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Lawn Care: Do More by Doing Less

By Kathy Connolly

Is there such a thing as low-impact lawn maintenance?

The answer from the field of turf science is a qualified yes, but you must do less, not more, to your lawn.



Cornell University turf expert Dr. Frank Rossi, for one, suggests that lawns—like trees—can help keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Rossi offers as evidence a number of serious academic studies that show how well established, healthy lawns actually become “carbon sinks” when best practices are followed and the underlying soil remains undisturbed.

What does a carbon-sequestering lawn look like? “It looks no different than a high-end lawn, done correctly,” says Rossi. “When you mow less frequently and let grass grow higher, particularly in mid-summer, you’re following current best practices.”

And then he adds, “When you eliminate a few mowings and allow the grass to grow a bit taller, you not only save money and time, but each gallon of gas you save eliminates about 20 pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere.” And that, he says, is just one benefit of doing less to the lawn.

Lawn fertilizers, particularly those rich in phosphates, have long been cited as a source of water pollution. (Phosphorous is signified by the middle number in the N-P-K label on the fertilizer package.)  To counteract that problem, Rossi suggests fertilizing only in the fall when conditions are conducive to fertilizer uptake. In 2012, both the Massachusetts and Connecticut legislatures passed laws that require companies providing lawn care to have a soil test no more than two years old before phosphorous is applied.

The University of Connecticut’s extension educator for sustainable lawn and landscape, Victoria Wallace, concurs that an established, dense, low maintenance lawn can be a carbon sink. She points to fine fescues and turf-type tall fescues for lower maintenance needs.

She says that watering should be reduced. “Especially if the homeowner uses automatic irrigation, the system should be updated to include a water sensor,” she says.

Got grubs? “Watering less frequently in June and July is an economical way of discouraging adult beetles from laying eggs that become lawn grubs,” according to Wallace. “Reduced watering may reduce turf disease as well.”

To build healthy soil, leave grass clippings on the lawn. “Clippings recycle nutrients back into the lawn,” says Wallace. Another step is to spread a thin layer of compost (no more than ½”) on the lawn in the fall, which will become soil organic matter. “With healthy soil,” she says, “roots grow deeper and that improves the overall health of the lawn.” Organic matter also improves moisture retention and reduces the need for water. Ideally, organic matter should make up about 5% of soil.

Wallace concludes, “Always get a soil test before applying anything, even compost.”

It is not often that we get to "do good" by doing less, but why not make lawn care one of those opportunities?

  • Any time of year: Get a soil test.
    • Free basic tests are available from Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station ( Remember to request the percentage of organic matter in your soil. This test will advise you on nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) adjustments, as well as pH.
    • University of Connecticut supplies a variety of tests for fee. See for instructions. Remember to purchase the test that measures the organic matter in your soil. These reports will advise you on nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) adjustments, as well as pH.
    • For an in-depth soil test that shows the chemistry and biology of your lawn soil, try the tests from Harrington Organics in Bloomfield: These tests, while somewhat more expensive, provide a deeper view of soil health and go beyond simple NPK and pH recommendations.
  • If a soil test indicates the need for fertilizers in spring, apply only between April 15 and June 15 when plants are actively growing—or better yet, wait until September to fertilize as suggested by Cornell’s Dr. Rossi. Keep fertilizers at least 20 feet from any body of water.
  • Spring or fall: Thatch and aerate lawn, usually once per year or every other year.  
  • Spring or fall: Investigate low maintenance grass seed for lawn repair.  Fine fescues and turf-type tall fescues are great for this area. Wait until April 15 – May 15 for spring planting. The best time for lawn planting and repair, however, is the month of September.
  • Keep in mind that vigorous roots are the best defense against a host of lawn problems. Take steps to build soil health at every opportunity.

Copyright ©2014 Kathleen Groll Connolly, Speaking of Landscapes, LLC