As someone who makes his living traveling around the country talking about organic lawn care, many of the questions are, by now, familiar. Even as the interest in environmentally friendly gardening has grown, however, peoples’ need to categorize hasn’t diminished one bit.
Having been sold on the so-called “4-Step” plan of lawn care – pre-emergent crabgrass control in April, post-emergent weed control in May, insect control in June and another dose of fertilizer in the fall – many homeowners are used to gardening by rote. The most common I hear is: “How many steps is your organic plan?”
My facetious answer is “12.” Step One: “Mental detoxification.”
Gardeners, in other words, need to break the mind-set of the step-by-step process of gardening before they can really understand gardening. The good news is that once you “go organic” in your yard, you will actually work less – even if you have to learn a few new processes. Best-selling gardening author Barbara Damrosch probably says it best: “You have to learn to think like a plant.”
Having said that, everyone still wants a list, so here goes. My 10-step organic lawn care plan:
1)Obtain a Soil Test – Never spend money on any fertilizer or soil amendment without first consulting the results of a soil test first. Make sure you have enough soil, too. For a decent lawn, you’ll want at least six inches of decent topsoil.
2)Grow the Right Grass – The most common lawn grass in Maine, Kentucky bluegrass, also needs the most water and fertilizer to grow well. Other species such as perennial ryegrass, and many different fescues require far less maintenance. If you have a shady area of two to five hours of sun per day, grow chewings red fescue. And if you have an area on your property that receives less than two hours of sun, grow a groundcover other than grass.
3)Water Well – Morning watering is always recommended so that the surface of the lawn dries off during the day. Water deeply and infrequently so the roots of the grass learn to grow down into the soil to get the water they need.
4)Think of Your Soil as Alive – Organisms in the soil have the same needs we do: to drink, breathe, eat, digest and excrete. When the soil is healthy, fed with natural materials and not compacted, those natural processes allow fertilization and growth to happen. Organic fertilizer is actually soil food that nourishes the organisms, whereas chemical fertilizer feeds plants directly – but much of the chemical fertilizer runs off into lakes, oceans, rivers and groundwater.
5)Mow Properly – Recycling your grass clippings by leaving them on the lawn will provide approximately half of your lawn’s fertilizer needs for the season. Keep your mower blades sharp and set the blade as high as possible. Tall grass plants conserve soil moisture, crowd out weeds and shade weed seeds.
6)Avoid Synthetic Materials – Fertilizers manufactured in a laboratory often burn lawn grasses and soil organisms. Fertilizers and soil amendments should come from materials that were once living plants or animals, or mined minerals such as lime or sulfur. If the N (nitrogen), P (phosphorus) and K (potassium) in your bag comes from a source you cannot pronounce, it’s a chemical!
7)Add Compost – Nature’s most magical soil additive, compost, contains all sorts of beneficial microorganisms that add life to the soil. These organisms will interact with the organic fertilizers to provide the green lawn many of us covet. Compost in liquid form, known as compost tea or extract, should be used in combination with dry compost because the liquid form is available to the soil and grass more quickly. This is especially important during the years of transition from a synthetic system.
8)See Weeds as Messengers – Weeds usually appear on lawns only when something is wrong with the soil. Even if we kill the weeds, they will come back unless we fix the underlying problem within the soil.
9)See Insects as Messengers – A rush of new grass growth caused by synthetic fertilizers will often attract insects. Predatory insects are rarely a problem in a natural system that is in balance. If white grubs are a problem, apply beneficial nematodes to the soil (see GardensAlive.com) during the month of June.
10)Overseed Regularly – In nature, all plants produce seed to reproduce themselves. In a lawn system, where we mow regularly, grass is not allowed to reproduce and even the healthiest plants get tired. By overseeding in spring or fall, you are introducing robust young plants that will fill in bare areas and compete aggressively against weeds.
Chemical lawn fertilizers often rely on the “four-step” plan.
An employee from SafeLawns & Landscapes of Scarborough applies compost tea to a customer’s lawn to stimulate soil organisms.