Is your lawn the bad side of gardening, endlessly sucking in your time, energy and money? You fertilize, mow, water, mow, spread pesticides, mow and mow some more? Well, it doesn’t have to be that way.
A lawn is a complex community of plants, insects and microorganisms, and the more we understand it, the easier it will be to successfully maintain. Organic lawn care is labor-intensive, but at least we aren’t working against ourselves and the environment with toxic chemicals.
And actually, maintaining an organic lawn isn’t difficult. With proper planting and care, nearly anyone can successfully grow a healthy, green lawn.
Whether your lawn is large or small, it needs regular maintenance to look its best. Weekly mowing during the growing season takes up the most time, but the organic lawn also needs frequent feeding, dethatching and other care to stay green and healthy.
Sharpen your mower blade at the start of each season to ensure that the grass blades are cut rather than torn. To keep grass healthy and vigorous, remove only 1/3 of the top growth each time you mow. The optimal mowing height depends on the variety of grass. In general, though, the higher you cut your grass, the deeper its roots will develop, strengthening its resistance to heat and drought.
Low grasses, such as zoysia and Bermudagrass, should be cut no shorter than 1 inch, preferably 1 1/2 inches. Cut taller-growing grasses, such as tall fescue and bluegrass, no shorter than 2 inches; 2½ to even 3 inches is better.
Mow high during summer droughts. Set the highest setting on your mower blade if the grass is really tall. Reduce the blade height for the following two mowings until you are cutting at the standard height.
If you mow regularly, let your grass clippings lay where they fall. They’ll eventually rot and enrich the soil with organic matter. Large clamps of cut grass sitting on your lawn block sunlight and promote disease. Rake them up and add them to the compost pile or use them as mulch in other parts of your yard.
The first step toward a well-fed organic lawn is to use a mulching lawn mower and let nitrogen-rich grass clippings remain where they fall when cut. Additionally, you can use compost or other organic materials to nourish your grass. (Relying on high-nitrogen chemical fertilizers can result in problem-prone, shallow-rooted turf that requires more frequent mowing.)
The most important thing to note is the time of year when the grass starts growing rapidly. This is a perfect time to apply a high-quality organic fertilizer. Plan to fertilize twice in the north, where cool-season grasses have a growth spurt in the spring, and once more in the fall.
Fertilize warm-season grasses in late spring, as soon as your lawn begins to green up, and again a few weeks later.
Choose a finely pulverized, weed-free organic fertilizer, such as processed manure or sifted compost, and spread it evenly over the lawn just before the rain is expected. Mow the grass about a week after fertilizing. Corn gluten meal is a natural fertilizer that also prevents many types of weeds from germinating.
Because lawns are frequently subjected to high foot traffic, the soil below them becomes compacted over time. Grass roots have trouble growing down and out and instead concentrate their growth at the surface.
Aerate your organic lawn every two to three years to prevent or fix it. Aerating a lawn involves poking tiny holes into the soil. For small areas, use a step-on core cultivator. For bigger lawns, rent a power aerator machine.
Mow the lawn and apply a thin layer of organic fertilizer. Aerate in one direction and then repeat crosswise. Water thoroughly.
Lime is only necessary when the pH of your soil drops to an undesirable level. Most turf grasses prefer soil pH levels ranging from 7.0 to 7.5.
Spread lime in the fall of the year, as it takes about two months to change the pH. If more than 50 pounds of lime per 1,000 square feet is required, split the amount into separate applications applied several months apart.
Planting New Lawns
Sometimes you’ll want to plant an area with lawn, such as around a newly laid patio area, or if you are moving into a newly built home that is surrounded by bare soil. To get your organic lawn off to the right start, choose grasses wisely to match your conditions.
Create a strong lawn by choosing grass varieties that are suited to your climate. New cultivars with increased disease and pest resistance, as well as drought tolerance, are continually being introduced by hybridizers. The following are some of the most commonly grown lawn grasses.
Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon), a delicate-textured, drought-tolerant grass, thrives in warmer climates. In the winter, it turns a buff brown color. Numerous runners create wear-resistant grass. Modern hybrids are much easier to keep from invading flower beds than open-pollinated strains, which are quite aggressive.
Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides) is a warm-season creeping grass that is drought-tolerant, can grow in alkaline soil and is wear-
resistant. It browns in midsummer and fall.
Centipede grass (Eremochloa ophiuroides) is a warm-season, coarse-leaved creeping grass with good drought tolerance. Plant in low-wear areas.
Fine fescues (Festuca spp.) is a cool-season, creeping, fine-textured, dark green grass with good shade tolerance. Often mixed with Kentucky bluegrass.
Kentucky bluegrass(Poa pratensis) is a cool-season, lush, dark green grass with narrow blades that needs plenty of sunlight. May become dormant during summer droughts or during winter freezes. Creeping stolons knit tough turf.
