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The 10 Best Crabgrass Killers

Why Is Crabgrass Such A Problem?

But have you ever wondered why it’s considered so bad, anyway?

This is why it’s so important to be proactive about controlling crabgrass if you’re not a fan of how it looks, because it can easily get out of hand.

Crabgrass. The name even sounds ugly. If you’ve ever had it in your lawn, then you know how quickly it can take over, and how hard it is to get rid of. But have you ever wondered why it’s considered so bad, anyway?

Crabgrass is what’s known as an opportunistic annual grass, and if that phrase conjures up images of sleazy salesmen looking to rip you off, it should. That’s basically how crabgrass operates — it sees its opportunity and moves in with a vengeance, spreading like wildfire over any available terrain.

An important thing to know about this plant, however, is that it’s not actually harmful. It won’t crowd out your existing grass, and it’s not considered a weed. So, if you’re fine with how it looks, there’s no reason to worry about it taking over.

People who are especially proud of their lawns will argue that it’s extremely ugly, though, and that’s hard to dispute. By the late summer, a yard overrun by crabgrass will look pretty ragged, especially if it’s mixed in with more attractive species.

It will die off in the winter, but before it does so it will disperse seeds all over your lawn. In fact, a single crabgrass plant can produce 150,000 seeds each year. If my math is correct, that is a lot of seeds. This is why it’s so important to be proactive about controlling crabgrass if you’re not a fan of how it looks, because it can easily get out of hand.

Simple Ways To Supplement Your Crabgrass-Killing Efforts

While a dedicated crabgrass killer is a good way to keep the plant at bay, there are simple lawn maintenance techniques you can use to ensure that your herbicide is as effective as possible.

Mixing fertilizer with a pre-emergent herbicide in the spring is a sound strategy for nipping the problem in the bud, so to speak.

An easy way to keep it controlled is by simply letting your lawn grow a little longer than usual. If you allow your grass to grow to about four inches, it can help prevent sunlight from reaching the shorter crabgrass, choking it out. This is also why it’s important to fill in any bare spots in your lawn, because an open spot of soil is like sending crabgrass an engraved invitation.

Also, whenever you do mow, leave the clippings on the lawn. This will simultaneously nourish the soil while helping to block light from reaching the crabgrass.

Keeping your lawn fertilized is another great way to prevent the pest from gaining a foothold. When your soil is well-nourished, it’s better able to resist unwanted growth. Mixing fertilizer with a pre-emergent herbicide in the spring is a sound strategy for nipping the problem in the bud, so to speak. If you’re trying to stay as organic as possible, corn gluten meal can help as well.

Consider changing the way you water as well. Turning the sprinklers on for a few minutes every day provides the crabgrass with more opportunities to germinate, which just means that it will spread faster. Consider watering for a longer period of time, but less often, such as 20 minutes twice a week. You want to give the water a chance to penetrate deep into the soil, giving grasses with stronger root systems a better ability to dig in.

How To Keep It Away Once It’s Gone

Getting your lawn crabgrass-free is only half the battle — now you have to keep it that way. Luckily, most of the best strategies for preventing its reemergence are the same ones you used to eliminate it before, so this shouldn’t require a drastic lifestyle change. There are a few small changes you’ll have to make, however.

If your grass is lush and healthy, however, it’s significantly harder for invasive species to gain a foothold.

First off, you have to immediately remove any new crabgrass as soon as you see it. Pull it up by the roots, if possible. It’s much easier to prevent it from taking hold then it is to remove it once it’s taken over, so don’t be lazy if you spy new growth.

After removing it, mulch the soil where it was growing. This helps prevent any seeds from germinating, so you don’t have to worry about angry crabgrass children coming back for revenge. Again, this is about depriving the bad grass of light, so you’re literally trying to bury it alive here.

Your timing is critical when doing any of this. You need to start your offensive in the early spring, after the temperatures have started clearing 55 degrees. This is when the plant will start germinating, and this is when you must show it who’s boss. Apply fertilizer and pre-emergent herbicide to any spots where it’s been a problem before, and do your best to bring your bare spots to life.

Ultimately, the most powerful weapon against crabgrass is a healthy lawn. Letting your yard go is a great way to invite weeds and other pests, and crabgrass can quickly become the least of your problems. If your grass is lush and healthy, however, it’s significantly harder for invasive species to gain a foothold.

In addition to recognizing mature crabgrass, it helps to know what it looks like when it’s a younger plant as well as its life cycle. This knowledge comes in handy when you’re trying to eradicate the weed because the best way to control crabgrass is to keep it from emerging in the first place rather than trying to kill mature plants.

Crabgrass is an annual weed. It emerges in early summer, and it thrives during the hot weather because it is drought-tolerant. In fact, it’s often the last green thing in the lawn in August, before its stems are finally killed by the frosts of fall.

