For me, having a sustainable organic lawn was about finding a way I could roll on the lawn with my kids and dogs without worrying about chemicals. It was a comfort to know that not only could my kids steal veggies out of the organic garden for snacks (they ate most of their peas that way) they could also run and play any game with the same level of assurance. If you’re looking for a quick beginning article on creating an organic lawn – here’s your starting point.
This article comes from my own experiences and research and isn’t sugar-coated. This is my practical nuts and bolts take on over 30 years of following organic lawn practices.
Let’s deal with the most common question.
Can I Have The Same Weed Free Lawn Organically As With Chemicals?
But it’s a lot more work than taking a sprayer out and whacking weeds (and sometimes the roses or flowers on the edge of the lawn).
So yes, organic lawn care is more work than chemical care.
But I’ll let my kids and pets (here’s what to do if dogs use your lawn for a bathroom) roll on it without care.
Yes, you have to adjust your thinking and accept the odd weed here and there. Or, do the work to regularly kill them.
Yes, it can be done. And yes, you will change either your expectations or the amount of work you do.
Are There Alternatives To Lawns?
1) Lawn Tips For Spring
- Don’t walk on the lawn if you’re leaving footprints behind. This too-early enthusiasm compacts the soil and puts stress on the grass plants. You’re better to relax and wait a week.
- Once the lawn dries out, the single best thing you can do is give it a good raking.
- Raking with an old-fashioned hard tine rake removes winter debris and opens the air spaces between grass plants allowing air to penetrate down to the crown to combat developing fungus problems.
- Raking also removes any dead or dying grass plants and this too is good for the health of the lawn. Think of raking as giving your lawn a good spring housecleaning.
- Don’t roll the lawn – all this does is compact the soil and make it harder for the grass leaves to grow.
- Don’t feed your lawn until the grass is growing well.
- The plants should have enough strength in the roots to get started.
- Feeding before the root systems are growing is a waste of fertilizer and money because much of the plant food will dissolve and run away in the spring rains if applied too early. In my zone 4 garden, the end of May is a good time to feed your lawn.
2) How Much Should I Feed
Apply 1.5-2 kg/100 m2 or 4-5lbs/1000 square feet of actual nitrogen throughout the season, split into 2-4 applications.
There is some older research suggesting the lawn can grow well if you cut this amount in half but current recommendations call for this amount.
Figure out how to set your spreader- they’re all different – so it only puts this much on.
For example, if your fertilizer is a 4-1-2 ratio (N-P-K) such as 20-5-10 and I note this is a good ratio if you haven’t had your soil tested (who does that anyway) then it contains 20% nitrogen and you must add 20 pounds of the fertilizer if you want to put on 4 pounds of Nitrogen
On fertilizer bags, N = Nitrogen P = Phosphorus K= Potassium
More will make the grass grow faster ( you must mow more often) and fatter (more attractive to insects to eat) and more susceptible to diseases.
The lawn looks better in the short term with more nitrogen but overfeeding causes problems in the long run.
- 1.5 pound in spring
- 1.5 pound in summer
- 1.5 in fall
Top Dressing Recipe
For every 1000 square feet of “84” lawn add:
- 1 large bale of peat moss
- 1/2 bushel of ” compost (about 2 bags of purchased compost)
- 2 pounds of grass seed.
This is spread over the lawn in the very early spring or early fall
3) What About Organic Lawn Weed Control
Use a weed spud to kill dandelions. This is an ongoing adventure as they’ll blow in from your neighbor’s property.
Getting rid of Creeping Charlie is a different “adventure”.
It’s better than a gym membership and cheaper.
Raking also gets rid of mushrooms quickly although the long term solution is different.
Here’s what you have to know about controlling crab grass.
This will control dandelions and crab grass if you apply it when the forsythia are in bloom.
This shrub blooms when the time is right for crab grass and dandelions to germinate.
Corn gluten will not kill existing dandelion plants but it will prevent new ones from germinating. Use an old fashioned weed spud to kill dandelions. Using chemicals to control crab grass is overkill when a naturally occurring and benign product does the same thing.
