Do you dream of having a beautiful lawn but would rather avoid the effects that synthetic fertilizers and weed and bug killers could have on pets, children, groundwater and the environment? And are you wary of the amount of exhausting work that it might take to get you to lawn nirvana?
Well, abandoning synthetic lawn products does not have to mean giving up on having a beautiful lawn…or spending endless hours on your knees pulling weeds. In some ways, natural lawns actually require less effort—although the process of transitioning from a chemical lawn to a natural one might mean an additional step or two during the first year. And the lawn may not look perfect during that first year.
To grow a great lawn without harmful chemicals and without lots of additional work…
Water just once per week. Daily watering is not good for a lawn. It means that moisture is almost always present near the soil’s surface, which gives grass roots no incentive to grow any deeper. Those shallow roots leave your lawn vulnerable to pests such as grubs and to future dry stretches.
Instead, water an established lawn only once per week, but provide plenty of water when you do—the average lawn requires around one inch of total water per week, including both rain and waterings.
Important: The best time to water your lawn is early in the morning, before nine. That gives it a chance to dry out during the heat of the day, avoiding the perpetually moist conditions that can lead to fungus growth—and avoiding any need to apply a chemical fungicide. Watering during the midday heat is the worst option because much of the water will evaporate before it reaches the roots.
Overseed. Using a spreader to lightly “overseed” your lawn (put down seed on already grown grass) is a chemical-free way to reduce weed growth and promote a thick, attractive lawn. The young, aggressive shoots growing from seed often can outcompete weeds to fill gaps between existing blades of grass.
The best times to plant grass tend to be spring and even more so in the fall. This can vary depending on the local climate and the type of grass, however.
Also: Whenever you notice a bare or thin patch developing in your lawn, use a rake to scratch the surface of the soil…then scatter a thin layer of grass seed…and stamp the area lightly with your foot. Covering the area with compost or straw can help hold in moisture and give the seeds some protection against birds.
Spread compost at least once. You cannot grow an attractive, natural lawn on your own—you’ll need help from earthworms and helpful microorganisms in your soil. But if synthetic fertilizers and pesticides previously have been used on the lawn, there’s a good chance that many of these hidden lawn helpers have been killed. “Topdressing” the lawn with compost—that is, spreading compost to a depth of around one-half inch—should start to bring the soil back to life. Costs vary, but you might pay $20 to $50 per cubic yard for compost, including delivery, with several cubic yards needed for the typical third-of-an-acre lawn. If you can inspect the compost before delivery, look for compost that is dry to moist but not soggy…very dark brown, loose and granular in texture…and that has an earthy smell.
Helpful: The best time to top-dress a lawn is spring. Compost can replenish and nourish the microorganisms in your lawn at almost any time of year, but when applied in the spring, it also can block sunlight from reaching weed seeds, inhibiting their germination. Your existing grass already is easily tall enough to poke through the compost, so its growth will not be inhibited.
To make this topdressing even more effective, rent and use a mechanical aerator (or pay a lawn company to aerate) before spreading the compost. Aeration puts small holes in the soil that make it easier for air, water and nutrients from the compost to penetrate.
Get a soil test. A lawn can flourish in good soil without the help of applied chemicals—but what if your soil is not so good? The cooperative extensions of many state universities conduct soil tests for just $15 to $30. (You can find them through the US Department of Agriculture website—NRCS.USDA.gov—and search for “soil test kit.”) Alternatively, you could have your soil tested through a lawn-care company.
If the report indicates that your soil has very low levels of “organic matter”—carbon-containing materials such as decomposing plant remains—continue to top-dress with compost annually rather than just during the first year that you transition to natural lawn care. (Ideally a lawn should have 5% to 6% organic matter.) If the report says that your lawn has suboptimal levels of a key nutrient, such as phosphorus or nitrogen, bring the report to a lawn-and-garden store and ask for help selecting an appropriate organic fertilizer.
Helpful: Espoma is a well-established and widely available brand of organic lawn fertilizer (Espoma.com).
Try organic herbicides or pesticides when weeds or pests cause problems. It’s true that these are unlikely to kill off weeds and insects as quickly or effectively as synthetic products would—but they also won’t kill off the microorganisms that your lawn needs. Examples: EcoSMART makes effective pesticides that are safe for people and pets, and Iron X has an organic herbicide for weed control that is safe for new lawns one week after grass emerges.
THE BEST WAY TO MOW YOUR LAWN
Making a few minor changes to your mowing habits could make your lawn much healthier and heartier without synthetic fertilizers…
Raise the height of your mower’s blade. Most home owners cut their grass to a height of two to three inches. But studies recently conducted at the University of Maryland determined that a height of three-and-a-half to four inches is preferable. It is best to cut the grass when it is one inch to one-and-a-half-inches taller than that. At this height, grass blades cast sufficient shade to naturally inhibit the growth of many weeds without the use of herbicides. This slightly taller grass also is more naturally resistant to heat and drought because it can hold more water.
Warnings: Do not cut grass shorter than normal during the final mowing of the season, as sometimes is recommended—doing this creates gaps in the lawn canopy that open the door for weed growth the following spring. Never cut away more than one-third of the height of grass during any mowing—that is extremely damaging to the grass, leaving it vulnerable to pests and disease. If you need to cut away more than one-third of the height, do so in stages, with each mowing separated by at least a few days.
Stop bagging your lawn clippings and autumn leaves. Instead, use a mulching mower and leave the clippings and leaf pieces on the lawn. They’re a great source of nutrients—grass clippings alone provide 50% of the nutrients that the typical lawn requires, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers. Mulching grass and leaves saves you all the work bagging, too.
Exceptions: It is worth bagging on spring days when you notice dandelion seed heads appearing…and whenever you notice weeds going to seed in the lawn. Mulching during these mowings would spread weed seed, leading to increased weed growth. Also, it is worth bagging fallen leaves in the autumn if, after using your mulching mower on a section of lawn, the mulched leaf remnants are so thick that you cannot see the tops of the blades of grass through them. When there is that much mulched leaf matter, the lawn cannot get sunlight.
Sharpen your mower blade frequently. Mower blades should be sharpened after every eight to 12 hours of use—once a year is rarely enough. Mowing with a dull blade leaves the top of the grass ripped and ragged, leading to a dry, damaged lawn that is vulnerable to infection. A cleaner cut creates a healthier lawn that’s more likely to flourish even without fertilizers and pesticides.