Lawn

A Beautiful Ecological Lawn, It’s Possible!

Lawns are very important in Quebec, as they are throughout North America, and are even subject to municipal bylaws. In our suburbs, houses must be set back from the road (usually 7.5 metres or 25 feet) and often the front yard cannot be fenced. This virtually widens the street and creates a sense of uniformity, but it also creates competition between neighbors and even conflict! The maintenance of our lawns becomes a kind of “civic duty”, because everyone becomes co-responsible for the image of well-being that we want to convey in the neighborhood. Not so long ago, the height of the lawn could not exceed 20 cm and several plants were forbidden. Fortunately, mentalities are changing, but a lawn that is different from the norm can be a subject of dispute and sometimes even of legal proceedings!

In North America, suburban lawns are generally not fenced in front. Photo: Pixabay.

So when I started the greening of my lawn in the 1980s, I tried to have the best looking lawn in my neighborhood: that is, a dense, lush lawn… albeit with flowers for a few weeks in May! None of my neighbors complained about it. Of course, I worked hard at first, as I had a very demanding bluegrass lawn, but I soon found ways to get great results with less effort. So here’s what I’ve learned over the 30 years of my suburban life.

1. The Soil Must Be Dry

Don’t walk on the lawn until the soil is dry in the spring. In Quebec, with the melting of snow in April, the soil is soggy and this is a crucial time to avoid compacting it.

2. Check the pH

Check the pH by having a soil test done at a good garden center. It should be between 6 and 7. A pH that is too low or too high blocks the uptake of naturally occurring nutrients in the soil. Correct the acidity with lime if necessary. It is not necessary to do this every year.

3. Overseeding

Overseed bare spots as soon as possible with a low maintenance seed mix that contains ryegrass with endophytes (this prevents the invasion of chinch bugs), fescues, white clover and some Kentucky bluegrass. Biodiversity: it’s the most important thing! So, why not take advantage of the opportunity to introduce other small flowers that tolerate regular cutting and attract pollinators: violets, houstonia, creeping thyme? This last one tolerates drought the best and it is very pretty.

Overseed with a low maintenance mixture that contains white clover

How do you do it? This is a little more work, but the results will be long term. Scarify the surface with a sharp-toothed rake or, on a large area, run a dethatching machine (scarifier) to break up the surface crust and create furrows through the lawn. Broadcast or spread the seed with a spreader. Cover the seeds lightly with a little compost. For best results with creeping thyme, buy small plants (1 for every 2-3 ft2) rather than seeds.

Scarify the surface with a sharp-toothed rake

4. Topdressing

Topdress your lawn as needed: that is, spread a thin layer of compost (1/2 inch, 0.5 cm) in the most damaged areas and where you have over-seeded. If your lawn is in very poor condition, it may be necessary to topdress the entire lawn, but again, the effects are long term.

Topdress your lawn after seeding in bald spots

5. Cut Higher

Cut your lawn high: it’s the secret of a beautiful lawn! The longer the grass is, the more it is able to photosynthesize and have energy to produce deep roots and resist periods of drought: 8 cm (3 inches) high is the recommended height in continental climates. The denser the grass, the less room there will be for plants you don’t like. You can cut it shorter (5 cm) at the first and last mowings of the year, but for a flowering lawn, you may want to leave it longer.

Here you can clearly see the difference between a 2″ (left) and 3″ (right) cut on a demonstration field

6. Keep Your Grass Clippings

Grasscycling: leave grass clippings in place, as this enriches your lawn (you will need 25-50% less fertilizer) and protects the soil from drought. It also encourages decomposing organisms, such as earthworms, to eat the grass clippings, recycling them and aerating the soil at the same time. Use a mulching mower or plan your mowing route to go over the cut grass. It’s less work and more environmentally friendly than filling garbage bags, or even compost bags, because grass clippings cause headaches for compost site managers.

Use a mulching mower: it’s less work and you’ll need less fertilizer or maybe none at all. Photo: saint-telesphore.com.

7. Fertilizer

Do you really need fertilizer? If you have used low maintenance seed with clover and are grasscycling, it won’t be necessary. But if you only have demanding grasses, then yes: you should fertilize in the spring. Of course, use 100% natural fertilizer. Check the three numbers (percentage of nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) indicated on the bags: these three numbers must all be below 10 (like 8-2-3). If you are dealing with a contractor, ask them what N-P-K formula they use on your lawn.

When buying fertilizer, check the 3 numbers (% N-P-K) on the bags: they should all be below 10

Biodiversity and high cutting: these are the two key words for a dense lawn that resists well to drought and invaders of all kinds!

Currently, I have lived in the country for 20 years and have planted a low maintenance lawn, just enough to walk around the house and allow my grandchildren to play badminton or whatever. I have no bedbug or grub infestations. I do a little topdressing here and there to overseed bald spots after winter, but I never use fertilizer and we just mow the grass regularly. The rest of my land is a flower meadow where we mowed a few paths with a brush cutter and they became grassy walkways…of all kinds of plants that tolerate cutting. A real laidback gardener’s lawn!

