Garden Plot: Follow this non-toxic plan for a better looking lawn

It’s not just your lawn
Why is your lawn not like Las Vegas? Because what goes on your lawn does not stay on your lawn. That’s why Maryland and Virginia recently enacted strict rules about the amount of fertilizer you’re allowed to apply to your lawn and when you’re allowed to do it.

Is the result an infringement on your personal liberty? No, for two big reasons.

One is that excessive fertilizer use and ill-timed applications pollute waterways and can have negative effects on water quality and wildlife many miles away from your site of application (think globally here).

The other is that the new regs are really a blueprint for a healthy lawn. Giving a cool-season lawn such as bluegrass or fescue more than two feedings a year is like you living on a diet of Big Macs and large fries — it causes problems. Overfeeding with chemical fertilizers is the cause of thatch and one of the biggest causes of disease and dead spots. If we all follow the plan, our lawns will look better, not worse.

Eeek! But what if the Montgomery County pesticide ban passes?
Montgomery County is now debating a law that would severely restrict the use of herbicides and insecticides on residential lawns, echoing legislation that already exists in most Canadian provinces, parts of Europe and our own Takoma Park.

Listeners aware that I was the editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening magazine in the 1990s can probably guess where I stand on this. But allow me to sidestep the debate and change the topic by revealing the dirty little secret of lawn care: Lawns don’t need these chemicals.

And no, I am not saying that people should be happy with weedy turf. What I am saying, repeating the countless emails I’ve received from so many of you over the years, is that chemical herbicides are just not very successful at getting rid of weeds. Yes, those are my words. But they are also the words of thousands of listeners as well.

I get many emails saying, “I’ve tried every herbicide under the sun and the problem is worse than ever.” Also, I get quite a few emails saying, “I finally started cutting the lawn the way you say and feeding with corn gluten meal and it’s looking better every year.”

I can count on one hand the number of readers who have said, “I’ve had great success with chemical herbicides.” And I’m a good counter.

Weed prevention 101
Worried that the proposed ban on lawn care chemicals will ruin Montgomery County lawns? Don’t be worried: You are the true secret weapon that can defeat weeds.

  • Step one: While we whine through winter, get a new blade for your mower or get the old blade sharpened. Cutting with a dull blade invites weeds to flourish.
  • Step Two: If your lawn had crabgrass last summer (reports of which were few), apply the natural pre-emergent weed-and-feed, corn gluten meal, in March. If you didn’t have crabgrass? Use it anyway; it’s a perfect natural lawn food for your spring feeding.
  • Step Three: Never cut below three inches. Weeds are guaranteed to invade lawns that are cut too low.
  • Step Four: Never bag your clippings. Those clippings are 10 percent nitrogen by weight — providing perfect sustained nutrition in-between feedings.

Hey, whataya know! “A Four-Step Program.” Imagine that…

Spray away!
If the proposed ban on lawn chemicals in Montgomery County becomes a reality, would homeowners be able to spray anything on weeds?


Relatively new to the scene is a highly effective broadleaf herbicide whose active ingredient is iron, an element known to be good for lawns but tough on weeds. It’s EPA-registered for use against two dozen weeds, including your old friends the dandelion and plantain, and seems to work better and at cooler temperatures than the current top-selling chemical herbicides glyphosate (Roundup) or 2, 4-D (one component of the infamous Agent Orange defoliant).

The first iron-based herbicide was offered by the mail order company Gardens Alive, who still sell it as “Iron-X.” It’s just now also becoming available at retail locations under a variety of brand names. Look for the words Iron and/or HEDTA as the active ingredient. (The best Internet search term is “Iron-based weed killers.”)

“Grubs in your lawn? Is that’s what’s bugging you, cousin?”
If the proposed ban on lawn chemicals becomes a reality, what would homeowners be able to use against insect pests?

In truth, the only real turf grass pest in our region is the grimy grub: the larval stage of Japanese and other beetles in the scarab beetle family. Female beetles lay their eggs in lawns, especially scalped and over-watered lawns (hint, hint, natural control method here) in the summer. And out hatch baby grubs that feed on the roots of the grass as they grow larger.

Milky spore is a great way to combat grubs, but it must be timed correctly. Applied in late summer, when the grubs are big and voraciously feeding, milky spore — a naturally occurring soil organism — is a great long-term and non-toxic solution that could make your lawn grub-free for decades.

And now there’s a new kid on the block! Gardens Alive has just released a new form of the soil organism Bt (species name “BTG”) that gets rid of grubs in early to mid-summer while they’re still small — before they can beat up your bluegrass.

(It’s exclusive with Gardens Alive this year, because they have done the heavy lifting of having it properly researched and securing EPA approval and registration.)

Question of the day
So, I have to ask: Who needs old-school toxins when you have access to cool 21st-century non-toxic controls like these? Riddle me that, lawn-care provider…

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