How much lawn do you really need?  If you are currently mowing more grass than you can use, we encourage you to replace the turf you don't use with a sustainable, lower maintenance alternative.  When you have reduced the lawn to what you really need, follow these steps:

1. Stop Using Chemicals:

Sounds easy, but the wide availability, low price, and instant gratification of "Weed and Feed", as well as the social pressure to maintain a perfect lawn, render this a tough first step. Remember that salt-based fertilizers salinize soil, and chemical herbicides and pesticides denude the lawn of the micro-organisms essential to decomposition. "Junky" grass roots shallowly and is more susceptible to drought, disease and stress.

In contrast, organically maintained turf enjoys the benefits of living soil, reducing fertilizer needs. Grass plants are "fed" a steadier diet of nutrients, and root deeply, increasing resistance to drought, disease and stress. Beneficial insects and birds act to control pests without poisoning themselves.

2. Raise Your Mower Height:

This is the most effective way to control weeds. Again the temptation to scalp turf is strong, for it promises that pleasing Planet Parking Lot look, neat and tidy like a golf course. Nevertheless, failing to honor the plant, attempting to deny the blade of grass the means to photosynthesize, causes turf to stress while weeds proliferate. Never cut off more than 2/3 of the blade.

Cool season grasses, such as Kentucky Bluegrass and Tall Fescues, prefer cutting heights around 2 to 3 inches. Cutting heights should be at their highest during Summer heat, and decrease during Spring and Fall.

Raising your mower deck will encourage deeper roots, greater photosynthesis, and thicker sod. Taller grass shades out weeds, particularly pernicious dandelions and plantain, which grow as rosettes and struggle when unable to spread their solar collectors at ground level.

3. Build Your Soil:

Turf soils suffer great abuse, from the riding mowers, golf carts and foot traffic that pound upon them, and the quantities of water and fertilizer pouring through them. Typical turf soil is compact and sterile, low in organic matter, poorly draining, and of unbalanced composition (usually too much clay).

Rectifying poor soil takes time. Eliminate sources of compaction, especially unnecessary vehicular traffic. Introduce organic matter, in the form of recycled grass clippings and an annual quarter inch layer of finely finished compost. Soil activation with one of the many available "bio-activators" might also help. Aeration and airification drill holes into the soil, radically resolving drainage and compaction problems, although their benefits have been disputed. Thatch layers over a half inch in thickness should be manually removed to improve water, nutrient and air flow to the soil. Employ organic fertilizers, derived from plant and animal sources, as well as rock powders, that improve soil structure and encourage soil life. Their slow decomposition fosters steady grass growth, deeper rooting, and greater stress tolerance.

4. Bruise your palm:

The way to kill a weed, is to dig it up, roots and all. Organic lawn rehabilitations indicate that "Weed and Feed" products induce a dormancy period in dandelions. After several months, new vegative growth emerges from the remaining viable root stock. The weeds are not killed by the weedkiller, but the beneficial microorganisms in the soil are. In large, sunny areas, weeds can be killed by covering it with black plastic for 6 or more weeks.

Fortunately dandelions, and other less pernicious lawn weeds, are not invincible. Manual control coupled with organic lawn maintenance will grind down an established weed problem. Place priority on weeding in highly visible and stressed areas (where the rewards of your efforts will inspire further digging) and wherever the lawn is failing to out-compete the weeds.

To prevent seeding in apply 60% corn gluten in early Spring (traditionally when the Forsythia bloom). This by-product of the corn-milling industry breaks down at soil level, producing a hormone which prevents cell-division in the root tips of weeds. Weed seeds germinate, then die. As thatch is eliminated and soil life improves, gluten can be applied closer to the dandelion seeding-in date, for the gluten will become more immediately active. After acting as a pre-emergent herbicide, corn gluten decomposes to provide low levels of nitrogen. Gluten should be applied at a rate that creates a visible layer of yellow on the soil surface.

5. Manage Fertilizer and Water:

Every lawn is unique. Identify the grasses that compose yours. Take soil and pH. tests to determine the lawn's particular nutrient needs. Tailor fertilization to meet these needs. Over-fertilization frequently causes problems more severe than not fertilizing at all. Fertilize in the fall, not in the Spring. Limit watering to high stress periods, and only in areas most subject to wind, sun and traffic abuse.


Big riding lawn mowers!  They cause more lawn problems than everything else combined!  Consider using a smaller mower and NEVER MOW WHEN IT IS WET!


Expect to commit three to five years to rehabilitate fully a chemically-maintained lawn. Discernable improvement usually occurs within the first year of organic maintenance. Once restored, organic lawns are remarkably lush and green, and require minimal maintenance inputs.


Stuart Franklin's Building a Healthy Lawn (Garden Way Publishing, 1988) and Warren Schultz's The Chemical-Free Lawn (Rodale Press, 1996) were invaluable in preparing this primer.

Stevie Daniels' The Wild Lawn Handbook: Alternatives to the Traditional Front Lawn (Macmillan, 1995) summarizes the motivations for reducing, and explores the possible alternatives to, a turf-lawn.

Hugh Johnson's Principles of Gardening: The Practice of the Gardener's Art, rev. edition (Simon and Schuster, 1996) and John Brookes' Natural Landscapes (D.K. Publishing, 1998) inspire reasonable and effective use of turf-space.

Professional quality and reasonably priced organic fertilizer is available from
North Country Organics, P.O. Box 372, Bradford, VT. 05033 (802) 222-4277
Sea Born, 1601 13th Ave, Charles City, IA. 50616-8802 (800) 457-5013

Biological controls, beneficial insects and other organic armaments are available from: Gardens Alive, 5100 Schenley Place, Lawrenceburg, IN 47025 (812)537-5108

Corn gluten can be purchased at most local grain elevators. Make sure you bring home the powdered (not pelletized) form.

This primer was prepared by: John and Danniel Packard

Copies are available on request. Please feel free to photocopy or distribute in any way.

We look forward to hearing from you.   
Call 262/ 248-7513