homeowners on many different approaches they can take to improve the water quality of nearby resources.  I’ll be presenting periodic updates on best management practices in lawn care that you can use to do your part in keeping our water as clean as possible. 

Be informed.  A properly maintained lawn serves a valuable role in soil stabilization, water infiltration, temperature moderation, and glare reduction.  At the same time, if managed irresponsibly, lawn care programs can quickly contribute to water pollution.  However, remember this -- it is not the lawn that causes pollution but the person managing the lawn.  Your local Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) office and area Master Gardener chapters can provide you with plenty of science-based information on best management practices in lawn care.  There is also one website you should bookmark on your computer that can serve as a constant source of reliable information:  www.ext.vt.edu/vce, the VCE website.  This link gets you access to a vast number of publications detailing sound lawn and landscape management practices and keeps you from wasting time and money on unproven products and techniques. 

Many years ago W.C. Fields said “there’s a sucker born every minute” and even with all the information that is so readily available to us in an electronic age, his statement still rings true today.  For instance, on April Fools day of 2007 I heard a radio announcer asking listeners to log-on to the station website and sign his petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO).  The announcer pointed out that DHMO is a major component of acid rain, causes erosion of our natural landscape, and corrodes metals.  Long-term exposure of DHMO to humans causes tissue damage and can even result in death.  Furthermore, significant quantities are known to exist in almost every lake, pond, river, or stream in America.  It was all really quite shocking to learn how widespread DHMO was in our environment and worse still that all of this information was true. As a matter of fact, I had to admit that I was guilty of using DHMO on my lawn multiple times in the past and I suspect many of you are guilty as well.   Of course, you feel better about things when you realize that DHMO is the chemical name for water!  What was truly scary about this prank is the large number of gullible individuals ready to ban water in the environment.  What did this exercise teach us?  That the best way to get to the truth of the matter comes from asking plenty of questions and consulting those with specialized training and information.

Do you use a lawn service company?  Ask questions.   At a recent joint meeting between members of a regional homeowners association, professional lawn care operators (LCOs) that service the homeowner properties, and government employees from Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the lawn care professionals in attendance all agreed that they fully supported their customers requesting information and documentation of their pesticide and fertilizer applicator licenses.  Each LCO in attendance wanted their clientele to know that they also voluntarily participate in DCR’s Water Quality Improvement Agreement.  Each participating firm agrees to keep all fertilizers and chemicals off of hardscapes (streets, sidewalks, driveways, etc.) and to apply fertilizers responsibly according to the needs of the grass and time of year.  True lawn care professionals welcome your inquiries regarding their qualifications and will proudly answer your questions and produce the appropriate licenses for your inspection.  Do your part by ensuring you are employing professionals that are properly trained in fertilizer and chemical applications.   Virginia Cooperative Extension has a publication entitled Choosing a Lawn Care Company under the Home Gardening tab on its website that details all the specific questions you should ask a lawn service firm before employing them to treat your lawn. 

Doing it yourself?  In future articles I will focus on many of the best management practices you can follow to develop a great looking, environmentally friendly lawn.  Following common-sense strategies such as keeping all granular products off of hardscapes is equally important for homeowners too. But there is another critical step in environmental stewardship that promotes better water quality:  make sure you have performed a soil test on your lawn within the past three years.  Any time is the right time to conduct a soil test if it is needed, so don’t worry if your lawn and landscape is still pretty much dormant when collecting the soil samples.  Your local VCE office personnel can assist you with the sampling forms and soil test boxes, and can detail the appropriate methods required to conduct a meaningful soil test.  They can even help you submit the sample to the Virginia Tech soil testing lab for a price of just $7 per sample (private labs can provide even more elaborate test results for somewhat higher fees).  Within one to two weeks of submitting your sample you will receive a detailed soil test report with recommendations on fertility and liming suitable for your soil and your turfgrass.  Following these test report guidelines will ensure your soil is primed to support the healthiest lawn and landscape possible during the 2008 growing season. 

The next update will talk about strategies in weed control and spring seedings of lawns.   For more information on these or any other topic regarding your lawn and landscape contact your local VCE office.

Mike Goatley is the Extension Turfgrass Specialist at Virginia Tech and maintains a podcast-based weblog on best management practices in homeowner lawn management  called “Turf and Garden Tips” at www.weblogs.cals.vt.edu/lawn_garden/.

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