THE ORGANIC LAWN GUIDE
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 ½ 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
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
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
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
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.