Lawn Reform

Cornell on Lawn Care: Do Less!


Lawns have been attacked for some years now, with claims that they require obscene amounts of water, fertilizers, pesticides, and gas-guzzling mowing, so of course the only responsible thing to do is to get rid of it all, right? But lawns are so useful they’ll always be with us, and are the criticisms even warranted? Or do Americans just need to change their lawn-care practices and expectations of golf-course perfection?

Now Cornell, long-time leader in lawn research, is out with a terrific new Turfgrass website, plus the easy-to-follow “Lawn Care: The Easiest Steps to an Attractive Environmental Asset“(also available in free ebook). It’s the work of Extension Associate Lori Brewer, who told me that with her environmental background, she wanted to “change the world” by promoting better lawn-care practices and attitudes.

Responsible lawn care is so very important, yet the topic of lawns was very polarizing within the Master Gardener groups she works with in New York. Many were not equipped to answer questions from the public, and lawns are the most asked-about subject.

So she decided to boil down the information into its simplest, essential form – “Just do these most important things” – and the message had to be conveyed with very limited sources. Thus, online and in a multi-media e-book.

With major headings like “Do Less,” you know it’s not going to be your grandfather’s lawn-care advice, but it’s also not going to be the total condemnation seen from some quarters. It takes the more enlightened position that “A well-managed lawn is an environmental asset” because it aids in erosion control, improves water quality, and filters air pollutants. Lawn alternatives are recommended for spots where lawn doesn’t grow well.

Lori Brewer and Frank Rossi

Lori Brewer and Frank Rossi

Lori worked with Cornell’s famous lawn expert Dr. Frank Rossi and others, boiling their wisdom down to its essential bits, a task that Rossi knew wouldn’t be easy because “It requires more than 140 characters.”

So if you have a cool-season lawn (these species), here’s how Cornell (and increasingly, other Extension universities) recommends that you care for it. Let’s bust some myths, shall we?


WATER LESS. Conventional wisdom is correct that grasses need about 1 inch of water per week, but only during periods of active growth. That means spring and fall, when there’s usually ample rainfall, anyway.

Then during the heat of the summer, cool-season grasses slow their growth and may even turn brown but are probably not dead. Studies show that as little as 1/4 inch of water over a three-week period can be enough to keep the sod alive. (Use a rain gauge to measure your rainfall. )

FEED LESS. “Most home lawns with modest expectations do just fine with a single late-fall fertilizations mid-September to mid-October.” So for what Cornell calls “highest quality” turfgrass, several feedings are needed per year but for most homeowners, one application is plenty. Americans, does your lawn really need to look like a golf course? Time to adjust your expectations!

(Feed again in the spring only if the lawn is thin or winter-damaged, but wait until the soil has warmed up to 55 F.)

ARE ORGANIC FERTILIZERS BETTER? Well, the evidence sure doesn’t support any claim that they’re better for turf. They do introduce organic matter into the soil, which is a good thing, but synthetic fertilizers offer some advantages over organics: you know exactly what’s in them, including zero phosphorus to protect waterways; they’re cheaper and easier to apply (because of the smaller quantity of product needed); and they can be applied at lower soil temperatures.

More important than the source of the fertilizer is whether it’s released slowly enough to protect the waterways from fertilizer pollution. So just choose a fertilizer that’s at least 30 percent slow-release (water-insoluble Nitrogen) for normal soils or 60 percent for sandy ones.

WEEDKILLERS PROBABLY NOT NEEDED. The good news, according to Rossi, is that the majority of public with lawns use NO herbicides at all. But if hand-weeding isn’t doing the job he recommends selecting an herbicide that poses the least risk, as spelled out by the EPA in their list of over 100 herbicides.

The best defense against weeds, of course, is following sound lawn-care advice to produce a nice thick lawn and patching the bare spots, too. (I was surprised that Cornell’s lawn-patching video doesn’t mention covering the seed with straw, but Lori says it’s really not needed.)

Cornell also invites us to change our expectations for uniformity and just live with some weeds. They even suggest it’s time to rediscover the virtues of white clover – that instead of a weed, it converts Nitrogen in the air to a form the plants can use. So having clover means less need for supplemental fertilizer.

MOW RIGHT. Cornell makes a big deal out of mowing correctly because it’s essential to preventing disease. They even go so far as to suggest that if you think your lawn needs a whole renovation, try mowing correctly for a year first because that may correct the problem.

