In keeping up with the Joneses—or for your own enjoyment—it’s natural to want your lawn to look as good as a golf fairway. But did you know that the average home owner applies as much as 10 times more chemical products per acre of lawn than the average farmer?
“Weed & feed”…fertilizer…insecticides. The chemicals that we use to grow lush, green, uniform lawns are, in many cases, poisons that destroy the underlying soil and harm the surrounding ecosystem while leeching toxins into the ground and exposing them to the water, our families and our pets. On top of that, typical lawn products make your lawn more dependent on additional chemicals, creating a vicious cycle where your lawn is essentially addicted to them!
No matter how lush and green a lawn appears on the surface, it isn’t truly healthy unless it’s “drug-free.” Addicts follow 12-step programs to get healthy. Your lawn, too, can get free of drugs—and still look great—with this 12-step detox program. It’s a bit of work, but you’ll emerge with a beautiful, healthy and safe organic lawn.
Even better, I have found that organic lawns are less expensive to maintain in the long run. Although more natural fertilizers are more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts, well-cared-for natural lawns are more resistant to drought, which means far less watering over time. About 50% less mowing (because natural lawns grow more slowly) costs you less in time and equipment wear-and-tear. With less watering and mowing, you could easily save hundreds of dollars over time. And because the organic fertilizers become part of the soil, the need to add fertilizer greatly diminishes over time. Here’s what to do…
Step 1: Understand that you have a problem. The culture of chemical-based growing has made America’s lawns (and gardens) dependent not on nature’s own growing mechanisms but on the next application of chemicals. And these are not friendly chemicals.
Example: Check the label on a bag of weed & feed, a common treatment that combines weed killer and fertilizer. You’ll most likely see all kinds of warnings about not letting the product run off into storm drains or streams or other water, not letting it come in contact with birds and frogs and other critters (including pets and children), not letting it touch bushes and other plants, not getting it on your skin, etc. It’s nasty stuff.
Step 2: Know the organic lawn concept. If you want a lawn that’s self-sustaining and free of toxins, your strategy should be to mimic and enhance nature instead of trying to override it with harmful chemicals.
Cornmeal…fish…alfalfa…compost. These are the types of ingredients in organic fertilizers that nourish not just your lawn but also the earthworms and microorganisms that truly healthy lawns depend on, all of which are killed by many chemical treatments.
Step 3: Decide what kind of lawn you want. There are three types of organic lawns, each of which requires a different level of commitment. Do you want your yard to look like Fenway Park or Augusta National Golf Club? That control and uniformity are possible without chemicals, but it requires significant time and effort. The second option is a vibrant, healthy lawn made mostly of grass, even if that grass isn’t as flawless and consistent as a professionally manicured baseball field. This takes less time than a perfect lawn, although more time than most home owners might want to put in.
The third option requires the least skill and exertion and gets your lawn off drugs right away—being happy to mow anything green that comes up from the ground as long as it’s healthy and attractive. This could include significant clover, wild grass and other “unintentional” growth. Don’t worry—it doesn’t have to include weeds such as dandelions and crabgrass. It feels good under the feet. It’s still a lawn. This is the path most novice home owners should start with, and you can always ramp up to the next level if you decide to.
Step 4: Listen to the weeds. Your lawn is trying to talk to you, so listen. Weeds are Mother Nature’s messengers. Their presence indicates problems with the soil—your lawn’s foundation. When you understand why weeds are growing, you can change the soil to make it more suitable for growing grass.
Dandelions, for example, are telling you that your soil doesn’t have enough calcium—add calcium (see Step 6), and you will have fewer dandelions. One of the most common and dominant weeds, plantain, tells you that your soil might need to be loosened through aeration—bingo, less plantain. The presence of clover is your soil’s way of asking you to treat it with cottonseed meal, corn gluten, alfalfa meal or some other nitrogen-rich by-product and—you guessed it—if you do, you are likely to see less clover.
Step 5: Test your soil. Before treating your lawn with natural additives as described earlier, confirm what your weeds have told you by getting a soil test. Most state universities maintain soil labs that will conduct an analysis for around $12 to $25. Contact your university system, and ask how to get one. If your state university doesn’t provide this service, check with your county’s extension office for local sources.
Step 6: Treat your soil with high-quality calcium. Organic lawns grown in most of the country will benefit from an autumn dose of calcium, which will help eliminate the most common and obvious weed—dandelions—as well as many others. Applying lime (which many home owners already do) is one way, but make sure it’s the right type. Dolomitic limestone, the most common type, is high in magnesium but fairly low in calcium. Instead use calcitic limestone, which has enough calcium—and use pellets rather than powder to keep potentially harmful dust to a minimum. One brand found in many hardware and garden stores is Soil Doctor.
If the soil test shows that your soil is alkaline—with a pH over 7—use gypsum instead of lime because gypsum won’t affect the soil’s pH. As with limestone, pellets are better for most lawns.
Step 7: Mow high. The best defense against weeds is tall grass. Many weed seeds need light to germinate, and they don’t germinate well with tall grass towering over them. If they do germinate, tall, lush grass will crowd out their sprouts. Set your mower blade height to between three and four inches off the ground.
Step 8: Sharpen your blade. By sharpening your mower blade after every eight hours of mowing, the blade will cut the grass cleanly instead of tearing it. Torn blades of grass are more likely to turn brown, and they’re more susceptible to harm from pests and disease. The Home Depot offers a good tutorial on how to safely sharpen mower blades at THD.co/2oGw67u.
Step 9: Don’t overrake. Overzealous leaf-raking can destroy the soil composition and beneficial organisms while spreading weed seeds. What to do: Drag your rake across the lawn with just enough pressure to pull the leaves away.
Step 10: Aerate high-traffic areas. High-traffic areas—usually patches by the driveway and walkway near the road—are prone to common plantain weeds, which can be identified by their broad, oval leaves surrounding tall, thin flower stalks rising from the center. Plantain weeds thrive in compacted soil. Grass does not. Although the entire lawn can benefit from aeration, it is especially useful for these high-traffic areas. You can rent a “core aerator” (with hollow spikes that remove cores of soil rather than solid spikes that only poke holes) at a hardware store for about $35 to $90 depending on whether you want it for just a few hours or a day. Core aerators require more exertion to operate than lawn mowers—if you’d rather not tackle it, hire a lawn service to core-aerate for you.
Step 11: Overseed in the fall. October is an ideal lawn-care month in most of the country, although it will be a bit earlier in the coldest regions and a bit later in the warmest. This is the time for the calcium treatment mentioned earlier. It’s also the perfect time to overseed, especially on thin or patchy areas. Overseeding will rejuvenate your lawn before the frost sets in, and grass seeds will outcompete weed seeds. This is the one time of year when an aggressive raking can help, just prior to overseeding. The raking helps loosen the soil to get better seed-to-soil contact. Be sure to water daily until the seed germinates.
Step 12: Top-dress your lawn with compost. This step can be costly, but top-dressing your lawn with compost in the fall is probably the single best thing you can do. Although it looks like black dirt, compost isn’t soil. It is decomposed organic matter that serves several critical functions including adding nutrients.
Order a bulk delivery from a nearby compost manufacturer (search online for “bulk compost delivery” and your zip code) or your municipality.