An annual plant lives for only one year, and at the end of the growing season, it’s one and only mission is to produce seed. That is its life cycle, in a nutshell. The only way it can continue to be a problem for you in the following year is if it sets seed. So if you’re fighting crabgrass in your lawn currently, it’s because last year’s plants (now dead) were successful in producing seed.

So, how do you break this cycle? You could try to stop the crabgrass in your current summer lawn from setting seed by spraying it with post-emergent herbicides. But you get more bang for your buck by preventing it from bursting upon the scene in the first place by using pre-emergent herbicides in spring.

Even if you’re successful in killing it with a post-emergent herbicide, this doesn’t prevent seeds from your neighbors’ properties from landing in your yard. These seeds will sprout next spring in your lawn unless you prevent them from doing so with a pre-emergent herbicide.

Smooth crabgrass
 (Digitaria ischaemum)

Click on images to enlarge

A common weed in turf, smooth crabgrass is a low-growing, summer annual grass that spreads by seed and from occasional rooting of the lowest joints of the stems. In California it is found in the Central Valley, San Francisco Bay region, northern Sierra Nevada, Central Coast, and South Coast, up to an elevation of 2600 feet (about 800 m). In California, smooth crabgrass is more often found in turf whereas large crabgrass is more often found in gardens or landscape areas. It can provide good forage for livestock.

Habitat

Mature plant

Stems grow mostly upright, sometimes prostrate, and are usually branched at the base. Stems are flattened in cross-section. Leaves are flat, rolled in the bud, have a prominent midvein, and are 1/4 to 1/3 of an inch (6–8 mm) wide, up to 5 inches (12.5 cm) long, and pointed. The leaves are hairless except for some long hairs at the position of auricle, and sometimes, sparse hairs on the lower leaf surface. Some leaf bases have a reddish tint. Smooth crabgrass is distinguished from large crabgrass, D. sanguinalis, by its shorter, wider leaf and lack of hairs. It is most often found in turfgrass.

Collar region

Ligules are short and membranous. There are no auricles.

Flowers

Flowering takes place from September through November. Flowers cluster along spikelike branches in one, or more often, two whorls at the stem tip.

Fruits

Spikelets are under 1/10 of an inch (about 2.5 mm), football shaped, and have a stalk with a disklike tip.

Reproduces by seed.

Related or similar plants

  • Bermudagrass
  • Dallisgrass
  • Goosegrass
  • Large crabgrass
  • Witchgrass

More information

  • Grass ID illustration
  • Calflora’s distribution map
  • For agriculture: UC IPM Pest Management Guidelines
  • For gardens and landscapes: UC IPM Crabgrass Pest Note

Dallisgrass Weed: How To Control Dallisgrass

An unintentionally introduced weed, dallisgrass is difficult to control, but with a little know how, it is possible. Keep reading for information on how to kill dallisgrass.

Dallisgrass Weed: A Good Idea Gone Bad

The dallisgrass weed (Paspalum dilitatum) hails from Uruguay and Argentina. It was introduced into the United States back in the 1800s as a fast growing forage plant that could survive our southern climes. Its common name is a tribute to A.T. Dallis, who was an ardent supporter of its use and import around the turn of the century. Too bad he made a mistake and his name is now attached to such a pernicious weed.

As it turns out, the dallisgrass weed and its cousins, field paspalum and thin paspalum, liked their new environ a little too much and were soon growing out of control. Dallisgrass naturalized over most of the south. Unlike its cousins, however, dallisgrass is susceptible to an ergot fungus that is toxic to livestock.

Identifying Dallisgrass Weed

Dallisgrass control has become a concern for both private and public lawn areas. It is a course textured perennial that grows in an ever enlarging circular clump, sometimes growing so large that the center dies out while the outer rings continue smothering all the turf grasses they encounter. Its short rhizomes root easily in moist soil, making it difficult to control.

Dallisgrass weed thrives in sandy or clay soils. It loves nitrogen fertilizer and grows twice as fast as regular turf grasses, which can create obstructions for the golfer, hazards for the field athlete and unsightly tufts for the homeowner.

How to Kill Dallisgrass

The answer to how to kill dallisgrass is threefold: lawn health, pre-emergent and post-emergent attacks.

Healthy lawn management

The first method of dallisgrass control is to maintain a healthy, densely planted turf through proper watering, mowing and fertilization. Bare spots should be filled quickly with seed or sod to prevent dallisgrass weed seeds from taking hold. A thick, well maintained lawn, where unwanted seed has no room to germinate, is a sure dallisgrass killer.

Using pre-emergents

The second stage in how to kill dallisgrass involves pre-emergent control. Dallisgrass produces an abundance of seeds on long spikes that grow several feet tall. Each spike carries 2-10 spikelets and each spikelet has two rows of seeds running along its length. The seeds are spread by wind, animals, and by adhering to lawn mower blades. A pre-emergent herbicide that is toxic to crabgrass will also be an effective dallisgrass killer. Pre-emergents must be watered into the soil to be completely successful.

