As summer approaches, we spend more time outside, and our annual commune — or battle — with nature begins. Whether it’s keeping your lawn from turning into a meadow, or protecting your home and garden from insects, be aware that some techniques are easier on the environment than others.

Lawns have become the hallmark of the American yard. They provide a soft place for kids to play and a nice contrast to floral borders. However, in addition to requiring more time and effort to maintain than many other types of ground cover, their care and feeding can threaten the environment. Lawns’ thirst for water contributes to shrinking water supplies in some areas. The most popular variety of grass, Kentucky bluegrass, takes an average of 18 gallons of water per square foot during the growing season. In places like California, gas-powered lawn mowers have become a significant source of air pollution. And mowers cause quite a racket on Saturday mornings when everyone in the neighborhood is out cutting the grass.

To avoid these problems, some people are choosing other types of ground cover for their yards such as ivy, clover, violets, gravel, or wood chips. Another option is to keep your lawn small enough to maintain with an old-fashioned push mower. Most lawn and garden supply stores still carry them, and Consumers Union tests of these models have shown they are lighter and easier to push than the ones your grandparents may have used.

For bigger areas, electric mowers are quieter and more energy-efficient than conventional gas-powered machines. While batteries or cords limit their range to about one-third of an acre, their overall performance has improved in recent years. They still don’t match gas-powered models in cutting tall, dense, or damp grass, but the best ones cut adequately, with Makita, Black & Decker, and Sears Craftsman machines topping our ratings. And all offer advantages of easy starting, no exhaust from the mower, fewer emissions overall, and less maintenance. The Makita has the fastest recharge time. Rear-bagging models outperform side-baggers, though it’s better to mulch lawn clippings than bag them anyway because mulching returns nutrients to the soil, reducing the need for fertilizer.

But if the size of your lawn makes an electric mower impractical, there are still ways you can cut the environmental cost of your gas-powered mower. Proper maintenance helps minimize pollutant emissions and maximize fuel efficiency. Use a plastic trowel to clear the mower deck of built-up clippings to maintain proper air flow (when doing so, make sure to disconnect the spark-plug wire if the machine is damp). Sharpen blades at least once each season, change the oil according the owner’s manual (make sure to recycle the old oil), and clean or replace the air filter as needed. Replace old spark plugs to make for easier starting and cleaner running. When storing the mower in the off-season, drain the gas and add manufacturers’ suggested stabilizers to prevent deposits that can clog fuel lines. For electric mowers, keep the blade sharp, the deck clean, and the cell charged. Completely draining the battery shortens its useful life.

There are more than 25 million acres of lawn in the U.S. The quantities of pesticides applied per acre to suburban lawns often exceed those applied to farm fields. Many of these chemicals have been shown to cause a number of adverse effects in animal tests, including birth defects, cancer, and damage to the skin and nervous system. Pesticides are also hard on the lawn itself because they kill beneficial organisms as well as harmful ones, leaving your lawn vulnerable to renewed attack once they wear off.

So if pests are a problem, before you reach for conventional pesticides, give integrated pest management (IPM) a try. IPM involves non-chemical controls such as pests’ natural enemies and competing species, removal of debris and other sources of crop infestation, and, as a last resort, low toxicity chemical agents to keep pests away from home and garden.

If you need to hire a professional, you can expect to find at least some pest control companies in your area that offer IPM services. However, we suggest you carefully interview companies before you sign a contract to make sure that what they offer is the real thing. Make sure that the company holds a valid state license to apply commercial pesticides (even if it is using IPM), and that its staff is properly trained and certified. The company should fully explain its strategy and the number of visits it plans to make. If chemical pesticides are necessary, the company should explain which agents it plans to use and give you the label information on their health hazards. The EPA requires that such information be available for every EPA-registered pesticide.

For more guidance on pest control, see our full reports in the June 1997 and June 1990 issues of Consumer Reports. More details on lawn mowers can be found in our May 1999 issue.

