Walking through the neighborhood in the autumn can be a sensual experience. The sweet smells of ripening fruit, falling leaves and sweet autumn blooms are all around. Then, suddenly, jarring the senses, the altogether unnatural smell of chemical lawn fertilizer emanates and ruins the earthy delights of autumnal repose. You know it when you come across it, the piercing, chemically manufactured, nasal irritating smell.
Certain lawn care companies have told us to believe that we must follow the regularly scheduled fertilizer, insecticide, and herbicide treatments in order to have a 'healthy' lawn. We have followed this advice like zombies, spraying, fertilizing, irrigating and mowing season after season. I do not begrudge lawn companies to encourage their clients to adhere to a maintenance schedule, but what I am suggesting, is that by expanding their knowledge base, and diversifying their scope of work, lawn companies can eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers, eliminate or at least reduce insecticide and herbicide use, and have just as much work, if not more, by using better and sustainable techniques.
One large lawn treatment company claims on their website that:
"Very few soils are fertile enough to supply the nutrients which healthy plants need. The soil in most areas has become so depleted over the years that fertilizers and other additives must be added."
My observation is that while this may be the case in areas that are in rough shape, such as soil around a newly constructed building that contains concrete, sheetrock dust and debris, or soil that has been cultivated without additions of organic matter, the use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides and herbicides is not warranted. The best advice for nutrient-challenged soils is to add compost to amend the existing soil.
Unless one has been living under a compost heap, we know the truth is that banning or restricting the use of fertilizers in communities is an effective way to keep lakes and streams clean. Excess nutrients cause disgusting looking and smelly algae blooms causing eutrophication. With eutrophication, oxygen and light are restricted which eliminates life from the water. Think of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, and many other coastal and lake areas where there are no fish and shrimp left. Contributing to this in our own lakes and sending excess nutrients down the river is wrong, and we should have no part of this as gardeners and landscapers.
Another large lawn treatment company claims that:
"To have a vigorous and healthy lawn, it requires nutrients to remain vigorous and healthy. A healthy lawn is better able to ward off pests and diseases."
The truth is, a lawn on a fertilizer and insecticide schedule becomes chemically dependent. The root system is shallow and needs more water, and the the fast, lush, weak growth that fertilizer promotes is perfect forage for insects and disease. Insecticides kill beneficial insects as well, that in a properly balanced system would take care of the "bad" insect problem. A healthy lawn is a lawn that has a deep root system and can withstand disease and insects without the use of chemical fertilizers. Oh, the icing on the cake! With all this watering and fertilizing, the grass grows faster and needs to be cut more! A bonus!
I think this is a gorgeous lawn!
What to do? Don't assume you need to fertilize. Try aerating, topdressing with a couple inches of compost and over-seeding. Mulch mow your grass clippings and fall leaves. This adds enough nutrients for a healthy lawn. Keep weeds to a minimum by over-seeding in the fall and spring with a good quality grass seed. Eliminate some lawn area. Planting beds can be very low maintenance, create beauty and a place for birds and beneficial insects. If you have a really bad soil problem from recent construction or other damage, use the soil you have and liberally amend with compost. Don't use "Black Dirt" as it is topsoil hauled in from another site (leaving more bad soil behind) and contains all kinds of weed seeds. If you really, really feel that you need a fertilizer, use only a slow release, organic, such as Sustane brand or Milorganite (not around pets or vegetable gardens). When you do fertilize, try to do this after aeration or add it on top of a compost top-dress and rake in lightly. This will prevent runoff.
If lawn companies expand beyond the 'mow and blow' to incorporate aeration, compost topdressing, seeding, slow release organic fertilizers, and properly maintaining shrub beds (not just hedging everything), they will still have business, indeed expand their business, and claim that their practices do not contribute to the pollution of our lakes, streams, and rivers.
A benefit for the bottom line, humans, water creatures, and nasal passages alike!