Post-emergent treatment

There are three useful post-emergent treatments for dallisgrass control. Digging out the offending plants is the most environmentally friendly method to control dallisgrass, but it’s also the most labor intensive. Post-emergent herbicides that are used for crabgrass removal will also work well, although they must be applied several times at 2- to 3-week intervals to complete the treatment and prevent regrowth.

Finally, spot treatments with non-selective herbicides can be useful for minor infestations. A cautionary word about this method of dallisgrass control: non-selective herbicides kill any plant they come in contact with. Turf will be killed along with weed. Be prepared to fill in those bare spots as quickly as possible. Follow label directions for re-seeding.

Dallisgrass is a plague on turf lawns throughout the south, but with diligence and a little knowledge about how to kill dallisgrass and how to prevent its return, this pernicious weed can be eradicated from your lawn.

Dallisgrass

(More Lawn Weeds)

Dallisgrass
Paspalum dilatatum


Photo: Dallisgrass, Paspalum dilatatum

Life cycle

A perennial grass.

Growth habit

Dallisgrass grows in spreading clumps. Has a coarse texture. Leaf blades are a yellow-green color and are about ½ wide. There is a white vein that runs down the middle of the leaf blade.

Reproduction

Spreads by seed.

Conditions that favor growth

Adapts to areas of poor drainage.

Management In Lawns

  • Cultural practicesMaintain healthy, dense turf that can compete and prevent weed establishment. Correct areas of poor drainage.
  • Mechanical management
    Hand pulling or using an appropriate weeding tool are the primary means of mechanical weed control in lawns. This is a viable option at the beginning of an infestation and on young weeds. Hand pulling when the soil is moist makes the task easier. Weeds with tap roots like dandelions or have a basal rosette (leaves clustered close to the ground) like plantain are easier to pull than weeds such as Bermudagrass (wiregrass) or creeping Charlie (ground ivy) that spread with stolons or creeping stems that root along the ground.
  • Chemical Treatment
    Herbicides should be used as a last resort because of the potential risks to people, animals, and the environment. Be aware of these precautions first.
    Certain postemergent herbicides labeled to kill crabgrass are also labeled for dallisgrass control. Check product labels. Small infestations can be dug out or sprayed with a non-selective herbicide that contains glyphosate. Reseed the area after you are certain that you have 100% kill. Herbicides that contain MSMA and DSMA, that were classically used to control Dallisgrass, are no longer labeled to be used on turf.
  • Organic Lawn Herbicides

Publication: (PDF) TT 46 Perennial Grass Weeds and Their Control in Cool-Season Turf

Dealing with Dallisgrass

Dallisgrass is very coarse-textured and easy to see.

Many people misidentify dallisgrass. Let’s outline a few characteristics to help you nail it all down.

• Perennial grass that comes back from clumpy root system.

• Deep green leaves and almost no runners. Grows to 18 to 24 inches in bloom. (Crabgrass has bright green foliage and short runners. It’s also an annual weed that dies out completely in winter. Johnsongrass has bright green leaves, but it comes up from large, fleshy roots and quickly grows to 3 to 6 feet tall if not mowed.)

Annual crabgrass (above) and perennial dallisgrass (below) are often confused. Click for a larger photo.

Dallisgrass seedheads have a unique form compared to other weed grasses.

• Dallisgrass flower stalks pop up soon after mowing – often just a day or two later.

• Flower heads/seed stalks are arranged like an old-fashioned power pole, with crossarms coming out on opposite sides. (Crabgrass has whorled/spiraled seedheads and Johnsongrass has plumes.)

Black specks are quite visible with dallisgrass seeds.

• Seeds develop almost immediately along the crossarms of the seedheads. They are BB-sized, flattened and each has one or more black peppery specks attached.

Control Measures
• If you see a new clump starting to grow, dig it out with a sharpshooter spade. The roots will be in one tight mass. Remove the mass and you will have removed the clump.

• Straight glyphosate herbicides (no other active ingredients) will kill the clumps out. Unfortunately, they also kill your desirable grass at the same time, so you must be precise in applying them.

• Spot treat with a pump sprayer at low pressure, applying the herbicide directly to the dallisgrass foliage.

• Or apply the herbicide with a foam rubber paintbrush, using care not to dribble it over desirable plants.

• Or (my favorite tip from a FB friend): Cut the bottom out of an empty one-gallon milk jug. Remove the top. Position the jug over each clump, then spray into the jug, taking care not to let the weedkiller dribble outside the jug in the process.

• There are no herbicides you can use to kill dallisgrass in existing turf. MSMA used to be available, but it was withdrawn from the market several years ago.

• Pre-emergent weedkillers would help, but only to stop seeds that are being produced. Mow frequently and that problem won’t happen. Use the other techniques to eliminate the mature clumps and you’ll get to the finish line faster.