Turf-type Tall Fescue
Turf-type Tall Fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is a coarse, medium-green grass that tolerates both sun and shade and is becoming increasingly popular in the central United States. Most of the year, updated cultivars remain green. Drought tolerant. Because it grows in low bunches and doesn’t creep, it’s frequently combined with other grasses.
Zoysia grass (Zoysia spp.) is a medium-green, creeping, fine-textured grass for full sun—green in warm weather, tan in the winter.
Seeding & Planting An Organic Lawn
All lawn grasses require at least 4 inches of good topsoil in which to stretch their roots. You’ll need to apply new topsoil if your new yard has been scraped down to the subsoil. Whether you plan to start with seed or sod, site preparation is the same: Thoroughly cultivate new or existing topsoil, adding a 1-inch layer of compost or other organic matter. Rake out all weeds and roots, cultivate again and rake smooth. Use a roller to evenly compact the site and make it level.
Selection is very important when buying grass seeds. Improved cultivars of the best lawn grasses are more expensive than their open-pollinated relatives yet perform better. Select cultivars that have been specifically bred for drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance, or other traits. For even distribution, use a mechanical seeder. After seeding, roll the area and keep it continuously moist for two weeks. Start mowing three weeks after seeding.
Sod is the fastest way to have an attractive lawn, although it costs more than seeds. It’s perfect for spot repairs, especially in high-
traffic areas or on slopes. Warm-season grasses should be planted from late spring to early summer, while cool-season species should be planted in early spring or from late summer to early fall.
Use only fresh, green strips. Before they are planted, keep them moist and shaded. Slopes are best suited for ground covers, but if you decide to plant grass on a slope, make sure to work crosswise along the slope. After planting, roll or walk on the strips to push the roots into the soil. Water every two to three days for three weeks after planting.
Plugs & Springs
Some types of lawn grasses, including rhizomatous warm-season grasses, such as St. Augustine, zoysia and centipede, are planted using plugs or sprigs, as well as sod. While plugs and sprigs are less expensive than sod, the time it takes for them to grow into a dense lawn may be longer. To use these, prepare the soil the same way you would for sod, and keep the plugs or sprigs cool and moist until you are ready to plant them. Plant plugs in rows, individually.
Sprigs, the grass’s runners or stolons, can also be planted in rows, or they can be broadcast over the planting area and then individually pressed down into the soil surface. (You may tear up sheets of sod to make your own or purchase sprigs by the bushel.) With plugs and sprigs, keep the soil evenly moist but not too wet until they are established and vigorously growing. This can take four weeks or more.
Coping with Problems
A healthy lawn is naturally more resistant to weeds, insects and disease problems. A tight cover of vigorous grass will outcompete weeds. A loose, well-drained soil helps prevent disease issues. Because proper fertilization promotes the growth of strong, healthy turf, it can go a long way toward preventing lawn problems.
The majority of today’s grass cultivars provide genetically enhanced resistance to many pests and diseases. If you have consistently problematic lawn areas, consider replanting them with an improved cultivar or trying an alternative to lawn grass. Ground covers work especially well as lawn alternatives.
If your lawn develops weed or pest problems, take a few simple steps. Use a small, sharp knife to slice off any established weeds about 1 inch below the soil surface. If more than half of the plants in your lawn are weeds, renovate the lawn by replanting.
When subterranean insect larvae, such as white grubs, feed on grass roots, they can cause significant damage. Apply milky disease spores for long-term pest management. Biological insecticides that utilize parasitic nematodes to control numerous insects likely to feed beneath your lawn.
While you don’t necessarily have to water your lawn, if you want a lush green lawn in the middle of summer, you’ll need to water it. Water deeply and regularly for three to four hours at a time—once a week for heavy soil and every other day for sandy soil.
Deep watering (enough to wet 6 inches of soil) encourages roots to grow downward rather than near the surface. Surface-rooted plants need to be watered more frequently. As a result, the surface remains perpetually moist, which promotes the growth of weeds and the spread of disease. Deep roots stay cooler and are less likely to go dormant in the summer heat. To keep growing, most lawns require about 1 inch of water per week.
Ruts left by vehicles or scars caused by the removal of shrubs or trees require immediate spot repairs. If damage occurs in winter, prepare the soil and cover it with mulch until spring.
Loosen the soil in the damaged area, reserving any grass plants that appear to be healthy. As you work, keep them wet and shaded. To condition the soil, add a 1/2-inch layer of compost or other organic matter, along with enough good topsoil to raise the level of the damaged area 1 inch above the surrounding soil level. Reseed or replant, matching the primary species in your yard. For a month, water regularly.
All lawns have thatch, a layer of grass clippings that gradually decompose and feed the roots. If the layer is less than 1/4-inch thick, there is no need to remove it. Thatch problems are frequently caused by the overuse of synthetic chemical fertilizers, which encourage grass to grow quickly and lushly.
As clippings build up into a thick layer of thatch, grass plants are unable to get enough air for healthy growth. Use a thatch rake to break up thatch in a small lawn. Rent a vertical mower to dethatch a larger area.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.