Tag Archive | lawn care

Salt Alternatives


Winter salt damage to lawn

When winter comes, it’s important to keep walkways safe, but the chemical compounds sold for de-icing all contain some form of salt, which you don’t want leaching into your soil. Although calcium nitrate or high-nitrogen fertilizer is often recommended as a more benign alternative, an overdose of nitrates isn’t really any better than a buildup of salt itself. In either case, soil organisms are damaged, plant roots can be burned, and leached-out excess winds up in the groundwater.

So what do you do? Start with prevention. There will be very little ice to worry about if you are careful to keep the walkway well shoveled in the first place. Remove snow right down to the path surface as soon as it falls (walking on snow compacts it and makes it stick). Pile the snow on the downhill side, so it doesn’t flow over the walkway when it melts.

Next, cover any ice you do get with something that will provide traction. Clay cat litter and coarse sand both work well and won’t be much of an indoor problem if you keep a mat or bootbrush by your door.

Alternatively, you can add traction to the walkway by covering it with temporary “paving” that has a nonslip surface. There are specially designed flexible metal grids sold for this purpose at hardware stores and through specialty catalogs. Or you can use panels of asphalt roofing shingles. They cost less and work just as well, although they are less than lovely (sprinkle sand under the shingles so they don’t slip around).


Organic “weed and feed” for Lawns

Many gardeners are worried that the products being used to keep that beautiful lawn are, in fact, endangering the environment. With that in mind, then, there is a constant desire to use less damaging chemicals but, at the same time, retain a beautiful lawn. One solution may be corn gluten meal, a by-product of corn milling. It is quite high in nitrogen, which makes it a good fertilizer for grass, and it will prevent weed seeds from growing.


Corn gluten meal being applied by a broadcast spreader

Corn gluten kills by drying up the baby sprouts as soon as the seed cracks open. However, it has no effect on perennial weeds or on annual weeds that are already growing. Furthermore, it must make good contact with the weed seeds in order to kill them — not a problem on bare soil but a tricky proposition if the grass is thick. It works best when the soil is warm, by which time many annual weeds have long since been up and about. And it lasts for only about six weeks, so you have to apply it regularly.

Corn gluten is a relatively benign fertilizer, and it can help control annual weeds if you use it faithfully, from spring to fall, for a couple of years. It is nontoxic and, in home-garden quantities, safe for the environment.


One of my favorite hand tools for “popping” those weeds out of the lawn

There is no panacea, however — you cannot go totally organic and control 100% of weeds in your lawn unless you have some handy tools for digging out the weeds. There are a lot of really good hand tools to help you tackle those weeds, though, and maybe a cleaner environment for our kids and grandkids is worth the extra effort.


Crabgrass Prevention

by Lisa Johnson, Horticulture Educator for Dane County

Forsythia is one of the harbingers of spring. The bright yellow blooms indicate that spring has finally sprung! Forsythia’s bloom coincides roughly with soil temperatures at 55F at 1/2 inch depth — the conditions crabgrass seeds need to germinate. So, when forsythia blooms, it is time to apply pre-emergent crabgrass products.

The key to a pre-emergent is to apply and water in before crabgrass seeds germinate, but not too far before, because many products available to homeowners have a limited window of efficacy, usually about 90 days.

Products available to professional lawn care companies have a longer period of efficacy, so you often see companies applying these products earlier than when the forsythia blooms.

Pre-emergents don’t actually kill the seed; they create a chemical barrier that doesn’t allow seeds to germinate. If the soil is disturbed and the barrier disrupted, germination may still occur.

One problem with pre-emergents is that they will also prevent desirable lawn grass seed from germinating, if it is sown while the herbicide is still active. So, be careful when and where you apply the pre-emergent and where you seed later.

If you have dead patches of lawn in spring and want to reseed there, avoid using a pre-emergent in that area. The best time to sow lawn grass seed is actually late August or early September, but if you need to seed in spring, just make sure to keep the seed watered, if it is a dry spring (the same, if it is a dry fall). Wait until the seed has germinated and is about 2 inches tall before fertilizing. The lawn, in general, should not be fertilized until Memorial Day.

by Lisa Johnson, Horticulture Educator for Dane County