Go Green > Understanding Your Lawn

Lawns and homes just seem to go together, but if weekly mowing and constant fertilizing are taking more time than you’d like, consider transitioning to organic lawn care where the maxim “less is more” rules the turf.

Organic lawns require less mowing and infrequent watering (topping off at once a week). In addition, there are the cost-saving benefits of not using synthetic fertilizers and reducing our fossil-fuel consumption.

According to www.SafeLawns.org—a nonprofit organization launched in 2007 to promote organic lawn care—between forty million and fifty million acres of the United States are covered by lawn, most of which is sustained by synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. What goes onto the lawns travels into the soil and percolates to the water table below. Lawn chemicals can have hazardous consequences for humans, pets and wildlife.

“Organic lawns are all about the health of the soil,” says Kathy Litchfield, the Massachusetts coordinator for the Organic Land Care Program of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). “The soil almost becomes addicted to these chemicals, and it can take up to three years to transition back to a soil healthy enough to sustain turf. Synthetic chemicals not only kill pests, they kill everything including beneficial organisms in the soil.”

NOFA’s standards for organic lawn care require “no synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or other synthetic soil amendments.” The program has been certifying landscaping professionals for eight years.

Having only the lawn you need

“Lawns have their purpose—to be used in play areas where kids might throw a football around, for pets,” says Mary Tebo, community forestry educator at the UNH Cooperative Extension and co-author of Integrated Landscaping: Following Nature’s Lead. “In New Hampshire, lawns are not natural; grasslands are typically not a native ecosystem. In our book, we talk about having lawns where needed.”

Organic lawn care begins with observing the terrain around you and deciding just how much lawn you need. “We’re so used to seeing a conventional landscape with huge lawns, but look around you and see what’s in our New Hampshire landscape and how your space might fit in better to look more like our state,” says Tebo.

You may decide to reduce your expanse of lawn by interspersing grassy areas with “pocket” gardens that include perennials and trees, or by bringing out the wild side of your landscape with plantings of high-bush blueberries and shrubs that welcome birds. Perhaps part of your lawn can become a meadow, inviting wildflowers while providing a haven for birds and wildlife.

Organic lawns need healthy soil

Large areas of cultivated grass are essentially a monoculture—or single crop—that drains the soil of its vitality. It’s better to encourage the growth of a diverse ecosystem in your back yard. According to Bill Duesing, executive director of NOFA’s Connecticut chapter and a founder of the Organic Land Care Program, the easiest step you can take on the road to organic lawn care is to perform a soil test to understand what your yard needs.

“If you’ve been doing little to nothing with your lawn, this offers the best transition to organic lawn care rather than coming off a chemical program that’s disturbed the soil ecosystem,” says Duesing. “You want a pH of between 6 and 7 for a lawn. If the pH is too low, a simple step to take is to add limestone. One of the main tenets of organic lawn care is to never add nutrients that aren’t needed; check your soil test results.”

Adding compost to the soil is an organic amendment that helps to build soil quality. In the fall, run the lawnmower over fallen leaves and allow them to compost into the soil.

“Organic lawn care is not a product swap,” says Paul Tukey, author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual and publisher of People, Places and Plants magazine. “You’re trying to build soil fertility. A healthy soil will grow green grass.”

Soil-testing kits are available at many garden centers and at your local Cooperative Extension office, which offers detailed analysis. If the test shows your soil in need of amendments, check to see if the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)—a voluntary, independent review organization—certifies the products you choose as organic.

Overseed for diversity

After learning about your soil and making any needed changes, the next step in organic care is to add more grass seed, a process called overseeding. Because we constantly cut grass, it doesn’t have the chance to reproduce naturally, and over time, the existing plants need replacing.

“The best time for planting is late August to early September; early spring can also be used to fill bare spots,” Duesing notes. “[Here in New England,] you’ll want to use a grass seed mixture of fescue, bluegrasses and perennial ryegrasses.” He also recommends adding some white clover seed to the mix, which extracts nitrogen from the air and returns it to the soil as a natural fertilizer.

Mow high, water less

With organic lawn-care practices, you also can disconnect the clippings bag. Use a mulching mower with a sharp blade that chops the grass clippings into fi ne pieces, returning them to the soil to nourish the turf with organic matter—nature’s own fertilizer.

“You want to cut the grass high to help grow stronger roots and shade the ground so that weeds don’t grow,” says Duesing. “It should be 3-3½ inches tall. Think about if you need to mow all that lawn, and maybe mow just part of it to allow some to become a meadow. You can make it look attractive and cared for by mowing around it or putting a path through it.”

Allowing the grass to grow taller not only acts as natural weed control, it helps to conserve moisture for the turf’s root system and keeps the soil cooler on hot summer days. “It’s natural for grass to go brown in a droughty period. Is irrigation really necessary?” asks Tebo.

“If you do water, water deeply and less often, an inch or two once a week,” says Duesing. “This helps the roots to grow deeper, which helps the soil to hold water.”

Lawns near the water’s edge

If you’re lucky enough to have waterfront property, organic land-care practices are ideal for protecting both soil and water.

“Never mow a lawn right down to a stream or lake,” says Duesing. “Ideally you want a buffer strip three to ten feet wide next to the water body. This traps any fertilizer run off and stops grass clippings from getting into the water. It also discourages geese from coming up.”

Excess fertilizing of lawns and the resulting runoff pose a substantial challenge to the health of a water body. Having a little less lawn and reducing chemical applications go a long way toward protecting your investment.

Thinking differently about turf

“The very first thing a homeowner needs to realize is that going organic is a completely different way of thinking,” Tukey says. “In organic care, you’re not feeding the grass, you’re building the soil. You’re mimicking nature. Look at the trees and ask, ‘How do they grow so tall?’ There are organisms in the soil— millions and millions—that are very dynamic. The whole idea is to nurture the soil in every way possible.”

In addition, Duesing and Tebo suggest changing attitudes toward lawns. “You might want to think about weeds as wildflowers and medicinal herbs,” Duesing suggests. And Tebo wonders if the lawn needs to be perfectly manicured. “You’re expending a lot of resources, energy and time—can it just be green?” she asks.

Less is sometimes more, and with organic lawn care, you’ll reclaim time to lie in the grass and enjoy it. Your backyard ecosystem will become a welcoming habitat for birds, butterflies and wildlife as the lawn around your home takes