Are you a lawn lemming?

Do you fertilize your lawn? Pull weeds? Water?

More importantly — do you know why you do these things?

The Washington Post recently ran an article highlighting the role of social pressure in people’s decisions about fertilizing their lawns. One of the studies they highlighted was just published by some of my urban-ecology sociology colleagues at the University of Minnesota (Nick Martini and Kristen Nelson):

[I]n a sample of 942 homes, the research found that among those who perceived that their neighbors thought they should fertilize, there was an 85 percent chance of actually doing so. In contrast, among those who perceived their neighbors felt they should not fertilize, there was a much lower 52 percent chance of engaging in the practice.

Dr. Nelson has pointed out that taking care of our lawns is a very public, visible act. In many communities where lawn care is valued, taking care of one’s lawn essentially amounts to a public display of virtue. When “How green and well-tended is your lawn?” gets all tangled up with “How good of a person are you?”, it’s no wonder that fertilization guidelines and recommendations are often drowned out.

So if you fertilize, take a minute to examine your motives. Make sure you’re fertilizing because your lawn actually needs the nutrients! Ask yourself if you’re being a lawn lemming, applying more fertilizer than your lawn needs because it seems like that’s what everyone else expects you to do. Excess fertilizer wastes effort, money, and valuable natural resources — plus the excess just washes off or through your lawn to cause water pollution, such as algal blooms.

Lawns should be green. Lakes shouldn't.

Lawns should be green, but lakes shouldn’t! Excess fertilizer causes algal blooms like this one.

Your University extension office is usually a simple, easy starting place to figure out how much fertilizer is enough to keep your lawn healthy. Be smarter than a lemming this year!


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