Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lawn Shame

I've got to admit, my lawn is the shame of the neighborhood. It's gotten out of hand; basically, I'm mowing weeds as much as lawn when I mow (which I need to do today). It's bad, bad enough that even I'm ashamed of it.

Lawns in this area seem to require a couple things, watering and weed control of some sort are up there, along with mowing. But I don't tend to water my lawn, and I'm wary of putting chemicals on there, and too lazy to go pull every weed. Then there's fertilizer, too, the kind that lawn plants like and weeds don't as much, I suppose.

I'm thinking of a couple choices.

I could take out the whole lawn and put in a vegetable garden. But the yard is huge, and I can't even imagine the level of work it would take. I have trouble now keeping the weeds in check in the garden areas.

More realistically, my choices involve either trying to take care of it myself or hiring a company. I could water; indeed, I probably should water it, just on a basic level, but I dislike pouring water into the lawn. I'm okay with watering trees or newly transplanted plants, but the constant lawn watering seems more wasteful. But either way, I'm guessing I'm going to need to add some lawn watering.

The chemical stuff is more difficult. I don't want to poison the local birds and such. (Okay, so I wouldn't be totally adverse to getting rid of some of the rabbits, but even so, poisoning wouldn't be my first choice.) So I'd try to be careful. But I'm no chemical expert, and I suspect the chemicals you can buy yourself at the local homesupply place are less effective at weeds than the stuff the lawn companies use. And so there's probably a temptation to overuse the homebought chemicals, trying to get quicker results, which would actually be worse for the environment. Fertilizer complicates things.

The lawn companies probably have more effective chemicals, and know how to use them, at least in theory, but don't care a whit about the local birds and probably hire college students to apply the chemicals with minimal training.

In theory, then, hiring a lawn company might be more effective; even a minimally trained person has lots more training than I do.

And what's the problem with the lawn? Me, I see weeds. But someone who knows about lawns might see specific weed problems, or insect problems, too. Or they might just sell me the most expensive treatment, because I won't know the difference anyway. But let's hope for the moment that they're reasonably ethical. If so, their knowledge is lots greater than mine, and hiring them would make more sense.

But then, there's the shame thing. If I just go to the store and buy a bunch of chemicals, well, my neighbors already know I'm a lousy lawn care person, but I don't have to face some expert and hear all about what a horrible thing I've done to my lawn, and how I probably shouldn't even be allowed to have lawn at all. Even if they don't say anything, you know they're thinking that I'm a horrible lawn person. (Why does it matter? I don't know, but it does. Feeling shamed at my inabilities to do basic life stuff is pretty strong for me.)

There's also the budget thing. I'm guessing initially, hiring a lawn care company would be way more expensive. But doing it myself would take a lot more time AND since I'd probably buy chemicals less wisely (which fertilizer? bug stuff? what weed treatment?), might add up to more in the end.

Oh wisdom of the internet, what do I choose?

Shame in front of the expert, but likely success at having fewer weeds and a minimally decent lawn for next year?

Or quiet desperation as I try to take care of it myself?


  1. Anonymous11:08 AM

    We use a lawn service, but we live in CA. Most people where we live use a lawn service. I think it's better to use a service just for the time it saves. Plus, there are plenty of good gardening websites where you could verify information that the gardeners are giving you in case you wonder if you're getting taken advantage of.

    Of course, winter will be here in a few months, so maybe your lawn will get buried in snow and it won't matter how long your grass is. :)

  2. What do you hope to achieve? Do you want an uninterrupted turfgrass monoculture? Do you simply want to make peace with the neighbors? I think you need to decide what you want before you work out a plan. What would your ideal yard look like? What yards do you admire in your area?

    If you want to reduce the amount of turfgrass, you can put in ground cover like pachysandra, or plant hostas, heather, or other plants like that with mulch around them.

    I don't water my lawn and I let whatever plants grow there that want to grow there; if something nasty like a thistle gets established, I'll weed it out, but otherwise, I don't worry. I have it mown every 7-10 days so it looks nice, and I prefer having clover, ground ivy, and other flowering plants in among the grass blades. My neighbors, even the lawn-proud one, don't seem to mind. (But then, one neighbor grows grapes and lets the rest of his lawn grow into a meadow.)