Just a head’s up – corn gluten is not as effective in cold, wet springs and home owners have to accept that some years the organic control won’t be as effective as it might be.
Note that applying a grab grass control product at the wrong time means that you won’t stop crab grass from germinating, and it is a waste of time and money to apply. This rule applies to both organic and chemical products.
You Can Use Iron
There are specific products now available that are based on iron that kill existing weeds.
“In Canada, where alternative products to traditional herbicides have been in use since 2009, a 2009 Guelph Turfgrass Institute study found that 3 blanket applications of Fiesta ( iron product) at 100 mL/m 2 (3.38 oz/ 1.2 yd 2 ) applied 3 weeks apart result ed in turf that was 95% weed – free.
More recent research conducted at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute showed that there may be re-growth from the root of certain weeds, suggesting that repeated applications as needed may eventually weaken the plant and result in complete eradication of the weeds. The label states no more than 4 applications per year.”
Extension: University of Maryland
Caution: you must read the label on all products to avoid problems. Read and follow label directions.
Top dress and thicken up the lawn (see Fall Care tips below)
4) Lawn Tips For Summer
I don’t water my lawn. I allow it go brown in high summer if we don’t get rain. If you’re adding organic matter to the lawn every year, your lawn will be more drought-tolerant.
On average, a lawn requires 1-inch of water per week.
Best time to water – early morning before the sun gets too high/hot.
Worst time to water – during the day when over 50% of the water evaporates in the air or from the leaf before it gets to the ground.
Do not set up an automatic system that irrigates the lawn even when raining. Turn it on manually while you’re there.
If you must keep a green lawn because of property ovenants, there are two things you can do.
- Work with your association to change those covenants.
- Install underground drip irrigation lines so you’re not losing over 50% of the water to evaporation
Set your mower at the highest setting. This allows the grass leaf to
- grow longer,
- provide more strength to the roots and
- become a healthier plant
There are 850 grass plants in the average square foot of lawn. Mowing tall allows each of them to get healthier and reduce the number of weed seeds that germinate.
Leave The Clippings On The Lawn
Unless you live in the deep South, leave the clippings on the lawn where they fall.
That growing tip you cut off is full of the nitrogen (you applied the nitrogen this spring) and if you take it away, the rest of the grass starves.
Let the clippings decompose where they are and they’ll recycle that nitrogen to the grass plants and add much-needed organic matter to the “181” lawn.
What About Thatch?
Thatch is a layer of undecomposed lawn clippings that form just above the soil line and create problems related to drainage, aeration, stopping water from getting to the soil and grass roots.
BUT thatch is something the gardener creates.
Thatch happens if you overfeed and produce way too much top growth.
If you overwater and force the grass to grow too fast (particularly in the South) you’ll create thatch.
It’s very hard and rare for northern gardeners to have serious thatch issues and this only “188” happens with excessive feeding and watering.
The solution is to cut back on the feeding. This will usually solve the problem.
Yes, this means that grass catchers on the back of the lawn mower are a waste of time/money in the north.
” Lawn Mower Blade
Have your lawn mower blade sharpened (or do it yourself) as two things will happen.
You’ll use approximately 10% less power to run it
You’ll “cut” the grass blade allowing it to heal faster (and stop fungus from entering the wound) rather than ripping it with a dull blade.
Types of Grass Seed
A clumping perennial rye grass variety is the single best variety for adding to a lawn every year by overseeding.
Overseeding is the simple act of adding new grass seed to the ” lawn every year. I read a research report many years ago that suggested 2 pounds of grass seed per 1000 square feet of lawn would thicken up the average lawn. Poor lawns should have more applied every year until they thicken up.
While I have a supplier that has clumping perennial rye, you may find yours doesn’t. Use the seed mix that contains the highest percentage of perennial rye grass.
5) Lawn Tips For Fall
If you didn’t do the top dressing in the spring, early September is the time to put it down so the grass seed will germinate and get strong enough to survive the winter.
Otherwise continue mowing and feed in late fall.
That should get you started on your organic and sustainable lawn and the only thing left to do is remember what it was like to roll on the lawn when you were a kid and do it again.