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Ask the Expert: Edwina von Gal, on How to Have a Healthy, Toxic-Free Lawn

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Ask the Expert: Edwina von Gal, on How to Have a Healthy, Toxic-Free Lawn

October 4, 2022

Landscape designer Edwina von Gal is on a mission to change the way we think about our yards. Trying to stop what she calls the “noise and poison” cycle of chemical fertilizers, pesticides (about one billion pounds used annually in the U.S.!), and gas-powered mowers and blowers that has plagued the landscape industry for decades, she founded the Perfect Earth Project in 2013 to “promote toxic-free lawns and landscapes for the health of people, their pets, and the planet.” These landscapes are not only clean and safe, but also beautiful and inviting: lush with native plants and alive with pollinators and birds.

In the first of a series of conversations about landscapes, we talk with von Gal about what you can do this fall for a healthy lawn. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Pesticides and chemical fertilizers will run off of lawns and gardens during rainstorms and pollute your waterways, damaging the eco-system. Photograph by Melissa Ozawa.
Above: Pesticides and chemical fertilizers will run off of lawns and gardens during rainstorms and pollute your waterways, damaging the eco-system. Photograph by Melissa Ozawa.

Q: What should a homeowner do right now for their lawns?

First and foremost, stop using any chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Lawns treated with them are toxic to us, our kids, grandchildren, pets, and the planet. Don’t be afraid to let your landscape breathe!

Fall is a great time to overseed your lawn. Even high cut lawns never get to go to seed, so the many individual plants that make up your lawn can’t rejuvenate themselves. Your grass basically ages out. Every environment needs to have age diversity, so bring in the babies! Turf grasses are a cool season plant, which do best in the fall. Weeds, on the other hand, germinate in warm weather. Sprinkle seed down over your lawn, especially on areas where it is not thriving. Water to keep the newly seeded area moist until your new grass starts to sprout.

If you have places that are super compacted, aerate them using a spading fork. Just cram, cram, wiggle, wiggle, sprinkle a little compost over it, add some seed, and then water.

There are easy things you can do at home to have a more hospitable landscape: Plant natives, reduce the size of your lawn, and say no to pesticides. Edwina von Gal and Abby Lawless designed this pollinator-friendly expanse. Photograph by Edwina von Gal.
Above: There are easy things you can do at home to have a more hospitable landscape: Plant natives, reduce the size of your lawn, and say no to pesticides. Edwina von Gal and Abby Lawless designed this pollinator-friendly expanse. Photograph by Edwina von Gal.

Q: What should you look for in a seed mix?

Seek out one that’s blended for your locale. Make sure it contains tall turf-type fescues. There are new kinds of creeping fescues that are being combined instead of relying on Kentucky bluegrass, which can be fussy. But we’re okay with using blends that have only 10 to 20 percent Kentucky bluegrass in the mix because it helps knit everything together.

If your property is totally shady, choose a blend for shade. Or if it’s in full sun, opt for a sun mix. I don’t spend money on clover seeds. It will show up. Clover will provide your lawn with nitrogen. But if you’re in a hurry, buy the seed. You don’t need much— a little bit goes a long way.

Above: Chose to have a kid-friendly lawn that is non-toxic and safe. “A lawn with clover is like your badge,” Edwina von Gal says. “If you step on one that has none, it’s sending a strong message that something happened here to keep it out. It is important to understand that when you chemically treat a lawn, you are exposing your children and pets to chemicals that can aggravate their bodies, disrupt hormones, and cause nervous system disorders.” Photograph by Eric Ozawa.

Q: What’s the best way to water?

Water deeply and infrequently. We generally tell people with average soil, in average conditions to set your irrigation system to run no more than two times a week, preferably once, for 45 minutes to an hour. But that’s a generalization. Every yard is different. To find out how long it takes for your irrigation system to penetrate deep down into the soil, turn it or your sprinkler on, and dig every half hour to see how deep the water went. Then adjust accordingly. You want to encourage the roots to go down, down, down, away from the surface. Properly managed turf has really deep roots.

After the winter, do not start irrigating until late spring when the ground is dry to more than four inches deep. For Eastern Long Island, where I am, that means about mid-June. If you start watering in April when your irrigation system is turned on, your roots will stay shallow at the surface, and guess what will move in? Fungal diseases, grub, and weeds. They love the water. As do ticks and mosquitos. If you over-water, you’re inviting pests.

Almost two decades ago, von Gal stopped mowing this section of her land, and this marsh meadow grew in its place. To maintain it, she waits to cut it back until late spring to provide habitat and food for wildlife, like native bees and insects, birds, and animals. She also hand-pulls invasives when they come up. Photograph by Edwina von Gal.
Above: Almost two decades ago, von Gal stopped mowing this section of her land, and this marsh meadow grew in its place. To maintain it, she waits to cut it back until late spring to provide habitat and food for wildlife, like native bees and insects, birds, and animals. She also hand-pulls invasives when they come up. Photograph by Edwina von Gal.

Q: What’s the proper way to mow?

Set your mower to cut to 3.5 to 4 inches, and don’t cut when the lawn is wet. Remember: No irrigation on mow days. The longer the grass blades, the more energy the roots will get, and the more shade they will provide, which keeps moisture in and prevents weed seeds from germinating. The other thing that’s really important is to use a mulching mower. Mulching mowers chop up the grass and put it back into the lawn. That’s your fertilizer right there. That plus clover, and you’ll never have to add nitrogen. It’s that easy and it’s free.

People have the misconception that leaving the clippings will cause thatch. Not true. Thatch is caused by a lawn that is biologically dead, one that is basically pickled with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which are just salts and acids. When you use chemicals, there is no biological action to break down any matter that’s accumulating in the lawn. It forms a kind of scab on the surface. But don’t worry. If you do have thatch, aerate it with a spading fork, add a little compost, then seed, and stop using the “pickling” agents. It will start to become biologically active again. It’s amazing how fast things heal.

Q: What should I do with leaves?

We try to maintain a population of leaves that remains relatively undisturbed, to protect insect life. But I’ll remove some from my driveway and make piles of them to layer into my compost, chopping some up with the mulching mower since they break down much faster when they’re shredded. I’ll also rake leaves into shrub beds to preserve the insects in larval or egg form that are living on them. But in most places, I simply leave the leaves where they are.

To learn more, visit perfectearthproject.org and download the free how-to guide on nature-based landscapes.

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