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Originally published Monday, April 30, 2012 at 8:00 PM

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How to mow for a healthier lawn

The Gardener Within: Joe Lamp'l, a master gardener and author, offers lawn mowing tips to help keep your yard healthy.

Scripps Howard News Service

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On any Saturday morning, America starts its engines for that weekly ritual of mowing. As the symphony of engines roars to a start, the silence of an otherwise peaceful morning is broken, and an estimated 54 million lawns are cut — every week during the spring and summer.

Mowing at my house awakens no neighbor. My lawn is small enough to mow with a new version of an old classic, the reel mower. Modern technology combined with classic style and functionality creates the best of both worlds. As I quietly perform that necessary ritual, I enjoy knowing that my push-powered mower adds no environmental or noise pollution.

Whatever your tool of choice, here are some pointers on how to mow for a healthier lawn and environment:

First off, make sure your blade is sharp. Tearing, as with a dull blade, as opposed to shearing with a sharp blade, is a night-and-day difference. Tearing creates jagged edges, makes for longer recovery time and allows more opportunities for pests and diseases to move in.

Minimize the trauma to grass blades. Cut no more than one-third of the blade's length. We "prune"our lawns — taking off more than a third in one cutting may cause more stress than the plant's ability to fully recover. Such stress can take its toll, especially during hot and dry — or even persistently damp — conditions.

Another reason to mow high is that the taller the blade, the deeper the roots, and the deeper the roots, the more drought-tolerant your lawn is.

Need another reason? Taller grass shades out competing weeds that need bright sunlight to establish and thrive. Although certain weeds may sprout, they may not become as prominent if they can't get the required sunlight. And during the high heat of summer, raise the mower even higher to help the grass conserve water and overcome heat stress.

If possible, don't mow wet grass. Mowing grass when it's wet will cause uneven shearing and leave behind wet clumps, which can become matted, and suffocate other areas of your lawn, leaving dead patches. Even worse, wet grass can be more easily spread disease.

To bag or not to bag? Grass cycling is the natural recycling of grass clippings by leaving them on the lawn when mowing, rather than bagging and removing them. It's such a simple way to mow, and a great timesaver. In fact, studies indicate that when you leave grass clippings on the lawn, as they decompose they contribute enough organic matter and nitrogen to reduce fertilization needs by about 25 percent a year.

You'll also be relieved to know that grass cycling does not promote weed growth as long as you mow on a consistent basis. Accordingly, you'll reduce the chances of weeds going to seed and being disbursed naturally. This may necessitate that you cut your grass a bit more frequently, especially during peak growing times, but it's also a great way to make sure you don't remove too much of the grass blades at one time.

And contrary to what some believe, grass cycling does not promote thatch. Abundant research disproves the common misconception. Thatch buildup is caused by grass stems, shoots and roots, not grass clippings. Clippings, which consist of about 75 percent water, decompose quickly while adding nutrients to the soil.

Lawns have a bad reputation as water hogs, and yet they don't require a daily or even semi-daily soaking. On average, lawns need about 1 inch of water a week in the absence of rain. Well-established, properly maintained lawns can get by on even less. Healthy lawns are quick to recover, too. My lawn gets water only when it loses its sheen and doesn't spring back to life when stepped on. The system is a great way to conserve water, toughen up a lawn, and also keep weeds at bay.

Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information visit www.joegardener.com.

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