The Q&A Archives: Organic Lawn Care

Question: I do not want to apply chemicals to my lawn at all. I have been sprinkling compost, leaving grass clippings on the lawn after mowing, and pulling weeds by hand. Do you have any kind of specific advice on maintaining an organic lawn? I don't expect it to be perfect.

Answer: Sounds to me as though you're doing everything right! Here are a few guidelines to help you maintain your lawn:

1. Mow high. A lawn mowed high discourages weed and insect invasion. Set cutting height at 2.5 or 3 inches. Never scalp your lawn. Long grass blades stay much stronger; prevent weeds from sprouting; shade the roots and prevent drying of soil; and encourage longer, healthier roots. Mow regularly, never removing more than one-third of the leaf length at a time. Keep cutting blades sharp. This avoids tearing grass and making it susceptible to disease. Don't mow wet grass, and mow in the evening or on cloudy days.

2. Mulch clippings. You're already leaving your lawn clippings in place, but does your mower have a mulching blade? Mulching blades cut clippings into tiny pieces, so they decompose quickly and don't clump on top of the grass. This reduces the need for organic fertilizer by 30 percent. If you are detoxifying a previously chemically treated lawn, don't mulch for a year or two or thatch may build up.

3. Water deeply. Lawns need about 1 inch of water once a week, applied slowly during dry spells, preferably before 8 A.M. Put a can under the sprinkler and time how long it takes for an inch to accumulate. That's how long to allow before moving the sprinkler each time. Frequent, light sprinklings waste water and encourage shallow roots.

4. Control weeds and insects ecologically. A healthy, well-cared-for lawn outcompetes most weeds. Check often for stressed areas like bare spots (they invite weed invasion) and treat promptly by eliminating the cause (such as heavy traffic). Overseed when necessary. Remove occasional weeds by hand. For persistent weed problems, get your soil professionally analyzed: ideal soil pH is 6.0 to 7.0. Add lime or sulfur to modify pH as needed. This increases availability of plant nutrients and promotes beneficial microorganisms. Liquid dish soap and water sprayed in warm weather is effective against most insect pests.

5. Rake. If your lawn is healthy, it shouldn't develop thatch. But in case it does, use a rake to gently remove thatch (compacted layer of dead grass that prevents water from percolating to the roots). Do this in late spring or early summer. If your lawn is large, rent a dethatching machine. Don't act too soon after the thaw when the grass still feels spongy, or else the roots will be damaged, but don't wait so late that heavy-seeding weeds have germinated.

6. Fertilize in spring. Many people will find this step unnecessary, and some experts recommend fall fertilization only. But if you want a really strong and pest-resistant lawn, apply (in mid-May) slow-release, granular, organic fertilizer. Highly soluble chemical ones leach natural soil nutrients, stress the soil and grass, and may induce disease outbreaks. Organic fertilizers include compost, manure, processed sewage, top-dressing, rock mineral fertilizer, bone meal, blood meal, and kelp. Some companies sell organic blends specifically for lawns.

7. Aerate. Aeration is the process of removing small plugs of earth to decrease soil compaction, increase water retention capacities, and increase air circulation to roots. It is best done in June (or the fall) to avoid times when heavy-seeding weeds germinate and may grow in the plug holes. You can rent an aerator from a nursery or tool rental store.

8. Top-dress with compost. This is best done with aeration, but it can be done any time between mid-June and the end of August. If you don't have your own compost heap, buy composted cow or sheep manure. Broadcast it at 100 pounds per 1000 square feet.

9. Overseed. This gives excellent results when combined with aeration and top-dressing. Stressed areas and bare patches invite weed invasion. Loosen soil, spread compost or peat moss, sprinkle grass seeds of a hardy species, press in, and water.

10. Fertilize in fall. This is an essential step. We must feed the soil. If you only fertilize once, fall is best. Use one of the organic fertilizers previously mentioned.

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