lawn careAs the grass greens up the lawn owners who want an eco-friendly yard should focus more on mowing – and less on fertilizing.

“The first step to minimize the environmental impact of your home lawn is to raise the mower’s blade to a height of 3 to 4 inches – usually the highest setting on your mower – and leave the grass clippings on the lawn,” says Marty Petrovic, a turf specialist in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University.

Taller grass competes better with weeds, and sinks roots deeper into the soil to better withstand mid-summer heat and drought, explains Petrovic. The result: A thicker turf with fewer weeds and less watering. He also suggests keeping your mower’s blades sharp for a clean cut that reduces stress on the grass.

“And leaving the clippings recycles nutrients so you’ll need less fertilizer,” adds Petrovic, whose research shows that it’s likely most lawns in New York don’t need any additional phosphorus fertilizer, especially if you leave the clippings.

An important first step to prevent phosphorus pollution is to make sure your turf is thick enough to keep soil from washing away, and to be careful with clippings and leaves.

Phosphorus can leach out of plant material on hard surfaces, so clean them up quickly. And, whether you use organic or chemical sources, don’t spread fertilizer on hard surfaces, and promptly clean up any spills. Also avoid applying fertilizer to areas where the soil is always wet because these spots are more prone to runoff.

For those who already have enough phosphorus should look for zero-phosphorus fertilizers.

Lawn owners who want to embrace eco-friendly lawn practices may over-apply organic products – especially those made from composted animal manures, most of which are relatively high in phosphorus.

“A quarter- to half-inch application of a typical composted manure product may have 8,000 times more phosphorus than a year’s worth of a commercial product’s season-long weed and feed-program,” says Petrovic.

No doubt, the organic matter in such applications may be good for soils low in organic matter. But the tradeoff comes in excessively high levels of phosphorus in the soil with the potential for pollution. If you want the benefits of organic matter but are concerned about phosphorus, consider yard waste composts. While variable, they are generally lower in phosphorus than most manure-based products.

Even if you have enough phosphorus and return your clippings to the soil, grass still needs some nitrogen to form the kind of dense turf that prevents runoff. If you don’t want to use zero-phosphorus chemical fertilizers, you may apply an organic nitrogen source such as corn gluten. Or, you can include in your lawn mix a legume such as clover that will remove nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil.

Fall and late spring- not early spring – is the best time to apply nitrogen. Eco-friendly practices are to fine-tune watering practices and to skip trying to grow grass where it doesn’t want to grow. Plant shade-loving plants where there’s too little light, rain gardens where drainage is poor, and hardscape high-traffic areas.

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