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Alternative to Corn Gluten for Crabgrass? Try Compost

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The interest in corn gluten meal as a pre-emergent weed control for crabgrass and other weeds continues to amaze us here at SafeLawns. Our post on the subject was easily the most visited of the year thus far. And since we’re not big fans of corn gluten meal, especially given the cost, loads of folks want to know about an alternative crabgrass preventer that doesn’t involve toxic chemicals.

The answer(s) all involve one simple premise: crabgrass seeds need a burst of direct bright light to germinate. Remembering that should be at the core of all your crabgrass control strategies. Here are the the considerations:

1) TOP-DRESSING: Blanketing the surface of the lawn soil in the spring with compost or even topsoil will keep crabgrass seeds from germinating. We recommend covering the lawn with a half-inch layer of bulk compost and then overseeding with grass seed directly into the compost. The grass seed will germinate and the compost will give the lawn a layer of nutrients, moisture retention and a biological boost.

Topsoil doesn’t have quite the same nutrient and biological value as compost, but it will serve the purpose of blocking the crabgrass seeds. And adding more soil to your lawn is never a bad thing.

If you have spotty areas of the lawn that are thin, without much grass, it’s especially important to cover these. Otherwise you can virtually be assured that opportunistic crabgrass and other weeds will take over.

2) AVOID SPRING RAKING: If you have patches of leaves and debris left over from last fall, you need to rake them off the grass. When you do so, however, try to avoid really scratching the surface of the soil. This activity brings crabgrass seeds to the surface, where they’ll easily germinate.

If you feel it’s necessary to really grind when you’re raking, then it becomes imperative to back to point number one and topdress with soil or compost.

3) AVOID MOWING: Keeping in mind that crabgrass seeds need light to germinate your mowing height and frequency are perhaps the most important consideration of all. Mowing too low anytime in the spring and summer will almost assuredly bring more visible crabgrass in the late summer and fall. Tall grass plants shade the surface of the soil so that the crabgrass doesn’t germinate; tall grass plants also conserve moisture in the summer. A good rule of thumb is to keep the grass at least 3 inches tall until after Labor Day.

4) WATER AS INFREQUENTLY AS POSSIBLE: Old-timers called crabgrass water weeds because they seemed to appear instantly after frequent or heavy rains. Constant watering of the lawn causes soil erosion around the seed, thereby potentially exposing the seed to light.

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.

Number of Entries : 1023
  • Keith

    Thanks for the tips! Would the top-dressing work equally as well for prevention of dandelion germination?

    • Paul Tukey

      The top-dressing and overseeding will help with weed control of all kinds, yes. The crabgrass is unique in that it simply won’t germinate unless it gets that burst of bright light, however.

  • Kenton Seydell, AOLCP

    Good answer. Adding compost will also help restore the biological balance that will help grass grow instead of unwanted weeds. Be carefull not to smother your good grass.

  • Jerry

    Paul,

    What about using a blower to clear the leaves and debris off the lawn. Would that also help to blow the weed seeds away? Or does that just help remove shady sources that prevent the weeds from germinating.
    In addition, its been cold here in the northeast and it appears it will continue through the end of the week. Does that slow down the germination process for these weeds thus giving us a little more time to clean up and get the compost down. Does it also mean that it isn’t a good time to plant grass seed?

    • Paul Tukey

      Jerry,
      Using a blower to remove leaves is fine in the spring, although I’m not a big fan of gas-powered blowers for environmental reasons. Heavy mats of leaves need to come off the grass, or the grass with smother. Small bits of debris can stay where they are and biodegrade.

      The cold weather does buy you more time. Definitely. The grass seed can go down as soon as you can walk on the lawn and begin to rake it.
      PT

  • Hank

    Paul, do you have a recommendation for a quality compost for this purpose near Portland/Gorham Maine? I used 15 yards last year from a local supplier for this purpose. It did work well but had way too much ‘shell’ material that had not broken down. This left a residue that has come to the surface and now has to be removed as it is very unsightly. I want to use compost again this year, but would like to try a different source.

    Hank

  • Tom

    I have had a similar problem as Hank along with pieces of glass, plastic, and rusted nails. I’m scared that buying bulk may leave me with unwanted artifacts even if it gets the organic quality label. On the other hand, when I had bought compost in sealed bags (which was supposed to be the best) it smelled like ammonia. What’s the best choice for small and big landscapes? I’m just over the Maine border in Wakefield, NH.

  • Paul Tukey

    Hank and Tom,
    Finding good local compost sources is always challenging and consistency is a huge issue. Check out http://www.newenglandorganics.com or http://www.groundscapesexpress.com. The latter is generally considered the be the finest bulk compost north of Maryland.
    PT

    • Wendy

      Neither of the above sources appear to cater to the small residential user. I would love to have compost applied to our lawn in New Hampshire this spring, but don’t know who to contact for this service that will be reasonable. Our lawn is approximately 17,000 square feet. I am certainly not going to buy bags which would not only be time consuming, but very expensive. You mentioned the cost of corn gluten, but I have to believe that compost is probably more expensive. Then add the cost of grass seed on top of that. As with many organic solutions, it won’t be able to go mainstream unless it because accessible and affordable.

      • Paul Tukey

        Wendy,
        Compost in bags would be too expensive, but municipal bulk sources and other sources can usually be found. I’m not as up on New Hampshire sources as I once was, but you should be able to find someone to deliver 14 yards, which could cover your 17,000 square foot lawn 1/4 inch. That would indeed be more expensive than corn gluten, but it would do a better job of weed control and give you numerous other benefits in your soil.
        PT

  • Brandi

    Hello, I know I am a little late to this post, but I just found your site today. I am desperately trying to control weeds in our lawn and do not want to use chemicals. My lawn is completely taken over by dandelions right now and will soon be overrun by crabgrass. What is my best option to control of the current dandelions and then prevent crabgrass and also future dandelions from wreaking havoc on my lawn? I live near Indianapolis, Indiana. Am I too late this year to do anything? I would appreciate any help you may give.

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