Dallisgrass in completely dormant bermuda lawn in mid-winter.

An alternative option for the really brave:
(This is not something you’ll hear me recommending very often. It requires astute awareness of the homeowner.)
Commercial landscapers will occasionally apply glyphosate-only weedkiller to dallisgrass clumps while lawns are completely dormant. Chance of damage to the lawn is reduced, but it must be done before bermuda runners start to turn green. Try a small patch first, then wait a few days to see if you like the results.

Posted by Neil Sperry

Smooth and Downy Brome Identification and Control

In the early spring before Kentucky bluegrass breaks dormancy and after Kentucky bluegrass shut down for the season in the fall, smooth brome stands out as a course textured patch in your lawn, sod farm, golf course rough, or sports field. During the growing season, its color and texture are comparable to Kentucky bluegrass and is not as much of a nuisance.

Both brome species (Smooth and Downy) can act as weeds in high quality turf areas. Smooth brome has many desirable characteristics to function as a useful turfgrass species; however, its poor density limits the use to low-maintenance areas.

There are several identification traits distinguishing brome grass from many other weeds. The sheath is nearly closed, giving it a V-neck sweater appearance. Brome has a rolled vernation, hairy sheaths and blades as well as a distinctive “watermark” (or W-shaped) on its leaves as seen below in Photo 1. Its spindly-natured leaves, small membranous ligule, and winter annual growth habit can usually identify Downy brome. Brome spreads rapidly by its extension rhizome system and its seeds are often carried by wind/birds from low maintenance areas to well-maintained turf.

There is no guaranteed selective control for Smooth brome in Kentucky bluegrass, creeping bentgrass, or perennial ryegrass turf. Early research from Zac Reicher and Matt Sousek at the University of Nebraska has shown earlier year application (June) rather than (July) will aid in Tenacity control of smooth brome in Kentucky bluegrass. This study will be replicated in 2014 and further data will be passed along as available. Downy brome can be controlled with the preemergence herbicide Siduron and post-emergent Sethoxydim (only for use in established fine fescue stands; tall fescue slightly tolerant).

In most cases, a nonselective, systemic herbicide should be used and multiple applications may be needed to effectively control brome grass.

Photo 1: Smooth bromegrass’s v-neck sheath and “w-shaped” watermark at midway point of leaf blade. Photo courtesy of Stephen K. Barnhart, Iowa State Press (1997).

Photo 2. Picture of Downy brome taken this week at the ISU research station. You can see the v-neck sheath as well as fine hairs.

Smooth Bromegrass

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A few weeks ago, I moved into a new apartment in Brooklyn. What I like best about my new home is its garden. For the first time in 10 years I have a private outdoor space in which to read and relax; the option to grill in my own backyard; and the freedom to sculpt a plot of land—to decide which plants grow where.

As I see it, my garden has three main features: a small stone patio; a few strips of hydrangea, lilies and shrubs; and, in the middle of these floral borders, a rectangle of untamed clover, creeping charlie and various weeds. My first instinct was to uproot all the weeds in the neglected lawn, prepare the soil and seed it with turfgrass. “Are you sure?” one of my landlords asked me as we stood in the backyard shortly before moving day. “I mean, you would have to water it and we don’t have any sprinklers. You’d have to get a lawnmower, too, and store it somewhere.”

I nodded in reluctant consent. Even though I’d always loved gardening—growing vegetables in particular—the prospect of watering and trimming a sizeable carpet of grass week after week did not excite me. Mowing had been an occasional chore in my childhood, not a regular responsibility. Besides, what was so bad, really, about a weedy lawn? You could still walk and sit on it. And it was kind of more interesting—certainly more varied—than a conventional grass lawn.

I looked closer. There was more than just plant life here. A cabbage white butterfly bobbed among the weeds in its paradoxically fumbling yet dainty way. A honeybee circled and hugged a clover blossom. In the past few months, for a series of related writing and editing assignments, I’d been researching honeybees—which arrived in America with the colonists—as well as the many bee species native to our country: metallic blue sweat bees that lap up human perspiration; solitary bees that nest in wood or soil; mason bees that fashion leaves into nurseries.

Across the country, native pollinators have been dying for many years, primarily because we have replaced so much of their once diverse natural habitat with vast swaths of monoculture: acres and acres of a single crop, many of which—corn and wheat, for instance—are poor sources of the pollen and nectar insects eat. Likewise, I had recently learned, weed-free flowerless grass lawns are monoculture in microcosm; they, too, are wastelands for pollinators, offering no nourishment of any kind. We associate a lush green lawn with vitality, but in many ways a grass lawn is the most sterile part of a garden.