    You might take a look at Elizabeth Kolbert's recent New Yorker article on the history of American lawns.

  3. My theory of lawns is that nothing should be there that can't survive a summer without watering. If we go through a really long hot/dry stretch, I water to maintain the foundation and the trees, but not otherwise. My lawn doesn't look great, but it's not a disaster... it goes brown during August but recovers again in the fall. One thing my brother taught me is that regular mowing is the best way to keep weeds down, so I've done that rather than chemicals. I know that there are environmentally-sensitive yard companies out there too, though, so you could give them a try and make your concerns clear.

  4. Marcia, I KNEW there had to be some benefit to snow!

    Brian, Wow, that's a really good question. Ideally, it would be lush and nice to walk on, or full of wildflowers. But I really don't enjoy it so much that I want to spend lots of resources on it.

    Thanks for the reading suggestion!

    P/H, I feel much the same way about gardens; mine is mostly quite drought resistant, except for the stuff in planters, and I've chosen native plants mostly. But the lawn just isn't native at all, I'm sure. And I do water my trees, because I see them as a sort of investment in future shade.

    Thanks all, great help :)

  5. Lawn


    Modern fertilizers most places now have no phosphates. This helps a little with the pollution problem. A shot of such fertilizer once (in the Spring) or possibly twice (Spring/Fall) would help.

    If you live someplace where there is plenty of water, a little water when things get brown is also a good idea. USUALLY brown lawns will recover, but not always. Ask the old timers in your 'hood. As someone else pointed out, regular mowing also seems to help.

    Weedkiller... Hmm...
    You want to avoid using this stuff as much as possible but sometimes things just get too bad. I think the best stuff to use is the sprayable kind that is NOT mixed in with fertilizer. That way you can use it sparingly - where the weeds are - and not all over the place.

    If you don't want to use weedkiller, you can buy a device that is a sort of dandelion extractor. It is green and "L" shaped. You stomp on it to put down some fingers and then pull up. Most of the time the weed/dandelion is extracted together with the root. Once you get good at this you can put the weed right into a bucket for disposal. A couple of sessions a summer with this thing will usually keep things from looking too bad.

    These suggestions will never satisfy those who want a lawn like a golf-course, but these measure are usually good enough. Also, expand your garden gradually, leading to shrinking of the lawn.

    I am a little skeptical of the chemicals most lawn companies use, but you might find someone local who is conscientious.


  6. how important is the lawn to you? will this be your hobby? lot of good ideas here -- i especially like brian's.

    i'm in california, and we are in a drought -- which happens every few years. our front yard is kind of unruly, but it isn't grass. we've got trees and perennials out there, and some volunteerish plants, and we keep adding a few native plants that don't need much water. i'm bad with weeding, and with taking out the freaking blackberry vine that keeps popping up everywhere -- if it was up to my beloved, we'd have the entire front yard filled with that horrible vine that cuts people to bits and soaks up all the resources for other plants.

    ahem. so, you need to decide what you want from the yard. and doing something besides lawn is fine.

    also -- unless you decide on the lawn service forever, you can take a stab at changing the yard any time you want. except maybe snow times.

  7. Oh, yeah, and I'm with mr. b on the dandelion-digging. The one time I got desperate and tried to use a chemical weedkiller (specifically targeted at dandelions, no less), I noticed that the leaves wilted instantly, but that the plant seemed to come back after a couple of weeks, and when I dug them up, the roots were twice as thick as normal dandelions. So I think that just makes them tougher. :(

  8. I've enjoyed your blog for a while now, so thought I'd share my thoughts as an amateur gardener/hippy...

    Grass should be pretty resilient, so long as you haven't got a variety developed for golf courses and other non-real-life situations. It shouldn't need watering except in prolonged very dry spells. The dandelion grabbing gadgets work ok but do involve effort - you could think of it as stress relief, perhaps? And then by avoiding weedkiller you can keep things like clover in your lawn and support your local bee population (not good for walking barefoot, but still).

