Organic Lawn Care Step by Step
I have spent over 30 years involved in organic lawn care and sustainable landscaping in USDA zone 4 - 7. The program below is one I have developed over the course of my career. It is based on my experience, research and testing. Others have different programs and beliefs regarding organic fertilizers, practices and sustainability that I assume work for them.
- Aerate in late April
- Over seed after aerating
- Fertilize in early June
- Fertilize in late August
- Over seed in September
- Fertilize in mid October
Organic lawn care is a return to the natural way we cared for our lawns before we were convinced that huge amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were needed to maintain a healthy and attractive lawn.
Organic Lawn Care – Core Principles
-Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides mask what is truly going on in your lawn. Using proper cultural practices you can achieve the results you want without worrying about the negative effects of pesticide use on you, your family and your pets.
The length of the blades and roots are proportional; that means the roots are generally as long as the blades.
If you cut your grass too short, you are destroying the food producing area and causing shallow roots.
When faced with a dry period the combination of short blades (less food , no shade for the roots) and shallow roots (close to the surface) will cause your lawn to burn or go dormant and then the weeds move in.
Over the past several years more and more people are realizing that the decisions they make in their lives effect global issues. As the world population balloons and we are ever more connected through social media, our actions are even more important to global issues. Where the environment is concerned, we are one big interconnected village.
People are realizing that they have been convinced by marketers and advertisers as to what is a beautiful, desirable lawn and garden should be. They are embracing naturalization, xeriscaping, different garden types and styles in an effort to build a personalized space that works for their unique lifestyle; not how someone else thinks they should live.
Design a Sustainable Life
Take personal control
How Grass Grows
We have to stop believing marketers, whose purpose is to convince us to buy a product to solve a problem we probably didn’t even know we had. They convinced us that having a plant other than grass in our lawn was a character flaw and a cause for shame. They however, can restore our good name and standing in the community with a simple application of their product. Problem solved!
We need to design a life that suits us and how we and our family actually live – the messy, busy, chaotic intricacies of living a rich fulfilling life. We have to stop blindly listening to people who don’t have our best interests at heart. Unfortunately, that includes almost all advertisers and marketers. Yes, there are good products out there; things we really need to help us create the life we want but we need to sift through the marketing messages critically to make sure that the product meets our actual needs and not some need created by the ever increasing sophisticated marketing messages.
It is also a common myth that grass gets its food from fertilizer. If you think back to science lessons in school, you probably remember that green plants get their food from sunlight.
The grass leaves use sunlight and carbon dioxide to make sugars that the grass uses for food. The roots supply water and nutrients. Fertilizer provides these nutrients but is not in itself food.
So for good growth we need lots of green blades of grass to produce the food and lots of roots to supply water.
Let’s look at how to maintain your lawn the right way.
Cutting the Grass - 3” Please
It is very important not to cut your grass too low. In spring, 2.5” is a good height but 3” is better for the hot summer sun. In the fall go back to 2.5”, if you want, and give it a short cut just before you put your mower away for the season (2”)
Watering 1”/week 6” deep
The surest way to ruin a lawn is to water it lightly several times a week. The water will evaporate quickly and cause the roots to reach for the surface to get to it. These shallow roots will burn in the hot sun of a dry spell.
Grass needs one inch of water per week and it needs that water at least six inches deep in the soil. Watering deeply encourages deep roots that won’t be as susceptible to heat and drought.
Grass Clipping – Leave‘em where they lie
Usually grass clipping should be left on the lawn, as they are rich in nitrogen. Obviously if your lawn became a hay field you will need to collect them. Try leaving them for a day or two to dry out and then collect them for compost or to use as mulch. A mulching mower will help as well.
Problems in the Lawn
Weeds - They cause most of the headaches you will encounter with your lawn. Try to remember that no lawn can be free of weeds. Ultimately you will have to pull a few. However by over seeding in spring and fall, your lawn will be so thick that most weeds will be crowded out. Corn Gluten Meal applied at 10kg/1000sf will cause a significant decrease in germinating weeds according to the University of Iowa. Apply in late spring or early fall. www.hort.iastate.edu/gluten/home.html
Insects - Most insect problems can be reduced with proper maintenance and just a little outside help. The most destructive pest in the lawn is the white grub, which eats the grass roots. Skunks and moles will dig up your lawn looking for these grubs. By reducing the grubs you get rid of these digging pests. A very effective form of control for grubs is a microscopic parasite called a nematode. Once watered into the soil to the level of the grubs the nematodes invade the grub causing its death. To be effective it must be applied in late May/early June and/or early September.
Thatch - Most lawns have a thatch problem, caused by poor maintenance practices. A chemical program will boost growth and slow the natural disintegration of the old roots and runners. This thatch layer harbours insects and slows the rate at which the lawn can absorb water. Chemicals also kill the worms that normally loosen the soil and allow air to reach the roots. To deal with both of these problems, aerate the lawn. Core aeration removes plugs of soil 2” – 3” deep allowing water, fertilizer and air to penetrate. It also speeds up the breakdown of thatch. You can use a dethatcher after the cores are dry to help break them apart and spread the soil. A dethatcher is als a great back saver as it makes raking up in Spring so much easier.
Your Lawn Tells You What it Needs - Signs to Watch For:
Consider getting a soil test kit for more accurate information on how much you need to adjust the soil chemistry..
- clover is a sign of nitrogen deficiency.
- Solution - fertilize with a slow release fertilizer where the first number is the highest
- dandelions are a sign of alkaline soil
- Solution - top dress with peat moss
- rake in and water
- if applicable, improve water drainage or prevent standing water to evaporate by adding compost or a mulch of shredded leaves (very acidic) to wash away salts and chemicals.
- can also Integrate coffee grounds around the plants to make soil acidic
- crabgrass is a sign of low fertility and possible presence of road salt problems.
- Solution - aerate, top dress and apply fertilizer.
- Moss is a sign of soil acidity
- Solution - Apply lime or ashes from untreated wood