Ironically, the dwindling number of native bees is as much an agricultural loss as an ecological one. Although some major crops like corn and wheat are largely wind-pollinated, one third of our food supply—including apples, almonds, cherries, blueberries, lettuces, avocados and broccoli—depends on pollinating bees. Domesticated honeybees simply cannot visit all those plants on their own and in many cases native bees are more efficient pollinators of plants with which they co-evolved. Bumblebees, for example, vigorously rattle blueberry flowers, coating themselves in so much pollen that they deliver around 15 to 20 pollen grains each time they visit a new blueberry flower compared to a honeybee’s typical cargo of three to four grains. Never has the well-being of wild bees been so crucial as now, when honeybees are dying en masse for a multitude of reasons—pesticides, poor nourishment, tenacious pathogens—and native bees find fewer places to live and so much less to eat.

So how could I steal even one more yard’s worth of what little viable habitat our wild pollinators have left? Surveying my garden, my impulse to rip up a flowering cluster of so-called weeds and replace it with a monochromatic mat now struck me as somewhat selfish and completely uninspired. Given a plot of land beside one’s house to use as one wishes, why turn so much of it into a lawn? Why must a lawn consist solely of uber-green, short-cropped, nearly identical blades of grass? What is a lawn anyways?

The history of the lawn begins at least 900 years ago in Great Britain and Northern France, both of which have maritime climates with relatively mild winters and warm humid summers that are ideal for many different grasses. In its inception, the word ‘lawn’ may have referred to communal grazing pastures—clearings in the woods where sheep and other livestock continually munched wild grass into submission. Even today, some place names retain the memory of these early lawns: Balmer Lawn in England, for example, encompasses 500 acres of grass pasture. Soon enough, people found other uses for grasses: aesthetics, sport and leisure. King Henry II (1113 to 1189) had gardens at Clarendon Palace that boasted ‘a wealth of lawns’ and Henry III (1216 – 1272) ordered laborers to slice up tracts of naturally occurring turf and transplant them to his palace. The world’s oldest bowling green, in Southampton, England, has been maintained since at least 1299.

In ancient times, lawns were not always expanses of unbroken green, however. Some medieval paintings of gardens depict carpets of turfgrass stippled with various flowers, such as lily of the valley, poppies, cowslips, primroses, wild strawberries, violets, daisies, and daffodils. People walked, danced and relaxed on these flowery meads, which were meant to imitate natural meadows. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans used white clover, chamomile, thyme, yarrow, self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) and other low-growing meadow and groundcover plants—sometimes mixed with grasses—to create lawns and pathways on which to walk and mingle. In the early 1900s, a weed known as cotula (Leptinella dioica) began invading bowling lawns in New Zealand. When the groundsman of the Caledonian Bowling Club tried to get rid of the weed by scarifying the lawn, he only quickened its spread. Rugby players noticed, however, that they ran faster and played better on the tightly knit, smooth carpet formed by the weed than on grass. By 1930, Caledonian Bowling Club replaced all its grass with cotula; other clubs did the same.

For most of history, however, mixed plant lawns and non-grass lawns have been the exception, in part because a smooth, well-kept, lush grass lawn became as much a symbol as a functional part of one’s property. In the early 19th century, vast grass lawns surrounding manors were not only aesthetically pleasing—providing unobstructed views of an estate—they were also further proof of wealth. To keep their lawns neat and trim, British aristocrats and landed gentry had to look after grazing animals—most commonly a flock of sheep—or hire laborers to slice through overgrown grass with scythes.

Eventually, the idea of a grass lawn migrated to America, where it has evolved in its own way. At first, early colonists planted gardens of edible and medicinal plants, not having the time or money to maintain a lawn. Grasses native to America were generally too unruly to make neat lawns anyhow. Some wealthier citizens wanted to imitate the lawns that surrounded abbeys and mansions in Britain, however, and suitable turfgrasses were imported from Europe and Asia. English engineer Edwin Beard Budding changed lawncare forever when he invented the lawn mower in 1830—although it was a bulky wrought iron contraption that often dug up the soil. Others improved this first mower, making it lighter and sleeker. People on either side of the Atlantic could now mow modest-sized lawns themselves instead of requiring dozens or hundreds of workers or a flock of sheep.

Michael Pollan has pinpointed the 1860s as a pivotal moment in the history of American lawn: in that decade, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the suburban community of Riverside, Illinois. Olmsted forbade fences and walls and ran a seamless ribbon of green lawns in front of each row of houses. Around the same time, influential landscape designers such as Andrew Jackson Downing and Frank J. Scott published popular books advocating the lawn as a necessity for any respectable homeowner. “A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house,” Scott wrote. “Let your lawn be your home’s velvet robe, and your flowers its not too promiscuous decoration.”

