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A guide to a greener lawn

When Wisconsin homeowners talk about growing greener grass these days, it’s a good bet they’re not talking about color.

University of Wisconsin-Madison turf experts are getting a lot questions about how to grow a healthy lawn with minimal risk to the environment and human health. The questions come from both homeowners and lawn-care professionals, says Doug Soldat, a soil scientist and UW-Extension turf specialist.

“For the past few years this has been one of the top questions at our professional workshops,” he says. “Lawn care operators are realizing that their customers want this, and they are asking us how to do it.

“The problem is that there are no standards,” he says. “The USDA has set the organic food standards, but there is nothing comparable for turf. There’s a huge range in what people are doing and calling natural lawn care.”

Over the past decade, the university’s turf scientists have been collecting data to develop sustainable lawn care guidelines tailored to Wisconsin. At the O.J. Noer turf research facility near Verona, they’re evaluating grass varieties and blends to see how they perform with reduced levels of irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides. They’re also exploring non-chemical strategies for controlling pests and monitoring the effectiveness of pesticides that the EPA classifies as “reduced risk.”

They recently compiled what they’ve learned into two publications. The shorter of the two, titled Do-It-Yourself Alternative Lawn Care, is targeted at homeowners. It focuses on six things homeowners can do to help their lawn survive and thrive without a lot of added inputs:

– Prepare soil properly. A good soil makes it easier for the grass plant to get nutrients and water and compete with weeds. Weeds are adapted to adversity, so they’ll dominate a poor soil in the absence of herbicides.

– Select the right grass. Low-maintenance grasses suited to Wisconsin include tall fescues, fine fescues and common (not improved) varieties of Kentucky bluegrass. Which is the best choice depends on soil, environment and sunlight. And because it’s very difficult to control weeds in newly seeded grass without herbicides, sod is a better bet for getting the lawn established.

–Mow as high as possible—three or four inches—with a sharp blade, to maintain strong roots and shade out weeds. Mowing frequently lets you remove less of the plant to avoid weakening the grass.

–Provide enough nutrients. Well-fertilized lawns have fewer insects and disease problem. Organic fertilizers should be applied at least twice a season.

–Control pests. Weeds are the primary challenge. You can pull them in a small area if you’re persistent, but larger areas may require other tactics. The publication discusses the pros and cons of various alternative weed killers.

–Apply enough water to help build a thicker stand of grass that’s more able to keep weeds at bay.