Fall fertilizer, early spring fertilizer, late spring fertilizer, overseeding, herbicides, pesticides – chemical lawn care programs can be so complicated. Organic lawn care keeps your grass green without any chemical fertilizers, weed killers or pest killers and a minimum of fuss.
The lawn care programs marketed to you by the likes of Scott’s and TruGreen are simply ways to get you to buy more of their chemicals and fatten their bottom line. That’s it. Organic lawn care simply requires that you create the right conditions for your grass to thrive naturally, the way it was designed by nature.
You know what my lawn care program is? Build up the soil with organic matter to create hospitable conditions and let the grass take over . I seed the occasional bare spot made by dogs and rabbits, do some overseeding in fall if necessary (we have cool season grasses where I live), occasionally add composted manure, and spread corn gluten meal early every spring. That’s it. Sure, I pull the occasional dandelion, but getting down there on my knees and working it out with a weeder tells me a lot about my soil. For the most part dandelions pop up in high traffic areas or where water tends to collect (dandelions love compacted soil).
Moving to organic lawn care from the chemical bath you’ve been applying for years takes a little patience and some work, but it will be well worth it.
Secret 1: Mow no lawn until its time
First, let’s get one thing straight. Mowing your lawn on a rigid time schedule, like every Friday or Saturday, is detrimental. Your lawn should be mowed when it’s long enough to cut and not before. Grass is a plant. The foliage of plants (the blade of grass) conduct photosynthesis, converting sunlight into carbohydrates and then into energy. Cutting your lawn shorter than short reduces the ability of grass to carry on with photosynthesis and grow roots and green stuff. It also gives any lying-in-wait weed seeds an opportunity to germinate, because the long blades of grass no longer shade them out. When the weed seed gets plenty of light and water, guess what? It becomes a weed! Plus, the way-too-short grass will go into a frenzy, soaking up every nutrient it can find and growing as fast as it can. This places a great deal of stress on the plant, leaving it vulnerable to pests and disease.
Don’t cut your lawn until it has about three inches of growth and set your lawn mower on the highest setting (I know it’s gonna kill you, but trust me).
It’s a cascade effect. When you mow your lawn higher, allowing some length to the blades of grass, the grass shades out weeds and the grass grows deeper roots. If the long grass keeps the weed seed from germinating, there’s more room for the grass to grow. And a deeper root system means that your grass requires less water and is better able to withstand drought.
Grass in the wild grows in two ways: by rhizomes (stems found underground which produce new roots and shoots) and by seeds (your grass can’t grow by seed because you keep cutting the top off). Soil that is filled with biology that supports plant life will be a supportive ecosystem for your most cultivated and obsessed-over plant.
Chemicals beget more chemicals until the plants become completely dependent on these inputs. Synthetic fertilizers deplete the necessary insect life and bacteria that live in your soil. Because they are salt-based, synthetic fertilizers acidify the soil, driving life out and earthworms down. History fans will remember that the Romans literally salted Carthage after they conquered it, to make it impossible for the Carthaginians to grow any plant life.
Secret 2: Fix your soil
After years of chemical baths, your soil is definitely out of whack. The first thing you need to do is determine the pH of your soil, a measure of its acidity or alkalinity. Seven is neutral – below seven is acidic, above seven is alkaline. Grass likes it best around 6.5. You can buy a soil tester to determine the pH, but if you don’t want to spend $85 or more or wait for test results from your local extension office, you can eyeball it by looking at which weeds are growing in your soil. Certain weeds like a certain soil pH, so their presence is a good indicator. Beyond Pesticides has a great weeds and soil pH key sheet.
If you need a more alkaline soil, add a bag of lime. If you need to raise the acidity, add sulfur – but always follow the directions on the package. After a few seasons of organic lawn care, you won’t need to add these amendments anymore.
You must also work organic matter into the soil every spring. Bagged compost or bagged manure is great for this. Spread it evenly over the top of the soil in March or early April after the snow melts. Don’t spread so much that it lays heavily on the grass, however. It’s better to do a few applications thinly over the early season than a heavy application all at once.
Secret 3: Grass doesn’t need as much fertilizer as you think
Stop bagging and mow with a sharp mulching blade. Grass clippings are high in nitrogen (the favorite food of grass) and sharp mulching blades grind them into fine particles, which find their way down to the soil line and decompose, recycling the nutrients from whence they came.
If you believe your lawn needs fertilizer, use corn gluten meal. Grass loves nitrogen and CGM is loaded with it. Corn Gluten Meal also acts as a weed suppressant, and as it’s made from corn, it will contribute to the organic matter in your soil. Read more about using Corn Gluten Meal as a weed killer.
Secret 4: Never use pesticides
Insects live in your lawn-get used to it. Many of them tunnel through the top layers of soil, creating passageways for air and nutrients to get to the roots of the grass. Kill the insects and you kill this burrowing activity, which will lead to soil compaction. If your soil is healthy, the grass will thrive, and the birds will eat any overabundance of insects (many birds can eat their body weight in insects every day). The only thing I’ve ever added to my lawn was Milky Spore powder after a particularly bad season of Japanese Beetles. Milky Spore is a biological control which attacks the beetle grubs underground and literally makes them explode, which creates more Milky Spore. Cool.
Secret 5: Water your grass only when necessary
Yes, grass needs water to survive, like any plant, but it doesn’t need as much as you think it does. If you water your lawn too much, thatch will build up along the soil line, which will keep water, air and nutrients from reaching the roots of the grass. Thatch is a soil surface layer of rhizomes and roots of weeds which steal water and nutrients from your grass. Thatch is nasty stuff which exists in almost every chemically soaked lawn unless it’s de-thatched every year. Organic lawns have very little thatch.
How do you know when to water?
If it has rained in the past week, don’t water.
If it has rained in the past two weeks, don’t water unless air temperatures are unusually high.
If it hasn’t rained in three weeks, your lawn MIGHT need water (grass is amazingly hardy when encouraged to grow properly). Pull up a small piece of turf and see if there’s moisture in the top two inches of soil. If there is, don’t water. If it’s dry, it’s time to water.
Secret 5a: Learn how to water your lawn correctly
If your lawn needs water, the soil is probably pretty hard. That means that much of the water will run off and never reach the plant’s roots. The best method is to water for about 15 minutes and then turn off the sprinkler, letting the first watering soak in. After sixty minutes, water again, but this time more thoroughly. The soil will now be more accepting of the additional water, resulting in less runoff. Use a cup in your sprinkler’s path to measure the water – give it one to two inches.
Secret 6: Have Patience
You must have patience. After decades of chemical abuse, your green expanse will not appear to respond to organic lawn care in just one season. It may look a bit weak at first, but there is much going on beneath the surface. After the 3rd season (in my experience), as the soil food web improves, you should see substantial improvement, fewer weeds, and a much, much healthier and greener lawn.