The lawn sprinkler appeared in 1871 and garden hoses became cheaper and more durable. Between 1947 and 1951 Levitt & Sons, Inc. built the first mass-produced suburban community: every one of the 17,000 houses had a lawn. Levittown became a model for suburbs everywhere and each new generation of homebuyers inherited houses with grass lawns. Despite America’s devotion to private property, any one homeowner’s lawn became every neighbor’s business. A well-manicured lawn—or, conversely, an untended jungle—was a reflection not just of its owners, but also of the entire surrounding community. Even today, surveys show that—in contrast to citizens of the U.K.—Americans care a great deal about the state of their neighbors’ lawns. In a particularly memorable scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby—who lives in one of the grandest homes in the posh West Egg—gives his neighbor Nick Carraway’s modest house a makeover, including a well needed shave for his “ragged lawn.”

Today, the continental U.S. has more than 40 million acres of residential and commercial grass lawns, a number properly calculated for the first time in the early 2000s by Cristina Milesi of NASA and her colleagues using satellite data and aerial photos. In terms of acreage, turfgrass is on par with wheat, the country’s fourth largest crop. All those lawns provide some clear benefits to people and the environment: they suck up carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere—potentially mitigating global warming (as long as establishing, mowing and fertilizing a lawn does not produce too much carbon dioxide and nitric oxide to negate the benefit); they prevent soil erosion and dissipate heat, counteracting the urban heat island effect (in which cities and towns full of metal and concrete retain much more heat than surrounding rural areas); grass lawns are ideal for pick-up games of soccer, rugby and touch football; they give young children a safe and soft outdoor space in which to play; and—as more and more ecopsychology studies demonstrate—green spaces reduce stress, restore attention, elevate mood and make people feel better about life in general.

Ultimately, however, the consequences of our obsession with pristine grass lawns may undercut any benefits. In addition to depriving both native pollinators and honeybees of wild habitat and food—and thereby threatening our agricultural system—lawncare guzzles water, spews smog and soaks the earth in potentially harmful chemicals. Milesi’s computer simulations revealed that all the nation’s lawns demand about 200 gallons of potable water per person per day. Some research suggests that gardens and parks more or less left alone capture much more carbon than highly cultivated grass lawns. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that gas-powered lawnmowers—which emit 11 times more air pollution than a new car for every hour of operation—contribute as much as five percent of the smog in some areas of the U.S. Every summer, Americans spill 17,000,000 gallons of gasoline when refueling mowers and other garden equipment. And of the approximately 90 million American households with a yard or garden, 45 million use chemical fertilizers, 46 million use insecticides and 47 million use chemical weed-killers. Such chemicals—many of which, especially older varieties, have known health risks—contaminate natural habitat and seep into our homes and drinking water.

A conventional lawn is also a complete perversion of grass’s typical life cycle. Lawn grasses fall into two general categories: cool-season species, such as fescue and bluegrass, and warm-season species, such as Bermuda and zoysia. During the summer, wild cool-season grasses stop photosynthesizing, turn brown and grow far more slowly if at all in order to conserve energy; in the fall, they rebound. Conversely, wild warm-season grasses become dormant in cooler months and flourish in the summer. To keep our grass lawns green year-round, we continuously douse them with water and fertilizer, forcing the plants to grow nonstop. But we don’t want them to grow too tall, of course. By mowing down grass before it has the chance to produce flowers and seeds, we effectively trap the plants in perpetual sexual immaturity—although many are still able to reproduce asexually, cloning themselves and spreading laterally with creeping roots. Mowing also requires grass to devote a lot of energy and resources to healing itself by sealing off all wounds. The smell of freshly cut grass—so often comforting and nostalgic—is a chemical alarm call: a bouquet of fragrant volatile organic compounds that plants release when under attack. Ah, the cycle of lawn. Saturate, decapitate, repeat.

At this point grass lawns are so firmly rooted in American culture that most people never question them. Suburbanites grow up playing on their lawns. All their friends have lawns. It would be weird not to have a lawn. Yet most of us did not decide to cover so much of our front and back yards with grass—it was already there. And many people who build a home from scratch incorporate turfgrass by default. The grass lawn is not so much a choice as an imposition—a legacy borne of vanity and avarice that evolved into conformity in the name of community.

Since at least the 1960s—when Rachel Carson stressed the dangers of pesticides used on lawns in her book Silent Spring—brazen individuals and small groups of counterculture horticulturists in America and Europe have resisted or outright rejected the conventional grass lawn. In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert describes some of their proposed alternatives:

“In “Noah’s Garden” (1993), Sara Stein…advocates ‘ungardening’—essentially allowing the grass to revert to thicket. Sally and Andy Wasowski, in their “Requiem for a Lawnmower” (2004), recommend filling the yard with native trees and wildflowers. For those who don’t want to give up the look or the playing space provided by a lawn, the Wasowskis suggest using Buffalo grass, one of the very few turf species native to North America…William Niering, who for many years was a professor of botany at Connecticut College…planted trees around his property, then left most of the rest of his yard unmowed, to become a meadow…For the past few decades, David Benner, a horticulturist from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, has been touting moss as an alternative to grass…In “Food Not Lawns” (2006), Heather C. Flores argues that the average yard could yield several hundred pounds of fruits and vegetables per year…“Edible Estates” (2008) is the chronicle of a project by Fritz Haeg, an architect and artist, who rips up conventional front yards in order to replace them with visually striking ‘edible plantings.’ Haeg calls his approach ‘”full-frontal gardening.'”