The table below offers specific advice on eco-friendly ways to deal with some common weed and pest problems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FUNGI

Brown Patch Look for …
A “frog’s eye” — a circular spot up to two feet wide surrounded by a discolored ring of grass.
  • Make sure you’re not adding too much nitrogen to the soil.
  • In high humidity, try removing dew by dragging a garden hose over the lawn in the morning.
  • If the soil is chronically waterlogged, consider installing drainage tiles.
  • Consider reseeding with a perennial ryegrass or tall fescue that resists brown patch.
  • Dollar Spot Look for …
    Tan spots with a bleached center and a brown margin, about the size of a half-dollar. They can coalesce into patches.
  • Water the lawn deeply and infrequently during early and late summer.
  • Fertilize lightly, especially with a seaweed extract, which will add nitrogen.
  • Don’t use synthetic fertilizers, which tend to acidify the soil.
  • Test the pH, and add lime if necessary.
  • Consider reseeding with a Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, or fine fescue that resists dollar spot.
  • Mow an infected lawn at a higher height.
  • Leaf Spot Look for …
    Irregular patches of thin grass, and red/brown to purple/black spots on the leaf blades.
  • Avoid heavy application of nitrogen fertilizer, especially in hot weather.
  • Consider reseeding with a Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, or fine fescue that resists leaf spot.
  • WEEDS

    Crabgrass
  • Mow one inch higher to decrease the amount of light that gets to young crabgrass.
  • Fertilize only in late fall and early spring.
  • Cover an especially heavy patch with black plastic for 10 days. When you uncover the area, water and fertilize it.
  • For small patches, pull by hand.
  • Dandelion Look for …
    Those cheery yellow blooms and, later, those fluffy white seedheads. If you have them, you’ll know it.
  • If you dig up a dandelion while it’s flowering, removing five inches of the taproot, there is an 80 percent chance that you have killed the plant. If you cut it at ground level, you may have to cut three or four times before it dies.
  • INSECTS

    Beetles Look for …
    Irregular patches of slow-growing, yellowing grass and turf that is loose because its roots have been eaten. Cut a foot-square piece of sod five inches deep and turn it over. If you see 10 or more grubs, take action.
  • Attract birds, which are the natural enemies of beetles, with berry bushes, trees, and feeders.
  • Plant wildflowers to lure parasitic insects, also enemies of beetles.
  • Apply milky spore disease, a biological control for grubs.
  • Use predatory nematodes to control grubs. Nematodes attack while swimming, so pour them on damaged areas with a watering can.
  • Don’t use beetle traps, which can attract more than they kill.
  • Billbugs Look for …
    Adults on sidewalks in May and June; larvae in thatch and soil. Damaged areas are small yellow or brown circles. Larvae attack roots, so the affected grass can often be pulled up in mats. Peel back a piece of sod. If you see more than 10 larvae per square foot, take action.
  • Use predatory nematodes, pouring them on the lawn, along with water.
  • Add organic matter to the soil to improve water retention.
  • Irrigate.
  • If the problem won’t go away, consider reseeding with perennial ryegrass or tall fescue. Certain strains tend to resist billbugs.
  • Chinch bugs Look for …
    Yellow patches that turn brown. The bugs emit an odor when crushed; a heavily infested lawn will stink as you walk on it. To sample, cut off both ends of a coffee can, push into the soil, and fill with sopy water. If more than 15 bugs float, take action.
  • For a quick (and dirty) fix, mix one capful of dishwashing soap per gallon of water and drench the problem area. Cover it with a large flannel sheet. The bugs will cling; wait 15 minutes, remove the sheet and scrape the bugs into the trash.
  • Preserve natural enemies like big-eyed bugs by limiting synthetic pesticides.
  • Consider reseeding with resistant varieties of perennial ryegrass or tall fescue.
  • Sod webworm Look for …
    Small brown pockmarks in late spring. Damage often starts around pavement. If not checked, webworms can multiply quickly until the pockmarks coalesce. If damage is visible, take action.
  • Another quick and dirty fix: Drench damaged areas with soapy water; caterpillars will crawl to the surface; rake them up and throw them out.
  • Avoid chemical insecticides, which can kill natural enemies.
  • For a heavy infestation, use the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) or predatory nematodes (poured on along with water).
  • Consider reseeding with varieties of ryegrass and tall fescue that resist webworms.