Guest Blog: Simple Steps Toward An Organic Lawn
By Phil Nauta
If you’d like a lawn that’s mostly weed free, I’m here to tell you that with a little bit of knowledge and commitment, it’s definitely possible.
Now we do have to remember that a lawn with just a few species of grasses is quite an unnatural environment, and that weeds are actually there to improve the soil, so to keep them away is really to work against nature. Yet, paradoxically, if a weed-free lawn is the goal, we need to work WITH nature to achieve it.
How to do it? In a word, the goal is HEALTH. If you grow a healthy, dense stand of grass in soil that is appropriate for that grass, it will eventually outcompete most weeds. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons we use grasses for the lawn, because they’re so tough and competitive.
Creating a healthy lawn is a huge topic, so what I’m going to do here is give a broad overview of some topics you’ll need to address to succeed:
Fertilizing — It’s important to avoid applying N-P-K just for good measure. My usual advice on fertilizing is to get a proper soil test through a good lab and follow its recommendations. Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that most labs aren’t doing a great job because they’re coming out of the old chemical paradigm that limes the soil based on pH (which makes no sense) and worries about just a few nutrients instead of the dozens that are really required. So I my advice is to pay to ship to a quality lab giving biological or organic recommendations.
Compost — If you’re installing a new lawn and your soil is low in humus, which is very common, be sure to till in six inches of high quality compost before installation. That’s a heck of a lot of compost for a soil to take, but lawn soils are much more difficult to amend once they’re established, so it’s best to just do it now. If you’re working with an existing lawn, it’s a slower process of topdressing with 1/2 inch of compost in the spring or fall for several years in a row. I strongly prefer to do this after core aeration to get that compost into the root zone, along with my fertilizers and anything else I’m putting in there.
Soil Food Web — Quality compost not only supplies nutrients and organic matter, but just as important, it brings in beneficial microorganisms that feed and protect your turf plants. Since there’s never enough good compost around, compost tea has become more popular. With compost tea, these microorganisms are inexpensively extracted and multiplied from a tiny amount of compost in aerated water. But to make a good tea yourself requires a fair amount of knowledge and practice (see the SafeLawns Video); for home gardeners, both effective microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi are easy products to purchase and simple ways to get started and are very beneficial for lawns. A balanced soil food web favors grasses over weeds.
Seed — I prefer seed rather than sod because it allows you to get a mix of species that are appropriate for your soil and light requirements, and makes for a more diverse and resilient lawn (sod is usually just 1 or 2 species). Grass seed mixtures also used to contain clover. When seeding a lawn, I still like to include 25 percent clover in the mix. That could be an annual clover if you don’t want it to come back as strong, or a perennial clover if you want it to stick around. It provides nitrogen for the grass, attracts insects, and the flowers look nice, too. If the lawn and soil are healthy, it will probably crowd out most of the clover eventually.
Maintenance — Water is crucial. If you don’t want to water your lawn, you’ll often have to allow for some weeds, many of which thrive in the summer when many grasses shut down until autumn. Of course, if you follow the other steps to create a healthy soil, you can water substantially less. As for mowing, keep your blades sharp and mow high — 3-4 inches for most grasses — to allow the grass to shade the soil, develop a dense root system, and be healthy enough to compete with weeds. Be sure to leave the grass clippings on the lawn, where they’ll be broken down to feed the soil (they don’t cause thatch).
All of these steps will help create a healthy lawn that outcompetes the weeds.
Phil Nauta is the author of the book ‘Building Soils Naturally’, to be released by Acres U.S.A. this summer. He taught for Gaia College and was a director for SOUL. He was an organic landscaper/consultant and ran an organic fertilizer business before starting Smiling Gardener to teach practical organic home gardening tips.