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Free Lunches for the Lawn

If you do gather your grass clippings, be sure to add them to a compost pile like this one at Cornell University, so that they decompose for later use back on the lawn.

If you do gather your grass clippings, be sure to add them to a compost pile like this one at Cornell University, so that they decompose for later use back on the lawn.

A radio station in Maine called last week with a question about how to save money on lawncare this season. For the response I trotted out my time-honored list titled “Free Lunches for the Lawn,” which is excerpted from my book, The Organic Lawn Care Manual (Storey, 2007):

The following materials will all provide fertilizer value to the soil, either through direct application, or through addition to the compost pile:

1. Grass clippings — According to studies at Ohio State University, allowing the grass clippings to remain on the lawn recycles nutrients back to the soil in approximately a 4-1-3 ration, meaning 100 pounds of grass clippings can account for about four pounds of nitrogen, a pound of phosphorus and three pounds of potassium. Gathering other people’s clippings and adding them to the compost pile won’t cost a nickel; leaving your own clippings on your lawn will account for a quarter to a half of your lawn’s fertilizer needs for the year.

2. Homemade compost — Though it’s difficult to make enough compost to top-dress your entire lawn, depending on its size, every little bit helps. If you have the time and space for a larger composting operation, it’s worth it.

3. Compost tea — You can make it yourself, quite easily in fact (see the how-to video at

4. Leaves — I’m not a fan of allowing leaves to remain on the lawn in the fall, or even mulching them back into the lawn in the fall if you have any significant volume of leaves. Mulch them with your mower and rake them into a pile instead. Allow them to decompose for a year or add them to a compost pile and then reapply this material to the lawn. Leaving leaves on the lawn, even mulched leaves, can promote winterkill of the grass.

5. Seaweed — My friends Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, two well-known authors and organic gardeners from Maine, gather all the seaweed they can from the shore. If you live by either coast, see if you can find a good access point to the ocean.

6. Ash — George Hamilton, an Extension agent from New Hampshire, estimates that a cord of wood will generate about 20 pounds of wood ash, depending on the tree species and woodstove efficiency. That’s enough to cover a 1,000 square-foot-area of lawn for a year — in areas of the country where the soil is inherently acidic. Wood ash is not recommended where soil pH is above 7.0. Wood ash is also a good source of potassium and calcium. It’s a good idea to have a soil test to make sure your soil needs lime; wood ash replaces lime at about a three-to-one ratio, meaning six pounds of lime is equivalent to 18 pounds of wood ash. Ash from treated or painted wood should not be used on the lawn.

7. Sawdust — This is a great source of organic matter and there’s no reason not to rake it into the lawn at low rates of no more than a quarter inch deep. Folks point to “nitrogen deprivation” that occurs when nitrogen is used up during the breakdown of wood, but as long as your lawn appears healthy and is getting nitrogen from other sources, a light coating of sawdust can be beneficial.

8. Farm manures — If you have a nearby farm with a manure pile, it doesn’t hurt to ask if you can bring some home. Never apply the material directly to the lawn, however, because it may burn the grass. Certain manures contain weed seeds that could impact your lawn’s appearance; composting the manure first, however, makes manure a good free score.

9. Green manure — A term for plant material that is grown only to be returned to the soil as an enriching amendment, green manures — clover, barley, wheat etc. — can be highly useful to prepare soil for a season before planting a lawn. If you’re considering starting a lawn around a newly constructed home and your soil is poor, you may be better off planting a cover crop for a year and then starting the lawn in the second year. Though technically not free, since the seeds do cost money, the cover crop can be mown like a lawn for that first year for a decent appearance and plenty of low-cost fertility in the meantime. Hundreds of on-line and other references are available about cover cropping.

10. Legumes — As mentioned elsewhere in this book, certain plants such as clover and birdsfoot trefoil have the ability to “fix” or store atmospheric nitrogen within their roots. Lawns with a 5 percent population of clover can create up to half of their own nitrogen for the year.

11. Coffee grounds — Ever wonder what happens to all those spent coffee filters full of used ground beans at Starbucks and every other corner coffee shop? Many times, they’re free for the asking. They contain as much as 5 percent nitrogen by weight, as well as many micronutrients. The only downfall is that they’re acidic, with a pH as low as 3.5. Apply them with wood ash or lime if you put them directly on the lawn, or, better yet, add them to the compost pile.

12. Weeds — Yes, weeds. The same ones you pull or dig out of the ground can be added to the compost pile to be recycled as lawn food — provided they haven’t already gone to seed. Weeds that have gone to seed should be carried off into the woods where’ll simply rot without germinating in the shaded forest soil.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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