Edith Smeesters is a biologist and a pioneer in ecological horticulture in Quebec. She has given countless conferences and workshops and written several books on the subject for over 20 years. She founded and has been president of several environmental organizations, such as Nature-Action Québec and the Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. She was a key figure in the creation of the Pesticide Management Code of Quebec, which has been in effect since 2003. She has received several awards for her involvement in the environment and is a member of the prestigious "Cercle des Phénix".

7 comments on “A Beautiful Ecological Lawn, It’s Possible!

  1. The importance of lawns in Quebec, as well as throughout North America, cannot be overstated. Municipal bylaws often regulate the positioning of houses in relation to the road and the fencing of front yards in suburban areas. While these regulations contribute to a sense of uniformity, they can also lead to competition and conflict among neighbors. contexto

  2. scoldtwenty

    I’m from southern California, where rain and water are often in limited supply. I always feel envious of all of you fortunate individuals who have access connections game to lovely lawns.

  3. Great insights on lawn maintenance in Quebec! I appreciate your emphasis on biodiversity and incorporating flowers that attract pollinators. Your tips on soil preparation, overseeding, and mowing height are practical and effective. Grasscycling and leaving clippings in place are sustainable practices that enrich the lawn. Transitioning to a low maintenance lawn and creating a flower meadow shows a balance between functionality and environmental consciousness. Thanks for sharing your valuable experience and tips!

  4. Kevin Caley

    As someone from the UK, I am fascinated to see what other gardeners do! It’s encouraging to hear about this ‘mini-rewilding’ of what would otherwise be a rather barren area of just-grass. For the past few years in theUK, we have been declaring ‘no-mow May’, where the lawn is, literally, left alone for the whole month. It’s amazing to see what comes up, and we now have a lawn of yellows, pinks and whites, that is visited by early butterflies …. and now have the probelm of how to avoid mowing down the orchids when the end of the month comes (which unfortunately ends up being ‘Jungle June’ and even ‘Really must mow July’ – but we love it!). What we do is mow a short-turf path in the lawn, which makes it into something ‘meant to be’ rather than left alone … and I’ve noticed a few other neighbours now doing similar!

  5. Trona High School is famous for its only ‘dirt’ football field in America. It is certainly an odd feature to be famous for. The Trona Golf Course originally lacked turf as well. Turf grass can not survive there. The weather is too hot and arid. The ground is too saline. It is irrelevant to your topic, but you might find it to be amusing.

  6. Mary Denby

    I live in southern calif where water and rain are often in short supply. I am always in envy of all you lucky people who have the opportunity for beautiful lawns. Enjoy them and walk barefoot in them on summer days. I will live vicariously through you all as I do my part for water conservation.

  7. marianwhit

    Well…at least there are two native plants here…better than nothing. Definitely agree with “mow high”. But sooner or later we are going to “get” that biodiversity is not about bags of alien grass seed from the hardware store originating from anywhere but here. HERE. A place with its own biodiversity, which is as worth protecting, and promoting as a tiger in Siberia or a whale in the ocean. And we know little about it…so little, that we shove it away at every opportunity for some human imagined ideal.

    And when will we realize that the soil harbours far more biodiversity in its fungi, and larval insects that are important to birds and other predators? When will we stop creating some visual, human centric Home and Gardens, sold in a store and marketed to make you think the outside should look as perfect and carpeted as the inside?

    I also hope someday this conversation will be about more than supporting just bees, specifically honeybees (upon which MOST of the research has been done, because honey production and carting hives around in trucks to pollinate massive fruit groves is what funders want to know about). Because we have lost 50% of our bird populations since the 1970s and many species are in precipitous decline (especially those dependent on the grasslands and insects that they evolved with and those that are ground nesters).

    It is clear the author is trying to “meet people where they are”, but I think it is time we started advocating for native grass seed and short native grassland plants such as wild strawberries, blue eyed grasses, smaller species of asters and goldenrods, small sedges, rushes, mosses, lichens, and other species to be widely available. Maybe press for a percentage of every yard to be dedicated to support native plants that can support 100s of species of insects and animals?

    Lawns are often made to look uniform, not planned to exist in places that are actually used by humans. Taking this approach, it is possible to imagine a suburb with native shrubs and trees, some taller native perennials around the edges, and a grassy picnic, play, or pet area about half the size of the existing lawn. This won’t work for everyone, but if you look into the work of E.O. Wilson, this is the direction we desperately need to be going.

    People trained in horticulture need to be helping the massive horticulture lobby realize there is profit in developing supplies of native plants that actually support our ecological health. To now it has all been human visual and nothing else centric, and that has to change or we all become complicit in Anthropocene extinction…in our own back yards. There is a balance, and we don’t have easy and quick answers yet, but we need to get busy and work, learn, and fight hip-to-hip. Native plant ecologies do not want the ground dug up, they do not want bags of lime scattered around, and they take skill and time to re-build. Do you really not want a leaf on your ground under which a firefly might complete its life cycle? Do you really not want there to be twigs that birds can build nests out of? Really? It is time we take a wider view of this issue.

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