Eco-fertilizer keeps the grass green and the water clean
By Jack Kintner
Whether it’s because we’re imitating medieval barons who surrounded their country manors with sheep pastures or it’s because we’re descended from steppe-dwelling bipeds, just about everyone has a lawn of some kind to care for.
You already know some of the basics – like all plants and lawns need to eat and drink – and your own growing conditions. Is yours a new lawn? Turf or grown from seed? Or an old lawn that’s a thick carpet of sod grown over many years?
Another consideration is the ultimate destination of the chemical foods, weed control products and pesticides that homeowners use around their yards.
It may feel good to spray the dickens out of a paper wasp nest, or saturate an irritating weed in the driveway with some kind of shoot-from-the-hip spray bottle, but much of that poison ultimately works its way down to the harbor.
Too much food can also be a bad thing. Several years ago Washington State University developed a phosphorus-free fertilizer called Lake Whatcom Blend that helped lake-side dwellers feed their lawns without contributing to the surplus of phosphorus in the water. The phosphorus stimulates algae and plant growth in the lake which then consumes oxygen in the water when it dies and decomposes.
Geoff Menzies of the Drayton Harbor Oyster Farm has been tracking soil run-off for years and says that in Blaine phosphorus is important but “nitrogen is probably as big a deal right here.”
Fertilizers are rated with three numbers that reveal their nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio; Lake Whatcom Blend is 16-0-8, and the nitrogen is a combination of soluble and slow-release forms that feed a lawn over several weeks.
Just as gorging at one meal and then starving for a week isn’t good for people, fertilizers often can do your lawn more good if they release nutrients out over time, just as feeding your flowers four times with a quarter-strength solution is better than one stuff shot of food at 100 percent. For lawns, this is accomplished with a slow or timed release product.
“With lawns, the biggest problem here is moss,” said Jerry Wolten of Blaine’s Coast to Coast/True Value Hardware on Peace Portal Drive.
“There’s only two ways I know to get rid of it, one is to kill it and change the pH of your soil, which is difficult, and the other is to make the lawn so doggone healthy and tough that it chokes it out.”
Wolten has a century-old lawn on 10 acres east of town that he says responds well to spot weeding.
“Putting on something like weed and feed everywhere is over-kill,” he said, “because you’re putting that stuff where you don’t need it. In an established lawn you can just hit the bad spots with a growth hormone type control and pretty soon the lawn will take care of itself.”
Sometimes such lawns need to be fed, Wolten said, “but you have to be careful. I fed mine a couple of years ago and it darn near buried the house.”
Wolten’s an advocate of picking up your clippings, especially when growth is vigorous in the spring, since the mat of dead clippings left behind makes for a highly acidic moss friendly environment. “When it’s dry it helps retain moisture, but otherwise there’s plenty of uses for mulch.”
Stacy Schlegel at the Blaine Cost Cutter Grocery is in charge of the annual display of plants that adorn the sidewalk in front of the store, and while she doesn’t carry lawn care products “we do have a lot of things that can replace a lawn in tough spots,” she said.
“Often there are parts of your lawn that won’t grow for some reason, usually having to do with moisture and light. We have different kinds of ground covers for those applications, and can recommend other things we don’t have here but are close by,” Schlegel said.
Nancy Bartholomew at Pacific Building Center has been a landscape gardener for 30 years, in Seattle and on Orcas Island before moving to Blaine last year. She’s a strong advocate of natural lawn care, reminding people that “whatever you put on the pavement or on the lawn will eventually work its way to the bay, so be careful.”
Bartholomew said that for a new lawn good preparation is essential. “Work in some organic material like steer manure or compost, and then seed with a good quality seed, a perennial rye or fescue. Here’s where to spend your money.
“Lots of seed mixes have annuals in them that green up quickly but don’t last, something that’s also true of Kentucky Blue Grass west of the mountains in Washington,” she said.
There’s more to growing a new lawn from scratch than that, but once established she suggests feeding once a year in the fall with a timed (or slow) release fertilizer.
A second feeding may be appropriate in May, but she says that letting your clippings fall instead of collecting them recycles the nitrogen back into the soil.
“Mow often, at least weekly, at a fairly shaggy height of two to three inches,” she suggested, “to keep your lawn vigorous and shade the soil.”
Many homeowners let their lawns go dormant in the summer with no damage, but if you’re going to water the lawn during dry spells Bartholomew said that an inch a week is plenty.
“Put a few tuna fish or cat food cans around in the sprinkling pattern,” she said, “And see how long it takes to fill them up.
“That’s an inch. Then check to see how well it’s penetrating into the soil with a trowel or shovel.”