More recently, in the birthplace of the grass lawn, a determined graduate student has created an entirely new kind of lawn—if we can still call it that. In the 1970s, when Lionel Smith was about 11 years old, a drought shriveled the garden in front of his home in Bedfordshire, England. Though the shrubs and grass browned, resilient weeds and wildflowers bloomed. He thought it was beautiful, but his father asked him to mow all the flowers down. Not wanting to forsake his pocket money, Smith capitulated. More than 20 years later, while earning an MA in horticulture at the University of Reading, Smith decided to try and make a viable lawn without a single blade of grass—a dense mesh of flowering, low-growing, broadleaf plants that would abide some mowing and walking.

What began as a few experimental gardens with just four species—red clover, self-heal, daisies and yarrow—grew into many tightly woven swards with more than 65 native and non-native species each, and none of them grass. To choose these species, Smith perused data collected by researchers at Sheffield university about the types of plants that grow in British lawns, looking for soft-stemmed, laterally spreading plants in particular. He settled on violets, English daisies, small-leaved clovers, chamomile, thyme, yarrow, self-heal, lawn lobelias and cotula, among many others. Not only did these flowering plants provide complete ground coverage, they required one third less mowing than traditional lawns (three to nine times a year), in part because some of the plants adapted to regular mowing by curbing their upward growth. In the sward’s early stages, mowing is essential to prevent taller species from dominating; once established, however, Smith finds that the swards need less and less mowing each year. And he doesn’t water them; England’s climate takes care of that.

Even plants that have proved notoriously difficult to grow in British weather, such as the blue-pea, have thrived in Smith’s swards. He thinks that the diversity and proximity of the plants mimics some kind of synergy present in wild habitat but lacking in conventional lawns. A more varied and dense root system means a larger and more diverse underground community of microbes and fungi with which plants form symbiotic relationships. In exchange for nutrients, bacteria living in the roots of white clover and other plants absorb nitrogen from the air in soil and convert it into ammonia and nitrate, which plants use to build DNA and many other cell parts. When a white clover plant and its bacteria die and decompose, nitrogen returns to the soil. Smith’s swards have increased biodiversity in the skies as well: 25 percent more pollinating insects visit the polyfloral lawns compared to typical lawns and far more types of insects come in general.

This past May, Avondale Park in London installed one of Smith’s flowering swards. At the time, the ecology manager of the borough of Kensington and Chelsea was having trouble with a field of fragile wildflowers in the park: any child or fox scampering through the meadow easily damaged the plants. Smith’s grass-free lawn seemed like the ideal solution: a living, flowering quilt capable of withstanding some light foot traffic. Although one of Smith’s swards cannot survive the kind of daily wear and tear that turfgrasses in parks usually endure, a little walking benefits the sward, helping to compact soil and roots. So far, visitors love it. Smith says a prestigious gardener—whom he cannot yet name—will soon have a sward in her personal garden and other public parks are interested in adopting his style of lawn as well.

Experimenting with alternatives to grass lawns does not require banishing turfgrass altogether, however. As Smith’s research underscores, turfgrass has a useful property not easily matched by other plants: its impressive material resilience. Grass tolerates a lot of trampling without dying and will spring back when compressed by cleats and lounging people’s backsides. Some scientists are currently focusing on how to make regions of private lawns and public green spaces more attractive to native pollinators, without uprooting a lawn altogether. Emily Dobbs of the University of Kentucky and her colleagues visit golf courses in the state and persuade the managers to transform some out of the way spots into wild habitat by planting a mix of perennial, native, low-maintenance wildflowers that bloom from April to October—coneflowers, columbines, black-eyed susans, clover, hyssop, and goldenrod, for example. The owners of five golf courses, including one belonging to Marriott Hotels and Resorts, have agreed so far—and the results are astounding.

“I can go out to any flower sites and see huge densities of bees, hundreds and hundreds of bees per small area,” Dobbs says. “Usually on golf courses you see one or two species of bumblebees, some honeybees and some metallic sweat bees. On my plots we have seen two dozen species of solitary bees, sweat bees, miner bees and six different species of bumblebee. We’ve also seen quite a few butterflies.” In general, native bees are far less aggressive than honeybees and only sting if antagonized, so they do not pose a threat to golfers. And, as beautiful as the expansive, undulating, immaculate grass lawns on a golf course can be, people don’t mind some flowers here and there; in fact, they like them. The Marriott is so pleased that they plan to establish pollinator habitats in half of their golf courses in the Eastern U.S.

