Organic Lawn Care 101:Making The Transition From Chemicals

You’ve made the decision to lose the lawn chemicals and practice organic lawn care . Congratulations! 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, which has created significant damage to your soil.

 

organic lawn care

No more chemicals

Rule #1 of organic lawn care

The central principle of organic gardening or organic lawn care is feed the soil. When the soil is in balance and abundantly healthy, it supplies plants with what they need and creates a healthy, robust ecosystem. Once you get comfortable with this “inside out” point of view, instead of the chemical “outside-in” view, organic gardening and 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, herbicides and pesticides 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 which is immediately available to the plants. If you’ve been on the standard chemical dependency program, you’ve also fed the lawn much more than what it needed. Chemical fertilizers are the equivalent of candy for your grass – tastes good, looks good, but doesn’t sustain health.

The steps to getting your lawn off chemicals

Rake

Rake up the thatch and put it in a compost pile.  Thatch is that layer of dead grass, roots and rhizomes which collect at the soil’s surface. Synthetic fertilizers acidfy the soil and chase away the bacteria and other critters that break thatch down in a healthy soil. When thatch becomes too thick, it resists the absorption of rainwater, much of which runs off. After 2 seasons of organic lawn care, you’ll have no thatch, as the soil food web will continuously break it down.

Aerate

Second step is to aerate your lawn. If you have a small lawn, a manual step-on aerator will do the trick. If your property is more substantial, rent a mechanical aerator from a local equipment store. Aerators pull two-inch plugs from your lawn, which should be left in place to decompose over one or two weeks. The new holes in your lawn provide a path for water and nutrients to feed the grass’ roots.

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 was almost entirely hard packed clay, with thick thatch on top and only a very thin layer of dark top soil where the grass roots lived. Ultimately, that dark layer of top soil should be at least one inch deep, as that’s where nutrients are most available and where beneficial microbes do their best work. The top soil suffers most under the stress of chemical applications.

Add organic material

After aerating, spread composted manure or finished compost over the lawn, as you would any bagged fertilizer – you can use a spreader for this. Bags of manure and compost are available at any garden center, it’s relatively inexpensive and there is no foul smell (composted manure is animal droppings which have been composted to remove any pathogens). Those years of lathering your lawn in chemicals have killed or significantly reduced the worms, beneficial insects, fungi and bacteria that would normally sustain the lawn – the manure invites them back.

Next, spread organic fertilizer. 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 work together to get your soil back into shape, thus creating a healthier and more sustainable lawn. After two seasons, you’ll no longer need the organic fertilizer, and you may not need the compost.

Buy a mulching blade

If you’ve been bagging your lawn clippings, or cutting with an old mower that leaves piles of grass clippings on the lawn, ditch the bag, pull off the cutting blade and replace it with a mulching blade. Mulching blades pulverize the grass as it cuts it, and the clippings lay at the soil surface, where they quickly break down. This is all the food your lawn needs. But you’ll need the compost and organic fertilizer mentioned above until the decomposition cycle and the soil food web is in full swing. Also, only cut your lawn when it’s at three inches.

Re-seed

You’ll still be using the same methods of seeding, so do what’s appropriate here. Be wise about what kind of grass seed you use: it should be the appropriate grass for the climate 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. CGM is a by-product of corn milling and is thus organic, and as it breaks down it provides more nitrogen to your lawn, giving it a boost mid-season. But don’t seed your lawn within 6 weeks after using CGM, as 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, clover is not a weed. It is in fact very important for your lawn’s health, as it fixes nitrogen in the soil and gives many nutrients back to it. It’s also one of the few early spring plants from which bees can collect nectar.

After two seasons of organic lawn care, I assure you that it will look just as good as it did when chemically dependent, but it won’t contribute 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.

