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Guilty Gardening

Do you ever find yourself feeling guilty that you haven’t completed some garden task? Even worse, you procrastinate so much that you don’t even want to tackle any thing in the yard?

We’ve all been there! It’s even worse when someone keeps reminding you – subtly and sometimes not so subtly.

“Well your father...” this is the common opening to my mother-in-law’s outside task list. This past year, my husband and I took over the lawn chores for her. We volunteered. We love to work outside. This was going to be easy. We thought.

But meeting others expectations is never easy. And add to that the family dynamic, well, let’s just say we may have bit off a little more than we can chew.

“Why isn’t my grass as green as everyone elses?” MIL said recently. She had a point. The lawn across the street, which also has no trees to offer shade, looked quite a bit more lush. My husband deflected when she said, “Your father said you have to fertilize four times a year.”

“And you don’t hand throw it either,” she added, “you need a circular spreader.”

I heard my husband mutter something under his breath walking out to the garage. She was following him, but then was yanked back by her oxygen cord. It’s not a pretty dance and I usually try to stay out of it, but I decided to look up lawn fertilizing on the internet.

Turns out, she’s right. Being more organic gardeners, Stan and I aren’t fond of chemicals. He throws out the spring pre-emergent fertilizer and herbicide combination that cuts back on clover and broad leaf germination, and then likes to aerate and overseed in the fall. The more you fertilize, the more the grass grows...needs cutting and so on. But fertilizer is also what helps the grass get that lush, green look. To be specific, nitrogen.

Fertilizers are always labeled with three distinct numbers, representing these nutrients in this order: nitrogen (N) for leaf growth; phosphorous (P) for development of roots, flowers, seeds & fruit; and potassium (K) for stem growth, flowering & fruiting. The nitrogen is responsible for the leaf growth and should be more heavily weighted in your fertilizer in spring and summer. The P and K promote root growth and should carry a higher number in your fall/winter efforts. For example, spring fertilizer might read: 15:5:3 and fall fertilizer 5:12:20. Of course, there are different 'types' of grasses and this is the recommendation for the typical “warm weather” grass that most of us have.

From our perspective the August heat and the lack of water were causing the grass to fade and take on more of it’s winter character, but, with chemicals, this can be negated. A late summer spread of fertilizer can help the lawn rebound. It’s all a matter of what is important to you.

Is it worth the potential runoff of these chemicals into our storm drains and waterways where algae and microorganisms also feed on these nutrients? That’s up to the individual. When you drive by a golf course and see the magnificent swaths of green, it should be obvious that’s not natural – it takes tons of chemicals and water to get that affect. At our house in Virginia the local golf course feeds directly in to Dogue Creek that goes directly into the Potomac River and out to the Chesapeake Bay. Most of us on the Eastern seaboard have heard of how the Bay has been stressed out by nutrient imbalances.

Can golfers and homeowners be convinced to let the grass be more natural to spare the water and wildlife downstream?

It may take awhile, so in the meantime, using best practices can bridge the difference. One important component of chemical absorption is water. Gently watering your lawn before and after spreading granular fertilizer can help insure the chemicals get absorbed and don’t run off. You could also purchase liquid fertilizer, which would be absorbed immediately, but costs quite a bit more. The most natural solution is compost and manure which require working into your soil. (Grass clippings - a small amount left by a mulching mower - is actually the easiest way to add nitrogen.)

And like MIL insisted, a spreader does help you achieve a more even distribution of the product, so that there is less to burn (with too much chemical) or miss (with too little). For more information about good practices, try this DIY website.

So was MIL right? She was, but so was Stan. Bottom line; we’re not going to change her mind. All the convincing in the world about saving the environment won’t make her feel better about her grass. There is a line between being right and doing the right thing. Figuring out how to balance those two objectives takes a lot of wisdom and patience – not guilt.

Perhaps we would all do well to live guilt-free as Will Rogers once said:

Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip ;)

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