Several years ago I switched from synthetic based fertilizers to organic fertilizers to feed my flowers and shrubs and have never looked back–except to see how well they’re growing!
I decided to do the same for lawn care, and boy am I glad I did!
Natural lawn care is an alternative to using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that are potentially harmful to people, pets, and the environment. They also have a punishing effect on the soil, disturbing the natural microbial activity that fosters healthy plant growth.
The “perfect lawn” that is being supported by chemical inputs is like an addict on crack. You have to continually feed the lawn with chemical fertilizers and pesticides or the lawn will look worse than an aging rock star. This is because the soil essentially dies from overuse of all those chemicals, leaving it starving for more synthetic fertilizers.
Natural lawn care provides a better way to grow a nice looking lawn. However, there are a couple of drawbacks to this method that no doubt discourages people from breaking the chemical habit. First, to get a great looking lawn this way takes time. I’m talking at least a couple of years. We live in a society that expects instant results. The other drawback is you’re going to have to put up with a few weeds, like perhaps some innocent clover and a few dandelions.
“You have to set expectations right from the start,” is the advice that Jim Agabedis, owner of Minuteman Landscaping in Brighton, Mass. gives to homeowners. He says a totally weed-free lawn using natural or organic lawn care methods isn’t achievable.
What is achievable with natural lawn care practices is a nice, lush looking lawn that isn’t supported by potentially harmful fertilizers and pesticides and is 100% safe for your kids and pets. A lawn that is being grown the natural or organic way is also less susceptible to drought, insects, and disease, according to Agabedis, who has been in the natural lawn care business for over 30 years. The natural microbes that build up in the soil naturally supports a healthier turf that can withstand some of the vagaries of nature.
Using organic and natural lawn care methods is kind of like making a long term investment in the stock market. Switching to a natural lawn care program and feeding with organic fertilizers will actually cost a little more up front. However, according to a study by Environmental Grass Roots Education, once an organic lawn care program is well underway, a homeowner can expect to save up to 25% over a traditional lawn care program of pesticides and fertilizers. Try getting that kind of a return from the stock market!
How to achieve a great looking lawn–organically
Now that I’m off my stump, I’ll give you the lowdown on how to achieve a really great looking lawn the natural, or organic way. The secret is in growing a healthy turf. Here are some steps you can take to have a nice lawn with these methods, which includes using inputs of organic fertilizers. Bear in mind that if you don’t think you’re up to the task you can hire a natural lawn care operator, that is, if you can find one in your area.
Examine your soil
Take a shovel or a soil probe and see what type of soil you have. A sandy loam is best, but you can also grow good grass in a soil profile that includes a fair amount of clay. Pure sandy soils are going to dry out during the heat of the summer and most likely be susceptible to weed growth.
An even better way to find out what your soil is like in relation to growing a nice lawn is to take a soil sample. Go down to your local cooperative extension office and pick up a soil sample kit. The one I bought cost $25 and included the instructions needed to take a good sample.
Raise the mowing height
Keep your blades sharp on your mower and adjust the deck so you’re mowing at a height of 3-3 ½ inches, says John Harrison, head of public relations and product support at Espoma (Espoma.com), a company out of New Jersey that sells organic fertilizers for lawns and gardens in many retail outlets in the Midwest.
“When it comes to cultural practices the critical one is to raise the mowing height,” Harrison says. “Scalping the lawn puts so much stress on the lawn and gives tremendous opportunity for undesirables to come into the lawn.”
During hot, dry weather I like to keep the grass even a little higher than the suggested height. Also, never take off more than ⅓ of the grass at one time. If you do it causes the grass to clump up which effectively blocks out light, air, and rain. Besides, clumps of grass look unsightly in a yard. Mulching mowers are a good choice as the grass can be returned to the soil without clumping up. Grass clippings contain nitrogen, the major nutrient responsible for greening up your grass, so always return the clippings to the lawn.
Watering and aerating
Water in the mornings, preferably with a lawn irrigation system that can be put on a timer. If you can afford it, add a rain sensor that can monitor rainfall so you don’t water when we’re already getting plenty of rain. A saturated lawn can cause yellowing of the grass blades and potential diseases, especially in low, poorly drained areas.
Aerating a lawn allows air, water, and nutrients to penetrate the soil. However, don’t aerate your lawn too often. This may come as a surprise, but Agabedis says to leave those microbes well enough alone. When it is time to aerate you can rent an aerator or have a lawn care company do the job for you.
The problem with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is they harm the microbes in the soil that work so hard to strike an ecological balance in the rhizosphere, or root zone of the plant. There is a better way. Organic based fertilizers, such as Espoma’s Organic Lawn Food provide a slow release of nutrients, including nitrogen, that won’t wash away with irrigation or after a rain event. Espoma has a seasonal, 4-step program to ensure your lawn is getting the right nutrients at the right time.
The best grass I’ve ever encountered was in a prison, believe it or not. A group of organic gardeners inside the walls had no choice but to go organic as chemicals are by and large banned inside a prison. They used a combination of compost, mechanical weed pulling, proper watering and mowing to produce the most lush lawn I’ve ever seen.
Growing a great looking yard the organic way is an achievable goal. It’s also a worthwhile goal for you, your kids, pets, and the environment.
Sobering facts about synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
- 40-60% of nitrogen from fertilizer runs off or leaches away, ending up in ground or surface water, including wells. The nitrogen in slow-release organic fertilizers is much less likely to leach into the soil.
- 60-70 million birds die from pesticide poisoning each year in the US alone.
- Close to 70 million pounds of pesticides (including herbicides) are applied to US lawns each year. This is approximately ten times the amount applied to American farmland, acre for acre.
- As of 2004, about 70 million tons of fertilizer were used on US lawns a year.
- The Virginia Cooperative Extension in its publication “Nutrient Management for Lawn Service Companies,” states that some fungicides and pesticides can kill 60 to 90% — or more — of the earthworms where they are applied.