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About Todd Heft

Todd Heft is an organic gardener and freelance garden writer who lives in the Lehigh Valley, PA and has gardened for most of his life. When he isn't writing or reading about organic gardening, he's gardening. His first book, "Homegrown Tomatoes: The Step-By-Step Guide to Growing Delicious Organic Tomatoes In Your Garden" is available on Amazon now. Google
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12 Responses to Organic Lawn Care 101:Making The Transition From Chemicals

  1. Debra says:

    Such a great and informative post about lawn care. This will really help homeowners.

  2. Thanks Todd for giving out this useful article. Appropriately conditioned soil gives essential nutrients to plants, holds water, and supports many micro-organisms and pests. All of these elements are significant to growing a healthy lawn.

  3. Fatima says:

    Easiest and healthiest way:Cover the whole area with landscping fabric. Dump soil on top of the fabric. This has to be enough to plant your vegetables in ( I would go with at least 2-3 feet, you don’t want to dig into the fabric when gardening). When the grass is covered, and buried with dirt, sunlight can’t get to it, it just rots and composts itself. It’s the quickest, easiest way to get rid of the grass, and it’s healthy because you aren’t contaminating your vegetable area with chemicals. Another option would be to build a raised garden bed with a wood or stone frame. Same thing, just build the structure, cover the grass w/ fabric and fill w/dirt. The benefit to this is you don’t have to bend over to do your gardening, it saves your back, well worth the extra time and money if you ask me!

  4. Jarred Dittemore says:

    I enjoy visiting daily to see your writing. I have your page bookmarked on my favorite read list!

  5. Rene Fishburn says:

    I wish more people would write sites like this that are actually helpful to read. With all the garbage floating around on the net, it is rare to read a site like yours instead.

    • Isabela says:

      Best time to de-thatch is right before the growing season. It does damage the grass some and will take a bit to recover, but will recover quickest right before growing season. You can also aerate your lawn instead. Make sure you fertilize and water afterward. Don’t do it when the weather gets too hot either as it can increase evaporation out of the soil slowing down recovery (this rule especially goes if you decide to aerate the lawn).

  6. Thanks Todd for sharing this informative article. Properly conditioned soil provides vital nutrients to plants, retains water, and supports many micro-organisms and insects. All of these elements are important to growing a healthy lawn. A soil test kit (available at hardware or gardening stores) or a soil test provided by a lawn company, will tell you what nutrients your soil requires.

  7. Katie says:

    This is very helpful thank you! I’m getting ready to have some Arizona sod installed in my yard by Evergreen Turf and want to use organic lawn care methods. We had desert landscape, but my kids had no where to run around and play with out the risk of falling on hot rocks or worse yet into a cactus. I’ve read that I need to also take the pH balance of my soil is that right?

    • Todd says:

      Katie:
      Yes, one should always be aware of pH balance so that you know why some plants fail, some plants thrive and why. The pH balance will also tell you what your soil needs and what it definitely does not. I don’t know what kind of grass that particular turf is, but as you live in a desert climate there’s probably a smarter solution than turf. It will require huge amounts of water. Have you thought about using native plants instead?

      • Katie says:

        Thanks Todd! We are going to lay TifGrand which is a brand new sod variety which makes a great type of Arizona sod because of our environment. Our yard isn’t too large and we have already decided to check required watering levels daily (even though it might not require water daily depending on the time of year) so we don’t waste any other than what is needed; and check the pH level regularly. We are planning on adding some native foliage around the backyard, but still need a lawn for our kids to have a place to play.

  8. James says:

    Great article. One of the biggest problems is the leaching of soil nutrients and biology due to strong chemical fertilisers.

    Using organic fertilisers we are now seeing a few of the largest grape growers in New Zealand experiencing a real turn around in soil and plant health leading to improved fruit taste and increased fruit quantities.

    The Organic Fertilisers these growers use are Ectol Protect and Grow and SeaGrowth Seaweed Concentrate, found at http://www.plantproductsonline.com.au.

  9. Nutrients says:

    Great information! I’d like to suggest Nutri-green as a great organic lawn and garden fertilizer.

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