People can do something similar in their own backyards, explains retired biologist Beatriz Moisset of Pennsylvania, who has come up with a charming term for weeds and flowering plants woven into grass lawns. “A lawn can supply food for pollinators and even for birds,” she writes. “A perfectly manicured lawn that looks like an indoor green carpet need not be the only ideal of lawn beauty. Instead, a lawn with some variety of plants which includes a few broad-leaved ‘weeds’ has its own kind of natural beauty; let us call them ‘grass companions.'” Grass expert Mary Meyer of the University of Minnesota has another name for pollinator habitats: “bee lawns,” which she defines as “a combination of traditional cool season lawn grasses and other low growing plants that support bees and native pollinators.” Meyer recommends mingling fine fescues with plants from the mint family, bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), thyme and the bulb plants squill and crocus. She is currently collaborating with her colleague, renowned entomologist Marla Spivak, on a project that echoes Lionel Smith’s research: their goal is to identify low-growing flowering plants that will survive in people’s lawns, endure some mowing and foot traffic and provide plenty of nectar and pollen for bees.

For anyone interested in learning how to go about creating pollinator habitat in a private garden, two of the most useful online resources are the websites of The Xerces Society, a non-profit organization devoted to the conservation of invertebrates, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a research unit of the University of Austin Texas dedicated to native plants. Xerces sells a variety of pollinator conservation seed mixes—bags of wildflower and grass seed suited to different regions of the country. I have ordered a bag of seed mix designed for the Northeast. In the late summer and fall, a good time for seeding, I’m going to start converting a section of my lawn into something closer to a wildflower meadow. Elsewhere in the rectangle of lawn, I will let the weeds grow as they will, perhaps using my landlords’ weed-whacker now and then if some plants get unnervingly tall. My good friend and roommate Olivia and I also plan to claim a section of the lawn for vegetables that we will grow in a wooden container.

This past weekend I spent some time working in the garden, pruning aggressive shrubs, planting flowers and watering recently potted mint and basil. Dragonflies alternately chased one another and perched with the utmost precision on the tips of branches. I discovered that a cluster of weeds with pert leaves had unfurled tiny stars of amethyst. And while clearing a brick pathway of debris from past construction projects I noticed a plump black bee lying on its side. It was a carpenter bee, one of several native species I’d recently learned to recognize. It was dead, but I was certain that it had flown here in the first place because this garden—with its hodgepodge of flowering weeds in place of a neat grass lawn—was so very alive.

When confronted with lawn weeds, typically we think of dandelion, creeping Charlie, and violet. These aforementioned plants and many others are classified as broadleaved weeds (dicots), and are easily distinguished from grasses (monocots). Scientists are able to engineer herbicides that target broadleaved plants, while the chemical remains benign to desirable turfgrass.

But what happens when you have a grassy weed appear in your lawn? Selective lawn herbicides containing 2, 4-D or dicamba, useful in controlling broadleaves, will not work on grasses. And it seems grassy weeds are being found more commonly in home lawns.

Annual grasses, such as crabgrass are best controlled with a preemergent herbicide applied prior to the offending weeds germination. If the crabgrass seed has germinated a homeowner should practice good lawn care culture (keep reading for those) and a post-emergent herbicide application.

Perennial grassy weeds like quackgrass or nimblewill have become big problems in recent seasons. They are difficult to control because they are, well…perennial, meaning they come back year after year and for the cool season grassy weeds, they match the lifecycle of our desirable cool season turfgrass species. Often homeowners must resort to spraying a non-selective herbicide (i.e. glyphosate), rake out the dead patch and reseed with their desired species of turf.

Other products can be used, but those are best left to professionals. And most can only legally be used by licensed applicators.

In my yard, I do not spray herbicides on my lawn. Good lawn culture gets me about 80% of the way to a perfect lawn. The other 20% is easy to live with. Everyone has their own definition, but to me a successful lawn is a groundcover that won’t erode and send sediment in our waterways and that tolerates my family’s activities. The benefit of weeds is that they are still green; the added benefit of weedy grasses is that at least they blend in (more or less) with the turf.

If I had to boil it all down to a quick and dirty list of proper lawn care practices, it would include the following:

  1. Mow high – I set my blade to the highest setting (3-inches). Cool season grasses are more adapted to this height.
  2. Sharp blades – Getting a mower’s blades sharpened can make a world of difference.
  3. Avoid high amounts of nitrogen early in the spring. I prefer to feed my lawn in the late summer to early fall.
  4. I overseed in late summer to early fall.
  5. Keep it clean. Meaning I pick up after my dog and shred fall leaves back into the lawn or for garden beds.
  6. Stay on top of mowing. Yes like everyone, the lawn gets away from me, but when schedules are tight and rain is approaching I try very hard to squeeze in some mowing here and there. Avoid removing more the 1/3 of the leaf blade so as to not stress the lawn.

If you are thirsty for information about lawn care check out our website LawnTalk.

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