In the Garden | Natural approach to lawn care in spotlight

In the Garden | Natural approach to lawn care in spotlight

During the growing season, questions about lawn or turf care are quite common at the Champaign County Extension office. Among the many questions we receive, there is growing interest in natural or more sustainable lawn-care practices.

Many perceive this goal, of a more sustainable lawn with less use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, as more complicated than traditional lawn-care practices, which incorporate the use of readily available and highly marketed synthetic products. However, sustainable lawn care is simply a different system that is no more complicated than traditional methods; it just requires attention to a different set of details.

Much like organic gardening, the basis for natural lawn care lies in healthy soils, which are the foundation for a healthy lawn. Within our soil lies an incredibly diverse ecosystem that is often overlooked, since it is difficult to directly observe. This biologically active resource provides nutrients, water and oxygen to the turf growing in your lawn.

Deficient soil ecosystems often result in a greater occurrence of disease and insect problems, as well as increased weed pressure and poorly performing stands of grass.

In traditional lawn-care techniques, pests are often kept in check with pesticides, while unhealthy turfgrass stands are ameliorated with synthetic fertilizers and nursed along with excessive watering. All of these inputs are costly, and when applied without soil testing and proper pest identification, may result in excessive costs that can be more easily mitigated by maintaining a healthy soil environment.

When the soil ecosystem is balanced, turfgrass performs best. A healthy soil should consist of somewhere around half of its biomass as soil bacteria. These hardworking little critters support the ecosystem that exists underfoot while performing valuable nutrient-cycling processes that make unattainable soil nutrients available to plants naturally.

Bacteria thrive in a soil environment that contains organic matter high in carbohydrates. Organic fertilizers, such as compost or animal and vegetable meals, contain carbohydrate levels that can sustain a bacteria-dominated soil environment.

Whereas synthetic fertilizers apply soil nutrients directly and skip the natural biological processes that add plant-available nutrients to our soils. By applying natural or organic fertilizers, you are actually feeding the soil ecosystem, which will in turn feed the plants.

In addition, soil bacteria provide a plethora of other benefits such as improving soil structure and aggregation to ultimately recycle water since improved soil structure increases infiltration and water-holding capacity.

Recently, the city of Urbana adopted a more natural approach to lawn care for the south lawn of the Urbana City Building, an area immediately south of the City Building and directly east across Vine Street from Urbana's Market at the Square.

Turfgrass areas on the south lawn will be maintained without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. This unique project will serve as an example of how natural lawn-care techniques can maintain beautiful and functional turf areas equally as well as our traditional turfgrass-management techniques.

If you are interested in learning more about natural lawn-care techniques and organic gardening, there are a variety of events planned for the Urbana Grows Green Weekend. The city of Urbana, the Urbana Park District, University of Illinois Extension and the Midwest Pesticide Action Center have all partnered to bring educational activities to our community this weekend.

To kick things off, natural-lawn-care experts from MPAC will have a table at Urbana's Market at the Square today (7 a.m. to noon), answering questions about lawn care and gardening as well as introducing the city of Urbana's plan for natural lawn care on the City Building's south lawn.

From 1 to 3 p.m. today, the Urbana Park District will host a free organic gardening demonstration at the Meadowbrook Park Organic Community Garden (RSVP at bit.ly/UIGGmeadowbrook). This event will help you brush up on organic gardening techniques with fun and interactive games that will cover controlling weeds, improving soil fertility and many other organic techniques.

In addition, the Urbana Park District staff will discuss their Integrate Pest Management program and answer any questions.

On Monday night (7 to 9 p.m.), events move to Parkland College, where MPAC and UI Extension will host an evening of learning about natural lawn care.

This event will also feature fun and educational games that will help you boost your knowledge of natural lawn care techniques. The experts with MPAC will also be available to answer any questions and help you start your own natural lawn care plan (RSVP at go.illinois.edu/NaturalLawns).

For additional information, please visit Urbana Grows Green Weekend's website or Facebook page to track the events and learn more about the natural approach to lawn care.

Ryan Pankau is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties.

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