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A Greener Garden: Lawn Care Tips for the Eco-Friendly

Man spreading grass seed in yard

Spring is the time to take stock of all your outdoor space. Pull out your garden and lawn tools, rake the leftover leaves from the fall, clean out the gardens, prepare the soil for new plants, fertilize the lawnā€¦ But wait! Maybe it’s time to turn over a new leaf. We may love grassy lawns and weedless gardens, but there are a lot of things we may be doing that they don’t love. Let’s look at solutions for common problems so your lawn and garden are a little more friendly for all who enjoy them.



Winter is hard on Vermont lawns. Those yellow or brown spots may look like dead grass in your lawn, but it may not be actually deadā€¦Like other trees and plants that hibernate, it may have gone dormant to conserve resources, especially if it is pretty uniform in its color. Tug on some and see if it hangs on. If it does, it’s probably not dead, and with the proper treatment, it may just come back to life. So before you go digging it up and filling it with new sod or re-seeding it, try raking it to remove excess thatch and leaves. If it doesn’t start to come back in a couple of days after watering it, then it’s probably dead.



There are a couple of ways to replant your lawn. You can bring in sod, which can be expensive, or you can sow new grass seed, which is not too hardā€”it just takes some time and patience. To sow new grass, prepare the soil by turning or tilling it, leveling the ground, and removing stones. You may want to add some compost or other fertilizer, depending on your soil type. Be very careful as you do not want to add something that isn’t right for your soil or has chemicals or ingredients that are harmful to people, pets, water sources, or the environment in general. Sow the seed and lightly rake it in and compact the area by stepping on it or using a light roller. Spread mulch hay in a medium layer (not too thin or too thick) to keep it in place and then water with a hose or sprinkler. Water the area daily (unless it rains) until you see the grass germinating through the mulch hay. Mow in a few weeks, when it has fully taken hold and is growing through the mulch hay.



Garden centers or hardware stores offer many seed choices, from mixes suited for shade, are drought tolerant, and various types, like Kentucky bluegrass or ryegrass. Try to find one that is customized to your area. For example, I found one called Northeast Conservation Mix, designed for the area where my lawn will be growing. Try to avoid seeds with fertilizers mixed in, or with substrates that aren’t really necessary. Your grass will take on some of the characteristics of where it’s planted, and that’s okay.



Whether you call them weeds or native plants, some of the ‘extras’ we find in our lawn can trigger a knee-jerk response: Yank it out!! But hold on just a minuteā€¦ while some are downright terribleā€”like thistles, nettles, burdocks, or poison ivyā€”some may not be so bad. If you have a few dandelions here and there, leave them alone! I knowā€¦ This seems a bit radical, but it really doesn’t hurt anyone, and the bees and insects LOVE them! Try to hold off weeding some of those little fellas and give them over to the insects. Sometimes you’ll even notice little purple wild violets in a shadier patch of the lawn, or blue dayflowers, chickweed, plantain, or even white or red clover. Relaxā€”these aren’t illegal to have growing in your lawn!



Gardens can be tiny or large, depending on your interest, ability to keep up with them, and what you want to grow. Flowers, vegetables, or herbs can be rewarding and fun. If you have just a small space, try raised beds or even some containers where you can experiment with a few plants and see what works best in your space. One of the benefits to a ‘contained’ garden, like raised beds or containers, is that you can precisely amend soil to meet your goals with the vegetables or flowers you’re growing. Plus, if you get pests that are harmful to the plants you’re tending, you can deal with them in a targeted way without spreading chemical pesticides all over your yard. You can even manage watering with a little extra effort by setting up an efficient, precise irrigation system that is super simple and utilizes a pump and small hose from a hardware store.


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As with all things outdoors, there will be surprises with your lawn and gardens, and some of them fly, crawl, and burrow! Remember that your lawn is its own little ecosystem. It needs all kinds of nutrients and benefits from birds, insects, bees, butterflies, and even the snakes and toads! Don’t do anything chemically to discourage these critters from your lawn or gardens. If there’s something you just can’t deal with, ask an expert to help.



Fertilizers and pesticides on your lawn and gardens can have many negative and unintended effects. They can seep into our water sources, like drinking water springs and wells, brooks, rivers, and lakes. They can harm insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals that are all intertwined in your own ecological spaceā€”including pets. If you just can’t learn to live with something, again, seek the help of an expert. If you do need to involve chemicals, follow the manufacturer’s directions down to the letter. It’s important to know that everything you do with chemicals has an effect downwind, downhill, and downstream.



And once the lawn is lush and ready to mow? Waitā€”hold off on mowing the whole thing to a neat and tidy 3.5 inches! A longer lawn is actually better for the grass and all the things that use it. You might even consider mowing LESS. Just trim an area you want to keep shorter for a game of croquet, badminton, or bean bag toss. The rest can grow to a more natural state and let nature take its course. You will mow less and save on energy, gas, or electricity, whatever your mower of choice may beā€”plus your own time and energy!



Is it time for an upgrade? Consider electric lawn care equipment, which is clean, economical, and requires less maintenance. Battery-operated models come in many sizes and have all kinds of features, like push-button start, self-propulsion, baggers for clippings, headlights for mowing in cooler times of the day, and on board battery storage for easy battery exchange. If you stick with the same manufacturer, your batteries can be interchangeable with other yard equipment, like trimmers, chain saws, and leaf blowers. Plus, no gas or oil that can be a hazard to pour and store, and less maintenanceā€”just follow the manufacturer’s directions for safely charging the battery and keeping your equipment in top condition. To help you make the transition to a cleaner option, most electric utilities in Vermont even have rebates available for electric yard equipment as well.


Be brave and don’t feel pressured by your neighbor’s manicured yard. We’ve been trained over the decades to consider a large, mowed, weedless lawn surrounded by edged, mulched garden area is the gold standard. Try to think big pictureā€”like, really bigā€”and treat your yard with a little more love! Let nature have some say and resist the temptation to over-groom. It’s less to mow, weed, water, and fuss about, especially come spring when there are a few brown spots. Plus, you might gain some new appreciation for the other life that shares your yard.


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About Laurie Fielder

Laurie directs VSECUā€™s VGreen energy savings loan program. Previously, she worked for the weatherization program at the Central Vermont Community Action Council (now Capstone), and for a successful residential solar installer. She enjoys helping Vermonters learn about efficiency and renewable financing options that maximize the savings of these smart investments. She lives in Woodbury with her family and enjoys the outdoors, walking the dog, and tackling home improvement projects.
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