    If you like the meadow look, you could always let a corner of it grow long, and you can get wildflower seeds you just sprinkle on top. That sort of thing is great for wildlife, even if it's just a small patch.

    All the best with your efforts!

  9. I was going to say something like Brian - not that I'm an expert, living in apartments and all. But over here in the land of the endless drought, there are lots of people who plant ground cover that isn't traditional grass. Some varieties look pretty much like ordinary lawn, but are much hardier, and others look a bit different but are still green and soft to walk on. Looking into ground cover that's native to your region should help a bit.

    It's illegal to water your lawn here (and to wash your car, wash windows, top up swimming pools, etc), so it's either grow something hardy, or give up altogether!

  10. Oh - and my father-in-law who is a botanist and lawn-obsessed freak says you should never cut a lawn as closely as most people do - the closer you cut it, the more weeds grow. He keeps his twice as long as his neighbours and it is BEAUTIFUL.

  11. You could call your state's cooperative extension. ( I remember an "Ask This Old House" episode said they do things like soil testing for minimal charge. And since they don't *fix* the soil/garden/lawn, they have no monetary incentive to tell you that you need expensive treatments.
    But I like the idea of ground covers. And weeds. So long as you keep 'em short-ish, there's no reason to be embarrassed. :-)

  12. If you want something green, good for the soil, more drought-resistant than grass, go for clover. It's not good for really high-traffic areas but will stand up to you sitting out in a deck chair and walking across it to cut flowers. I turned my lawn into clover this year.

  13. we spent about $30 for a one-time lawn care company in the spring to fertilize and to take out dandelions. so far, it's been enough be ok with the neighbors. we don't water and most of them do, so ours usually looks a bit ragged rather than lush.

    lawn care people took into consideration that we wanted to spend very little, wanted very little poison and wanted a bit of fertilizer (and that's really all I could tell them).

  14. What about one of those rock covers? Like they do in drought areas...attractive and no water and no care.

    And what about those moss covers?

  15. Mr. B, Thanks for the suggestions. I like the idea of doing spot spraying, maybe, rather than a big application.

    My lawn isn't horribly dry right now, but weedy and semi-brown. The neighbors who water every few days and spray have lush lawns that look inviting to walk on. However, they don't actually walk on theirs more than I do.

    Kathy A., Good point; I don't want a lawn as hobby; I just want to not get those looks around here. My garden area has mostly native species, and they require relatively little care (though I weed some).

    P/H, I think the plants around here evolved with buffalo pulling and stomping on them; they're really tough!

    Charlotte, I wonder if there's already clover in there? I think the lawn itself doesn't thrive as well as the local weeds in the poor soil and unwatered condition.

    StyleyGeek, Good point! I should check my mower height!

    Ceresina, Oh, that's an interesting suggestion. But I am sort of embarrassed by my lawn; even calling extension would be embarrassing in a way...

    Dame Eleanor, I'll look into clover, thanks :)

    Timna, That's a good suggestion, thanks! I wonder if there's a good company around here?

    MSILF, Much of the yard has landscaping rock, and I hate it. It doesn't stop the weeds and it's horrid to weed in (you can't get a good grip on the weed to pull or use a tool without moving the rocks around, and it's way slower). This is a wet enough area that weeds flourish, but sunny enough that mosses don't seem to grow much (even in my shade garden area).

    Thanks for your suggestions, all!

  16. re weeds under rock areas: people around here often put down something under the rocks to stop weeds. plastic is often used, and some people use cardboard, i think on the theory that when its usefulness is over it will at least biodegrade.

    of course, that means moving the rocks, weeding, and putting the stuff in.

  17. Anonymous11:55 AM

    Have a couple or three lawn care companies come out and tell you what needs done and give you an estimate. That way at least you'll know if you can afford it; it might be less expensive than you think. And they'll tell you what needs done so you can do it yourself or hire someone to do it.

    Tom R.