Organic Lawn Care: Step by Step
WITH THE LAWN CARE NATION fixated on the so-called four-step plan perpetuated in the past generation by the chemical fertilizer and pesticide industry, one of the most common questions we receive is: “How many steps is your organic plan?”
In its purest form, organic lawn care doesn’t really follow a “step” program. Success is based on three general factors: 1) Observation, 2) Evaluation and 3) Action. Whereas the four-step plan is based on four blanket applications of chemical products on a calendar-guided basis, the organic program requires a more cerebral approach. As I often tell people in my speeches across North America, organic lawn care is ultimately less work and less expensive, but it does require you to think more.
I heard another way of describing this phenomenon this past weekend during my appearance at the Houston Organic Gardening Fair. Chemical lawn care was termed the “Moron Approach” . . . as in just put more and more stuff on the lawn. More fertilizer. More weed and insect killer. Probably more fungicide. The Moron Approach is a bit crass, to be sure, but it gets the point across.
The holy grail of organic lawn care is when you create a beautiful lawn, yet apply few, if any, supplemental products. Having said that, many organic products are useful, especially during the transition years, and we’ll provide links to some of those here as we review the three keys to organic success:
OBSERVATION & EVALUATION
STEP 1 — Assess the appearance of your lawn and, most significantly, your feelings about it. Is it lush and green with mostly grass? Or is it comprised of mostly weeds and a few clumps of grass here and there? Or is it somewhere in between? If you’re not doing anything other than mowing the lawn and you’re happy with that, be comfortable with it. If you feel something needs to be done to improve your lawn, move to step two.
STEP 2 — Obtain a soil test and check your soil depth. Soil has three primary properties — physical, biological and chemical — that can be measured in a laboratory by trained scientists. Grass has certain specific soil needs and, without those needs in place, your lawn will struggle. Think of the lawn soil test as the recipe for a delicious cake vs. cake that is dry, crusty and flavorless.
Most state Cooperative Extension Services in the United States offer soil testing for anywhere from $10-$18. These tests usually provide a measure of the chemical properties of the soil, including available macronutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, as well as calcium and magnesium. The tests usually measure pH and cation exchange capacity, as well as a percentage of the organic matter of the soil. The ideal organic matter is around 5 percent. When you send in your soil samples (according to instructions on the soil test kit), be sure to write “grass” under the intended crop. The results will make certain recommendations.
Topsoil depth is an easy visual test you can do with a shovel. The goal should be 6 inches of topsoil that looks dark and “friable” or crumbly. If you have less than that, your lawn will struggle. You should either be prepared to add more soil or compost or both, or develop a plan to add these a bit year by year by top-dressing — meaning raking in a half-inch layer in spring and fall right over the existing lawn.
STEP 3 — Consider the best grass for your lawn while evaluating your climate and growing zone. Not all grass species are created equally. Some grow well in the North and others grow well in the South. Some tolerate foot traffic, while others don’t like to be walked on, but do well in the shade. In most cases it’s possible to introduce new grass varieties directly into an existing lawn by overseeding; yet in other cases you may want to amend the soil and start over. Some of our how-to videos at SafeLawns.org demonstrate these techniques.
Sources: Here is a link to a blog about seed companies that offer “low-mow” grasses: http://www.safelawns.org/blog/index.php/2011/02/low-mow-no-mow-seed-a-rundown/.
You can also try GardensAlive, which includes several grass seed mixes among its wide range of mailorder lawn care products that includes fertilizers and weed killers.
Once you have assessed your soil and picked a lawn grass, it’s time to take action and begin your lawn renovation or outright makeover. We’ll also review some basic maintenance techniques as well — because how you mow and water your lawn will have a major impact on its ability to survive and thrive in an organic system.