So it’s about sharp blades, mowing high, and rather than the usual admonition to never remove more than a third of the blades at one time they recommend following the much easier “clump rule.” “Mow often enough to avoid piles of grass clippings. This might be every 5 days in the spring or not at all during summer drought and every 7-14 days the rest of the season.” See, that advice I could follow.

WHAT NEXT? Rossi believes that if lawn-care professionals were trained in these practices it have a enormous impact. What’s needed is a tool for evaluating and certifying them, which would incentive them to adhere to best practices. And with funding, he and others at Cornell could produce such a tool in about 18 months. (Hint!)

Posted by on August 12, 2016 at 7:11 am, in the category Lawn Reform.
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9 responses to “Cornell on Lawn Care: Do Less!”

  1. Thomas Christopher Thomas Christopher says:

    A great post on an important topic. Think about it: lawns occupy some 49,000 square miles of the United States. So even a modest movement toward more sensible lawn care can have a huge impact on our national landscape and its environmental health.

  2. these guidelines, by the way, apply equally to WARM season turfgrasses, which grow very well if mowed right, watered deeply but not often, and fertilized lightly every 2-4 years (it recycles with grass clippings).

    all this, by the way, has been done routinely for many decades by garden variety gardeners.

    but HOA requirements and their social pressures, and a lot of state Extension Service training programs (MGs especially), and to only barely mention how the profits of unnecessary applications driving the green industry, it will be a long hard road to get the “meadow lawn” widely accepted in the infomarket.

  3. Steve says:

    Just try to get a lawn service that will follow these guidelines. When I was on the board at my condo complex, I considered it a minor victory to remove the “all shrubs will be pruned three times a year” clause from the contract. Weekly mowing regardless of need was my concession.

  4. john says:

    WOuldn’t Zoysia be the better grass to encourage, and allow it to spread? WHy combat it?? Isn;t this just what we are trying to get away from -combating beneficial and easy lawns to grow something far more needy like Fescue?

  5. […] Cornell on Lawn Care: Do Less! originally appeared on Garden Rant on August 12, 2016. […]

  6. Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

    Bill I totally agree – except that Zoysia spreads relentlessly to neighbors’ yards and is really hard to combat. Susan

  7. Bill Phelan says:

    A few notes for our area.
    Most important, mow high. Mowing at 4 inches will reduce weeds over time.

    Fertilize in fall at least. Fertilizer favors grass over weeds. To reduce fertilizer needs aerate and overseed with clover. Leaving clippings also reduces fertilizer needs.

    Avoid heavy traffic on turf, it causes compaction which leads to weeds. Some sort of paver/stone is better for heavy traffic areas.

    Tall Fescue is our best turf type in Maryland for areas with a half day or more of sun. Soysia is even better, if you can stand it being brown in the winter. Hard fescue and fine fescue, chewings fescue, and red fescue are seed types that do better in shade.

  8. Laura Munoz says:

    In east Texas, people seem to water their lawns constantly including in the heat of the day. Makes no sense to me, but I mind my own business. (Even my neighbors who are professional landscapers sometimes water their lawn at noon when it’s over 90 degrees and are big users of weed and feed products.) In contrast, Austin’s lawn watering mafia was out in full force day and night. When I lived there, we were only allowed to water one day a week and only on YOUR day and only at certain times. People were encouraged to turn their neighbors in for violations.

    I never watered my Austin “lawn” which was not a conventional lawn anyway, and I’ve not watered my St. Augustine lawn here in east Texas. It seems to be alive. It’s still mainly green. If it dies, I’m not too worried. I’ll just replace it with drought tolerant plants. This front lawn is itsy-bitsy.

    I’m glad Cornell thinks a few weeds in the lawn are okay because I have a few, and my panties aren’t in a wad over them.

    Not to be critical, but do I think some people’s self-worth is based on the condition of their lawn. They could use a little therapy. And of course, he who rides/owns the biggest mower has the biggest ____ and is king.

  9. It’s a start !

    Need to include HOA’s. Good luck. Each seems to have the requisite Napoleonic character with churlish delight in sending Nasty Grams.

    Living rural now, only a year, small farm, have had several conversations with different neighbors that fascinated. They mentioned what a good spring this was for the clover, and how many bees they had. And, why would so/so mow their clover, starving the bees?

    Push me over with a feather, so many WANTING the clover & caring about the bees, in America. HOA’s are Amerika.

    Garden & Be Well, XOT