You have made the decision to lose the lawn chemicals and practice organic lawn care. That decision alone gets you halfway there. The first season of organic lawn care is the trickiest, because your grass has been on a steady diet of synthetic chemicals for years or maybe decades.
Rule #1 of organic lawn care
The first thing you must understand is the central point of organic gardening or organic lawn care: Feed The Soil. When the soil is in balance and abundantly healthy, it supplies plants with the majority of what it needs and creates a healthy, robust ecosystem. Once you get your head around this “inside out” point of view, instead of the chemical “outside-in” view, organic gardening or organic lawn care makes a lot more sense. It’s “working with”, not “doing to”.
“$5.25 billion is spent on fossil-fuel-derived fertilizer for U.S. lawns. The majority of this fertilizer is wasted because of improper timing or dosage and becomes a source of pollution to surface or ground water. Most of this expense and pollution could be eliminated by proper timing, proper dosage, or intelligent use of compost and other organic fertilizers.” - Purdue University’s Beneficial Lawn Care And Chemical Management website
Years of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, etc being applied to your lawn have most likely left the soil in terrible shape even if your lawn appears green and lush. The grass keeps its color because of the enormous amount of water soluble nitrogen in chemical fertilizers and their frequent over-application. Chemical fertilizers are the equivalent of candy for your grass – tastes good, looks good, but doesn’t do much to sustain health.
Here are the steps to getting your lawn off chemicals:
Rake your lawn to pull up the thatch. Thatch is that layer of dead grass, leaves, etc your mower created with its mulching blade and pushed down into the lawn, just above the soil’s surface. Since the soil has become depleted from chemicals, the bacteria and worms that normally would have broken down the thatch have moved away, and this layer has probably become too thick, resisting the absorption of rainwater.The thatch is actually very good compost when it breaks down properly, so rake it up and throw it in your compost pile. A proper thatch layer is mulch for your lawn – it insulates the roots from temperature swings and keeps the soil moist, which reduces your lawn’s need for water during dry periods.
Second step is to aerate your lawn. If you have a small lawn, a manual aerator from a garden center will do the trick. If your property is more substantial, rent a mechanical aerator from a local equipment store. The aerator will pull plugs of grass and soil from your lawn, which you will leave on top of the lawn to decay. The decomposing plugs provide the elements necessary to break down new thatch and the holes in the lawn provide a path for water and nutrients to travel to the grass’ roots. The plugs will break down and disappear in about one month. Any plugs left on the lawn after this time you can pick up and crumble in your hand.
Examining the plugs can be a great education about the condition of your soil. The first time I did this, shortly after buying my home, my lawn problem became obvious. The plug, which is about 2 inches long, was almost entirely hard packed clay, with thick thatch on top and only a very fine layer of dark top soil between the two which the grass roots were anchored in. That dark layer of top soil should be as wide as possible, as that’s where nutrients are most available and where beneficial microbes do their best work. The top soil is also the part that suffers most under the stress of chemical applications.
Add organic material
After aerating, spread composted manure over the lawn. Bags are available at any garden center, it’s relatively inexpensive and there is no foul smell. Composted manure is finely ground and crumbly horse, cow or poultry droppings which will re-introduce biological amendments that are missing from your soil. Those years of lathering your lawn in chemicals have killed or significantly reduced the worms, beneficial insects, fungi and bacteria the lawn would normally use to sustain itself and they need to be replaced. Spread the composted manure like you would fertilizer. It will work its way into the soil via the plugs you pulled during aerating.
Next, spread organic fertilizer. Most nursery centers now carry significant lines of organic fertilizers which are usually made from bloodmeal or poultry manure. The nitrogen content is not as high as in the synthetic forms and does not break down as quickly-it’s slow release, so it will take a little longer to see the “greening up” you’re used to. But the organic fertilizer and composted manure will attract worms, fungi and bacteria who’ll do their work to get your soil back into shape, thus creating a healthier and more sustainable lawn.
You’ll still be using the same methods of seeding, so do what’s appropriate here. But be wise about what kind of grass seed you use: it should be well adapted for the climate conditions in your area.
Treating lawn weeds organically
If you have weed problems, the best treatment is corn gluten meal which is a pre-emergent product that smothers weed seeds before they can take root and crowd out your grass. CGM is a by-product of corn milling and is thus organic. Plus, as it breaks down it provides more nitrogen to your lawn, which will give an extra boost mid-season. But be forewarned that if you seed your lawn within 6 weeks after using CGM you might smother the grass seed as well as the weed seeds. A seed is a seed, after all. Corn Gluten Meal won’t provide instantaneous results like chemicals do, but after three seasons or so, you should be able to knock out about 85% of your weeds.
As a side note, in organic lawn care, clover is not considered a weed. It is in fact very important for your lawn’s health, as it fixes nitrogen in the soil and when it dies, gives many nutrients back to the soil. It’s also one of the few early spring plants from which bees can collect nectar.
Treat your lawn in this way for a year or two and I assure you that it will look just as good as it does now, without contributing to fertilizer runoff, soil depletion, burning your cat’s or dog’s paws, skin irritations, breathing difficulties, or any number of nasty things that chemical applications can produce.
You also won’t have to stick little yellow flags in your lawn warning people to not walk on it. Unless you want to.