STEP 4 — Apply your soil amendments to the lawn. In organic lawn care, these can be either foods such as organic fertilizers, or minerals, such as calcium and gypsum, organic matter such as compost, or biology such as compost tea, mycorrhizal fungi or bacterial boosters. These do not need to be applied all at once, but can be started any time of year the ground isn’t frozen. When you receive the results of your soil test and develop your recipe for lawn success, you can implement that recipe over time — unless you’re starting your lawn from scratch, in which case it’s best to get all the soil amendments down at the same time.
NOTE: If you’re planning a lawn renovation that includes overseeding, it’s best to do it as early as possible in the late winter or spring, or wait until after Labor Day. Mid-summer renovations will make you a slave to watering to keep that new grass seed alive in the heat. (Having said that, you should always overseed any thin, bare areas of the lawn no matter what time of year to keep opportunistic weeds, especially crabgrass, from sneaking in). Lawn amendments such as compost, gypsum and calcium are best applied after mechanical aeration so that the products an infiltrate down into the root zone.
Sources: For natural fertilizers, check out GardensAlive and Gardeners Supply, as well as Milorganite. For the best calcium and gypsum sources in North America, visit Natraturf. East Coast Organics makes excellent soil amendments, including granulated compost and ready-made compost tea. To make your own compost tea (watch the video at SafeLawns.org), you can purchase brewers from True Brewer, or construct your own.
STEP 5 — Adjust your watering pattern so that you apply the water once a week at most. Water for as long as it takes to get the soil moist well down into the root zone of the grass, six inches or deeper. If necessary, water for a while in one area and — if the water begins to run off or puddle — stop and come back later in the same day. The goal should be to train the roots of the grass to grow down into the deeper soil to find the water, not stay near the surface waiting for the next drink. Always water in the morning before 9 a.m. if possible and avoid evening watering, especially in the humid days of summer.
STEP 6 — Adjust your mowing so that the grass is always at least three inches high from early spring until after Labor Day. In the spring, the tall grass shades the surface of the soil so that weeds like crabgrass don’t germinate. In the summer, the tall grass shades the surface of the soil so it doesn’t dry out. Also, always keep your mower blade sharp; that means you should sharpen it every eight to 12 hours of use. Never cut more than one third of the grass plant at any one time if possible because it stresses out the grass too much if you do.
Finally, always recycle your grass clippings by, preferably, leaving them on the lawn where they’ll return nutrients to the soil. If you do rake the clippings in high traffic areas, be sure to compost these. And you may need to compensate for removing the grass clippings by adding 25-50 percent more organic fertilizer in those areas.
SOURCES: We recommend human-powered “reel” mowers wherever practical. We like the Momentum mower from Fiskars because the blades can be raised to 4 inches: http://www2.fiskars.com/Products/Yard-and-Garden/Reel-Mowers/Momentum-Reel-Mower. We also still use our battery powered mulching mower from Black & Decker in some areas of our property: http://www.blackanddecker.com/outdoor/CMM1200.aspx.
STEP 7 — Carefully consider any action against weeds, insects and fungal diseases. Understand that all three of these so-called lawn problems should really be seen as educational opportunities. They are messengers, sent by Mother Nature to tell us something about our soil. In other words, if your lawn is mostly weeds, it’s because the soil beneath the lawn wants to grow weeds and not grass.
Our book, The Organic Lawn Care Manual, contains a listing of the 40 most common lawn weeds and what they indicate about the soil. Many weeds such as dandelions indicate, for example, a lack of available calcium at the surface of the soil. This can be corrected with the application of high calcium limestone. Other weeds such as plantain indicate soil compaction, which can be corrected with mechanical aeration, with the addition of compost or compost tea to the soil, or with the application of gypsum. Often, the addition of these soil amendments is completed in the autumn after the core aeration.
