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Low Input Lawns
Content reviewed by MNLA Sustainable Environment Committee
Low Input Lawns Summary
Every neighborhood seems to have at least one homeowner who maintains their lawn as a perfect green carpet, and several neighbors who struggle to even come close. And although most homeowners probably feel their lawn could be greener, their lawns receive considerably more water, fertilizer, pesticides and general lawn care than they require to be healthy. As a result, the average lawn is trapped in a cycle of being over watered and over fertilized, which results in rapid growth and more frequent mowing.

The goal of Low Input Lawn Maintenance is to break that cycle. The simple ideas outlined below are a mix of horticultural science and common sense proven to significantly reduce an established lawn’s requirements for water, fertilizer, chemicals and even mowing. That translates to less impact downstream.

10 Techniques for a Low Input Lawn

LESS LAWN

1. Reduce the size
of existing high maintenance lawn areas. On large properties with acreage, develop a plan to convert a majority of the high maintenance lawn into low-mow, no-mow or meadow areas. On very small properties, consider replacing an entire lawn with a permeable paver or flagstone patio surrounded by garden plantings. In all cases, examine each lawn area to determine what role it plays in the overall landscape. Not all areas need to be lawn and not all lawn areas need to be perfectly green. Finally, look at lawn areas struggling to grow in heavy shade, baking on a severe western slope or anywhere it’s difficult to maintain a lawn. Design plantings more appropriate to the site conditions.

2. Streamline the layout to reduce time behind the mower. In most cases there is no reason for bed lines to slalom excessively or have sharp corners. Also, eliminate narrow strips of lawn trapped between beds or other site elements. Ensure all bed edging is properly secured and set at a safe depth. Consider installing a mow strip of pavers or natural stone around beds to reduce trimming.

CORE PRINCIPLES

3. Raise the mowing height. Maintaining lawn height between 3” and 4” tall is a critical component of low input care. Taller grass shades and cools the soil surface, reducing stress on the plant and conserving soil moisture. More leaf surface means the plants can manufacture more food, which supports deep root systems and healthy crowns.

4. Core aerate the lawn to loosen up compacted soil. Set the machine for 3” depth and try for 20 to 40 holes per square foot. This usually requires 2 or more passes. It’s important to leave the cores on the surface to disintegrate. Aeration loosens the soil’s top layer; restoring a more natural air/water/soil balance, allowing deeper root development and improving permeability. Water and fertilizer can more readily enter the soil profile, which also reduces runoff. Late August to early September is the ideal time for aeration. Spring aeration works too, but freshly aerated lawns are more susceptible to weeds in the spring.

SMART MOWING

5. Leave the clippings on the lawn. It saves time, and adds nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. Lawn clippings decompose quickly and are not the cause of thatch build-up. Keep lawn clippings off the streets, curbs and sidewalks at all times.

6. Keep the blade sharp and the mower’s underdeck clean. A dull blade shreds the grass rather than cuts it. This not only affects the appearance of the lawn, but may also encourage fungus and other lawn disease. A sharp blade will also process the grass clippings more thoroughly. Keep two sharp, well-balanced blades at the ready and a 3rd blade on the mower.

7. Mow less often. Taller grass allows you to take advantage of the 1/3 rule: To avoid stressing the plants, avoid removing more than about 1/3 of the total plant height at any one time. That means you can safely wait a few more days between each mowing if a lawn is 3” tall. Be warned, living with a shaggy lawn is culturally challenging for most homeowners.

REDUCE THE INPUTS

8. Test site soil before applying fertilizer. Then, apply only the recommended formulation and rate. Minnesota Law prohibits the use of phosphorous on all lawns unless they’re newly established or a legitimate soil analysis recommends it.

9. Fight the urge to use chemicals. Hand weed as a rule, spot treat with chemicals when necessary. Learn about lawn weeds and pests before launching any chemical assault. Many problems simply run their course and disappear when conditions change. Accept some weeds as a natural component in the lawn. Avoid soaking an entire lawn with chemicals.

10. Use less water. Consult with an Irrigation Association Certified Professional to make recommendations and adjust the irrigation system accordingly. You may see reductions in water use of up to 50%. Systems should be adjusted seasonally at a minimum.

WEBSITES ON LOW INPUT LAWNS BOOKS ON LOW INPUT LAWNS
  • Turfgrass Maintenance Reduction Handbook: Sports, Lawns, and Golf; Doug Brede
  • The American Meadow Garden: Creating a Natural Alternative to the Traditional Lawn; John Greenlee
  • Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony, 2nd Ed.; F. Herbert Bormann
 
Sustainable Environment Resource: Low Input Lawns