Inoffensive lawn
April 10, 2022 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Where can I find out more about environmentally friendly lawn maintenance? I'm not looking for a lawn replacement, but also am not trying to create perfect turf or nutritious pasture.

I'm part of my neighborhood park friends group, and we'd like to improve the big lawn area. We don't care about "weeds" but it could be much nicer to sit on and many die off early in the fall leaving mud. We do have funding for this.

We're busy planting huge amounts of native pollinator plants, shrubs, and trees in other parts of the park to enhance habitat, but the lawn gets a TON of use as a lawn - picnics, bbq, informal sports, kids and dogs running around, occasional bigger events. It's basically the beach for our urban neighborhood. It doesn't have to be traditional grass as long as it can be used and mowed the same way.

So I've found plenty of info on perfect turf maintenance for sports, and pasture management. I spoke with landscape architects with the parks department and they don't have any guidance. The department only mows.

I'm thinking we want to aerate, seed, and fertilize plus fill in holes. But how to narrow that down to specifics we can have contractors bid? Thinking both of a starter restoration and also future maintenance.
posted by sepviva to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Cooperative/county extension offices linked with university agriculture programs should be able to give advice on choosing the right grass seed and maintenance. Looking at your profile, I would suggest reaching out to Rutgers?
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:08 AM on April 10, 2022 [4 favorites]

Clover. It's gorgeous, self-righting, self-fertilizing, drought resistant and doesn't even need mowing unless you feel like it. I don't know why people even bother with grass. Talk to your Extension office.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:12 AM on April 10, 2022 [10 favorites]

Seconding clover, which can be scattered over grassy areas and make the grass more environmentally-friendly! The clovers shade the grasses' roots, so they need far less water, and they fix nitrogen in the soil, so you don't need to fertilize the grass. (It also outcompetes a lot of weeds that otherwise appear in grass. Not all, but many!) It's all pollinator-friendly! You just mow the grass like normal, although you should let the grass get a bit taller than it typically would before mowing.

You can buy a big sack of it from a farm-and-feed store pretty cheap. The easiest way to sow it scatter it by hand (or with a spreader) near the end of fall right before the temperature goes below freezing for weeks on end, ideally when you'll get a good rain to push it into the soil, and then let it enjoy the winter freeze/thaw cycle to work its way into the cracks. After that, it takes care of itself. That one random warm weekend in January or February when everyone takes down their Christmas lights is also a great time for scatter-sowing clover. But you can do it whenever; it's not a picky plant.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:41 AM on April 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Emailed the county cooperative extension! Not sure why I thought they only had turf advice, maybe that was state level. Thanks for that push. Clover sounds promising. Other suggestions still very appreciated!
posted by sepviva at 10:53 AM on April 10, 2022

There are limits to how much wear any turf can handle, so the busy parks near me have to fence off big patches in rotation to let the turf re-root. There’s probably Best Practices for that and I bet one of them is starting the rest period *before* the turf is gone. Which means you need general public agreement to stay off maybe-good-enough grass. Anyway, I bet Seattle Parks has a flowchart for this, you could write them.

Watching clover and grass patches trade places in their minuet season by season in our lawn/pasture was a good slow joy as a kid.
posted by clew at 11:29 AM on April 10, 2022

I design public parks and get some managers to change/lower mowing frequency in some zones. I first saw this done at Kew in London to protect trees but it makes great social space too.

In this instance I would not use 100% clover, as you want a surface that is useable for more of the year. There are some 'weeds'/wildflowers/wild grasses that can result in a more static plant condition but is depends on location - so what state are you in?

I'm away a few days but will come back to this thread later in the week.
posted by unearthed at 11:56 AM on April 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Nth'ing clover. I saw it recommended on here as a synergist with grass years ago and gave it a shot and it's great.

I also attended a seminar about low input lawns by the U of M where the biggest thing was just keeping the grass taller. Keep your mower at it's tallest setting or the next notch or two down and cut it every week or so with a mulching mower. In late summer if the grass starts turning brown it's fine and just going dormant. You don't need to water it, it'll green up again in the spring.
posted by VTX at 12:37 PM on April 10, 2022

This book from an entymologist is a great resource about how to transform your lawn to support nature.
posted by pinochiette at 1:04 PM on April 10, 2022

The only thing about clover is that bees love it. Which is AWESOME but can result in stings if people walk or picnic or play on it.

You didn't say where you are, but if you're in the Pacific Northwest, look at the eco-lawn and other blends at Pro Time Lawn Seed.
posted by bink at 1:24 PM on April 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Clover is fantastic for all the reasons mentioned. In addition to that, I will share, this page, which looks like the modern version of the advice I read back about 15 years ago, when it felt like the internet was young.

Organic Lawn Care for the Cheap and Lazy

It really nicely breaks down the ways that one can adjust their maintenance and approach to ensure that you're giving traditional a traditional "lawn" the best legs up you can, to ensure a decent outcome, at low cost.
posted by Richat at 1:54 PM on April 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm in Philadelphia.

I think they mow more or less weekly, but may have further cut that back to every other week over the pandemic. They leave the clippings, not sure if they're mulched or just not bagged. There's no irrigation or capacity for irrigation. So we're already part of the way there.
posted by sepviva at 2:41 PM on April 10, 2022

Ask a Master Gardener!
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:08 PM on April 10, 2022

Weekly mows are probably too frequent for good grass health unless it is being cut very high. For some reason people usually practically scalp their lawns, which encourages weed growth, dries out the grass, and generally makes it more fragile. Let it grow to at least 4" and don't cut it back to less than 3" and it will do a lot better. Really, let it grow as long as you can get away with and don't cut it back more than a quarter of its length in one go for best results.

As others have mentioned, mixing in some clover can help as well, but a mainly clover lawn is not going to be appropriate for one that gets a lot of use. It's just not that durable compared to a healthy lawn grass.
posted by wierdo at 5:32 PM on April 10, 2022

There are nurseries that specialize in native plants that sell eco-friendly native grass seed mixes for the purposes of creating low-maintenance turf in places like this. American Meadows is one example, but your best bet might be contacting a nursery near you that specializes in native plants, because they can probably give you advice on what species would work best in your local environment.

The type of clover most people plant for clover lawns is not a species native to North America. It does help fix nitrogen in the soil and provide nectar for pollinators, and is particularly enjoyed by non-native honeybees, so it's better than a lot of lawn ideas, but native grasses would probably stand up better than clover to wear from people using the space in the way you describe.
posted by BlueJae at 10:49 AM on April 11, 2022

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