Soil modifications do take time to have an impact on the plant profile, anywhere from a few weeks to a year or more. Sometimes, when the weed situation is so bad, you may want to take action to kill the weeds before replanting the grass. Weeds can be dug out, cut out, burned up, smothered or sprayed. We are big proponents of smothering the weeds with a rubber roofing underlayment or pond liner, especially in the case of poison ivy or other invasive species. The black heavy rubber will usually bake the weeds to death within a few weeks in the summer. Other folks like to torch weeds with a propane torch.
Sprays come in two types: selective and non-selective. The selective weed killers allow the grass to grow, but kill the weeds. Non-selective products kill the grass and the weeds; the most common non-selective herbicide is Roundup, but as we’ve been demonstrating in our blogs in the past month, this is a lethally toxic product. Many organic alternatives exist.
WEED SPRAY SOURCES: GardensAlive sells a non-selective herbicidal soap: http://www.gardensalive.com/product.asp?pn=8206. Gardeners Supply sells non-selective Burnout: http://www.gardeners.com/Natural-Weed-Control/PropertyMaintenance_Weeding,33-504,default,cp.html. EcoSMART sells its own proprietary product: http://www.ecosmart.com/products/weed-and-grass-killer/. For selective herbicides, we have been blogging about this product for the past year or so: http://www.safelawns.org/blog/index.php/2010/06/the-party-lives-on-for-fiesta-weed-control/. If you’ve heard about corn gluten meal as a pre-emergent weed control, be sure to read this before you rush out to purchase anything: http://www.safelawns.org/blog/index.php/2010/04/corn-gluten-meal-as-weed-control-20-years-later-the-jury-is-still-out/.
Insects and diseases are also messengers in that they typically prey on only weakened grass or landscape plants. Appearances of insects such as chinch bug should be considered an indication that the lawn is probably too dry or perhaps overfertilized with nitrogen. Brown patch and many other fungal diseases, on the other hand, are often caused by excess moisture. Simply by changing these bad “cultural” watering practices, you can avoid many problems.
INSECT AND DISEASE PRODUCT SOURCES: One of the best lawn disease products on the market is Actinovate from Natural Industries in Houston. For insects, EcoSMART’S lawn product kills or repels Ants (including Carpenter, Red Harvester, Pavement and Argentine), Aphids, Caterpillars, Centipedes, Chinch Bugs, Crickets, Cutworms, Earwigs, Fleas, Japanese Beetles (adults), Millipedes, Mites, Mosquitoes, Spiders, Ticks, Whiteflies and other lawn and landscape insects: http://www.ecosmart.com/products/lawn-insect-killer/.
ORGANIC LAWN CARE, AN OVERVIEW
If it were me, in the first year of transitioning from chemicals to organics in my landscape, I’d keep it simple. Here’s an example of what I mean.
1. Get the soil test as soon as the ground thaws.
2. Assess my sunlight and pick the right grass seed and get some on hand, with the amount depending on whether I planned a full renovation, an overseeding of the existing lawn or just spot seeding.
3. Learn how to brew compost tea and plan to apply it every three or four weeks during the growing season at the rate of one gallon per thousand square feet.
4. Find a local source of bulk compost; make sure it’s a good source: http://www.safelawns.org/blog/index.php/2010/07/getting-started-with-lawns-and-compost/. Then, purchase enough to rake in a half-inch layer across the lawn, or at least the areas you care most about. We have a video about this at www.safeLawns.org.
5. Evaluate the soil test and add soil amendments, if necessary, to raise (or lower) the pH to 6.5-7.0. If the weeds and soil test indicates low fertility, add organic fertlizer.
6. Water and mow according to the tips, above, throughout the season.
7. Overseed anytime thin or bare areas appear.
8. Apply weed, insect and fungal controls only as necessary, and only after a proper diagnosis of a problem has been made by you, a trusted neighbor or friend — or a knowledgeable professional.
9. Wait until fall for aeration, but if thatch is a big problem, take action on that in the spring.
10. Take photos, notes and mental assessments throughout the season. Remember . . . we told you that organic lawn care doesn’t mean you have to work harder, but you do have to think more!