Five Steps to an Organic Lawn
Junk food. That’s how I think of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides when it comes to lawncare.
When you’re hungry- really hungry- what do you reach for to satisfy that craving? Something that fills you up and tastes decadently delicious (but with no nutritional value)? Or do you tend to pick whole foods that both fuel your body and offer bigger-picture health benefits.
Fat-filled, sugar-laden, processed snacks may “do the job” and hit the spot when hunger hits, but that instant gratification usually comes with plenty of nasty long-term consequences that can have an adverse effect on your body over time.
But the kinds of whole foods that our bodies truly need- responsibly grown fruits and vegetables, for example- often taste just as amazing… just with none of the downsides.
And with lawns, it’s one thing to have a lush spread of turf that’s the envy of the block. But for me, an even better prize is to achieve that goal without all of the toxic chemicals that are so widely sold and used on yards across the country.
Building up the overall health of the growing environment that feeds your lawn- and doing it naturally- will get you the same green grass on your own side of the fence, but with better, longer-lasting results and none of the negative side effects.
In our country, there is a huge market for products to put on our plants and lawns that promise incredible results: rapid growth, fewer weeds, and a minimum of pests and disease. And while most of these products admittedly do what they advertise, the environmental and potential health risks that come with using them are more significant than I’m willing to accept.
It was such a concern for one family; they made the switch cold turkey overnight. From a full-on, high chemical maintenance program to completely organic, on all 16-acres of their estate lawn! We were the first crew ever allowed in to document their amazing story.
Synthetic lawn fertilizers, for example, are salt-based. Used in excess, they’ll literally burn your grass. But even when used as directed, the chemical buildup in the soil can harm or even destroy the living organisms that Mother Nature has placed there for long-term benefits.
In fact, of the 30 most common lawn pesticides, 24 of them are toxic to fish and amphibious wildlife, according to beyondpesticides.org. Sixteen are toxic to birds. Eleven are toxic to bees. And these are products meant to be applied to the yard of your home.
To me, that’s simply unacceptable, to say the least. Like opening a box of Twinkies instead of reaching into the bag of trail mix right next to it.
Five steps to an organic lawn you’ll love
In the spirit of kicking a junk food habit to the curb, here are five steps I use each spring to feed my lawn a “whole foods” diet and implement a healthy regimen that satisfies and rewards in all the right ways.
1) Get a soil test
The information that this test provides can help ensure that you are doing all you can to promote your soil’s health. Healthy soil, in turn, provides the best long-term benefits to your lawn.
Of all the important things a soil test will reveal, the main one I look to is the soil’s pH level. When this number is in the “ideal” range for growing grass, turf roots will be able to utilize nutrients already present, therefore minimizing the need to add anything further. Outside that range, and adding more chemicals will not only not help matters, it may make conditions worse.
The magic number? Somewhere between 6.5 and 7.0. Getting your soil’s pH level within that ideal range is a key factor to how lush your lawn is. And a soil test tells you how to get there. Call your county extension service for the soil test kit and additional information.
2) Clean up
I prefer to have a clean surface to work with before I add any product to my lawn. Thatch, leaf debris, and weeds can prevent soil amendments from making their way on or into the soil. A stiff rake and a little bit of elbow grease is usually all it takes to prep the lawn surface. Collect what you scratch up and add it to your compost.
A clean surface also paves the way for the probes of a tool called a core aerator. This piece of equipment extracts plugs (cores) of soil from the ground. These extracted cores relieve soil compaction by allowing more room in the ground for root expansion, oxygen exchange, and drainage. The small holes left behind after aerating also collect and hold soil amendments or fertilizer in place.
Yes, a yard full of extracted plugs looks messy. But it’s temporary. Within a few days, the cores will have washed back into the ground, having done their job.
Aerating is a very helpful step, but not one that is mandatory. Since a core aerator is a tool that sees one afternoon of work a year, it likely makes more sense to rent one than to purchase one and store it for the other 364 days.
4) Feed the soil
All grass types (except centipedegrass) are heavy feeders. I use two main products. And unlike synthetic fertilizers, both build soil health while feeding the lawn naturally.
Compost: It’s full of all the nutrients a lawn needs and includes lots of other beneficial ingredients that are important to building long-term soil and lawn health. A little bit of compost goes a long way, but you’ll still want to add at least a half-inch across the entire lawn surface.
For most yards, that can quickly exhaust your homemade compost supply and likely an impractical option for buying bagged compost. Instead, find a reputable bulk supplier that offers “STA compost.” This designation represents the Seal of Testing Assurance, which is issued by the US Composting Council.* Products carrying the STA designation have been analyzed for ten important criteria of quality compost.
Milorganite: When it comes to bagged fertilizer, this is my go-to, especially for lawns. It’s an organic, non-burning, slow-release nitrogen feeder with iron. Milorganite works well at building a healthy lawn with good green color, and improves soil health, too. It features excellent consistency of its ingredients, is readily available, and is easy to apply with a rotary or drop spreader.
5) Mow and water less
Use the techniques listed above, and you’ll end up with a lush, green lawn- yes, one that requires periodic mowing, but not too much. In an organic lawn maintenance routine, you allow your grass to grow to the upper height of its preferred range. This will result in more vigorous turf with deeper roots and fewer weeds, as taller blades will shade and out-compete weeds vying for the same space.
Another advantage to organically managed lawns: better soil health promotes deeper roots and better water retention capacity. Bottom line, they’re more drought-tolerant and require less supplemental irrigation.