Your Organic Lawn
Americans directly apply 70 million pounds of pesticides to home lawns and gardens each year. In the pursuit of greener lawns, birds and other wildlife are killed and important water resources are affected. These chemicals collect on our shoes and are tracked in to our homes.
In some neighborhoods it seems to be an obsession to have the greenest lawn. Aside from the chemical damage, a lot of water is wasted to maintain this artificial green. It’s time to kick the green lawn addiction! There are many natural alternatives for creating beautiful lawns that do not require chemicals. Thoughtful plant and seed choices, sensible lawn care practices and inexpensive organic products will give you a truly “green” lawn needing less maintenance, and freeing up your time to enjoy the beautiful weather of spring and summer.
Seeds and Plants
Choose a grass seed that contains a variety of grasses. You won’t have a golf course lawn but you will have a hardy one. Lawns seeded with grass varieties go dormant in the hot summer sun. They will return to life with the coolness of fall and pop up a lovely green in the spring. Ivy provides green coverage with minimum care. Having sections of your lawn as a wild flower garden can be aesthetically pleasing and require minimum maintenance. Ask at the garden shop for plants that are indigenous to your area. These plants are adapted to the local environment and will thrive with little effort.
Never remove more than a one third of the grass blade in any single mowing. Leaving the grass clippings on the lawn to decompose will provide your lawn with a natural fertilizer. Grass clippings do not cause thatching — improper watering does — but they will help your lawn retain moisture and provide nutrients to the soil! Only mow when the grass is dry and be sure that your mower blades are sharp. A dull mower will injure the plant because it tears the grass blade, creating a brownish cast to the turf. Set your mower blade as high as possible — 3-4 inches is best — as it will provide you with a healthy plant that can sustain itself.
One of the most common mistakes people make with lawn maintenance is their watering schedule. Your lawn only needs to be watered when it is showing signs of drought and then you water it deeply. An easy check to see if you are watering properly is to place an empty tuna or cat food can or a cup under the sprinkler. Stop watering when there is an inch of water in the can. Watering deeply will encourage the grass to send its roots deep. Deeper than most weed roots go. As the top few inches of soil dries out, the weeds and weed seedlings up there die while the grass finds moisture deeper in the soil.
Shallow, frequent watering encourages “thatch” where the roots of the grass grow out sideways. There gets to be so many runners that they weave a mat that chokes out water and air. With the roots in the top inch or two of soil, a hot day will quickly dry the soil and much of the grass will brown. Unlike your lawn, weeds and weed seedlings thrive on daily watering. It’s just what they need to beat out your grass for needed nutrients. So if you are using a sprinkler system on a daily basis, shut it off!
Wondering how to recognize the signs of drought in your law? It’s very simple. The grass will start to curl before it turns brown. When it starts to curl, that is the best time to water. If you have already trained your grass roots to grow deeply this is the best method to use. Alternatively you can take a shovel and push it in to the soil about six inches. Keep the sun to one side or the other but not shining directly on the shovel. Rock the handle forward. If you can see any moisture, it’s too soon to water. If it’s all dry, go ahead and water.
As you develop a good feel for how often your lawn needs watering keep an eye on the weather forecast. If a rain shower drops about quarter of an inch (leave your measuring cup out) add the other 3/4 of an inch of water with your sprinkler. Keeping in mind that the grass roots are down deep and most weed roots are near the surface you want to keep the top three inches of soil as dry as you can for as long as you can. By adding that 3/4 of an inch of water you’ll ensure that the weeds don’t gain an advantage over your grass. If you have time you can split your inch of watering in two. Water one half an inch, wait 90 minutes and then water another half an inch. Do this once a month.
A soil depth of 18 inches is optimal. It will decrease your need for water. Bringing in loom or adding compost are ways to “deepen” your soil. Think quality when you are purchasing loom.
Green lawns are nitrogen hogs! Plants such as clover can convert nitrogen from the air to serve their needs. If you see clover taking over your lawn you know that your soil is nitrogen poor. Blood meal is one organic fertilizer that will add the needed nitrogen without any of the scary ingredients found in most fertilizers. Check with your local garden supply for organic sources of nitrogen additives for your lawn. Legumes taking over your lawn (clover, medic, etc.), is Nature’s way of telling you that your soil is nitrogen poor.
If your lawn is in serious need of nutrients, add an organic fertilizer every three weeks in the spring and fall. Otherwise a small amount added at the beginning of the spring and fall season will suffice. Cool season grasses are semi-dormant in the summer. Fertilizing in the summer feeds the weeds, not your grass.
Knowing the pH of your soil will enable you to help your plants beat out its competitor like the dandelion. Dandelions love a pH of about 7.5. Grass prefers a lower pH of about 6.5. Your local agricultural extension offices usually will test soil for free or a low charge. Many garden centers will also test your lawn at no cost. To raise your pH use gardener’s sulfur; to lower it use lime!
Perhaps instead of spending our time fighting dandelions, we should spend our time dining on them. Dandelions are an excellent source of Vitamin A. Be sure to only pick from areas that have not been sprayed with any pesticides or fertilizers, or that the dog visits. The young tender leaves can be used in salads; older leaves can be steamed like spinach, and the roots can be dried and ground to make a coffee like beverage. Or you can make dandelion wine.
Mary Farrell is a writer, environmentalist and herbalist, and teaches self empowerment tools. Mary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.