Polls indicate the majority of people want to do better toward the environment. One of the most polluting activities at many homes is lawn care. Lawn mowers spew out emissions that pollute at a higher rate than cars. Lawn sprinklers can use massive amounts of water. And over-use of fertilizer can pollute nearby streams. The GLRC’s Lester Graham looks at simple things you can do to reduce pollution and still have a green lawn:
Polls indicate the majority of people want to do better toward the
environment. One of the most polluting activities at many homes is lawn
care. Lawn mowers spew out emissions that pollute at a higher rate than
cars. Lawn sprinklers can use massive amounts of water. And over-use
of fertilizer can pollute nearby streams. The GLRC’s Lester Graham
looks at simple things you can do to reduce pollution and still have a
It figures that the day I went to talk to a turf expert about mowing and
lawn care… it would be raining.
“Well we needed it. So, I guess that’s the good thing about it.”
Tom Smith is the Executive Director of the Michigan Turfgrass
Foundation. He’s got all kinds of recommendations for how to properly
prep soil for lawns… but we wanted to limit this story to some simple,
practical things we can do with an existing lawn to reduce the impact to
“One of the first things and easiest things you can do is mow high. In
fact, I tell most consumers, most residential facilities mow as high as you
can set your mower. Because, what that will do is you’ll get a better root
system, you’ll get more shading of that soil and you’ll have less water
Smith works closely with the Michigan State University’s turf grass
research program. One of the things they’ve learned there goes against
some of the advice you might have heard in the past about watering. In
research that’s been going on since 1982, they’ve let Mother Nature take
care of one plot… another gets deep waterings a couple of times a
week… and a third gets daily watering, light rates, in the middle of the
heat of the day. The plot that looks best year after year… the one that
gets light watering, daily during the middle of the day. Most of the water
evaporates… but it reduces the heat stress on the grass… so it doesn’t go
dormant and brown. And Smith says it actually uses less water…
“In that research, we were able to reduce water use by about half by
doing daily watering at light rates in the middle of the day compared to
that deep infrequent watering.”
“Now, there are going to be some people who say ‘Look, I don’t want to
use water in a cosmetic way at all.’ Is there a grass that doesn’t use the
kind of water that most grasses we know do?”
“Actually there is one of our grasses that we recommend called Turf
Type Tall Fescue. Turf Type Tall Fescue is our most drought tolerant
grass. In most summers it will stay green without any supplemental
Smith says before you start spreading fertilizer on your lawn… you
should get a soil test to see exactly what you need. It’s an eight to ten
dollar test that can be done by your county extension office… and it’s
good for about three years. If you put fertilizer down without knowing…
you’re probably adding to the phosphorous and nitrogen pollution
problems in the streams and lakes in your area and beyond.
Keeping your equipment running well also helps reduce pollution. An
oil change in the lawn mower… and sharpening your mower blades.
(Sound of grinder)
Mark Collins maintains the turf plots at Michigan State University’s turf
grass program. His crew sharpens their blades every third mowing… but
they’re probably mowing a lot more than you do…
“Probably a homeowner should at least once a month. Just keep the
blade sharp. That’s the biggest thing. If it’s a sharp blade, then it cuts
the grass cleanly and you don’t get a frayed edge on the grass blade.”
And Collins says a mulching mower is best because it cuts the grass
blades into tiny bits that help fertilize the lawn… and reduces the need
for bagging your clippings.
And while we’re on the topic of mowers… recent years, lawn mower
manufacturers have been making more efficient, cleaner burning
machines… although they’ve resisted the idea of catalytic converters
which would greatly reduce emissions.
At Midwest Power Equipment, John Brown says there’s not a lot of
consumer pressure to make lawn mowers more environmentally
“Nobody asks about environmentally friendly – or very, very few. Most
people want to know about power, they want to know about ease of use.
As far as environmentally friendly, it’s probably the last question that
But if you are interested… Brown says there’s a little bit of information
on emissions right on the mower.
“Yeah, there’s a little sticker that’s actually on – like on the ones I have
on the floor here – it’s wrapped around the gas tank. It says an air index
quality and it’s a one-to-ten scale, one being the best, ten being the worst.
So, you could look at it, kind of judge for yourself.”
So, using less water, planting hardy grass, using only the fertilizer you
need, keeping your machinery in good working order and buying the
least polluting models all help. But… there are soulutions… such as
planting more drought resistant shrubs and trees so that there’s not as
much grass to mow… and if you’re really adventurous… you can get a
manual reel mower… one with no engine… it just uses the energy you
provide by pushing it.
(Sound of a reel mower)
For the GLRC, I’m Lester Graham.