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.
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 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.
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.
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.