Step 1: Adjust your expectations
Going organic isn’t difficult, but it does take some effort, especially if you’re making the switch from chemical fertilizers. And although an organic lawn eventually looks great, it can take two or three years for it to look as thick and deep green each spring as a lawn on a chemical diet. If that sounds OK, then going organic is really about continuing the basic lawn maintenance you’ve been doing all along, with a few important differences. This article will tell you the five most important things you need to do to have a healthy and attractive organic lawn.
You can have a beautiful lawn without chemicals, but it’s not going to be as weed-free. Going organic with your lawn means following good basic lawn care practices and using organic fertilizers and natural weed control methods. It also means accepting the reality of a chemical-free lawn—a slower green-up each spring and a lawn with a few more weeds.
Step 2: Find out what nutrients your soil needs
Testing your soil is crucial, especially if you’ve been using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which can destroy soil nutrients and beneficial microbes. Store-bought testing kits aren’t very accurate. Instead, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service lab (to find yours, visit csrees.usda.gov). For $10 to $20, most labs will provide detailed soil collection instructions and pre-addressed soil-testing bags that you can use to send in your soil sample. After testing, the lab will send you specific information about your lawn’s soil type, nutrient levels and pH. Most important, the lab will make suggestions for improving your soil.
Step 3: Use organic fertilizers
Grass clippings provide about half the nutrients your lawn needs. For the other half, use organic fertilizer, which is made from composted plant waste, manure and other natural materials.
Use your soil test as a guide to selecting the right kind and amount of fertilizer. Organic fertilizers cost about a third more per pound than chemical fertilizers, and you need to use more of them at a time. But since they feed the grass over a longer period of time, you apply them less often and the price difference generally equals out. The main drawback of organic fertilizers is that they release nutrients more slowly, so grass doesn’t green up as quickly in the spring.
Step 4: Fight weeds naturally
Over time, a healthy chemical-free lawn will discourage most weeds on its own. But if weeds start to take over, try these options:
- Pull them manually.
- Spot-spray with a vinegar or orange oil–based weed killer (about $7 for 32-oz. concentrate at garden centers).
- Spread new grass seed over your existing lawn.
- Sprinkle corn gluten over your lawn in early spring or in fall ($30 for 25 lbs. at garden centers). Corn gluten will prevent crabgrass and other annual weeds, but it takes a few years to become effective.
Step 5: Top dress with compost
Add microbes back into your soil by top-dressing your lawn with a 1/2-in. layer of compost once a year. That’s about 1 cu. yd. of compost per 1,000 sq. ft. of lawn. Spread it around your yard, and use a push broom to sweep it off the grass blades so you don’t smother the lawn. Then water it into the soil. This is most effective if you aerate your lawn first.
Wean Your Lawn From Chemicals Gradually
If you’ve had your lawn on a chemical diet and you want to “go green” gradually, here are two things that will help your lawn look better while you make the switch.
Use a “bridge” fertilizer that contains both organic and synthetic nitrogen to wean your lawn from chemicals over two to four years. These are typically labeled “organic-based” and the label will list different types of nitrogen. The synthetic nitrogen produces a quicker spring green-up while the organic nitrogen releases slowly and encourages soil microbes.
Reseed your lawn with grass varieties that will work with your existing turf, climate and soil. Talk to your extension service about varieties that require the least fertilizing and watering. Use a mixture of grass species when over-seeding to make the lawn less susceptible to drought, disease, weed and insect problems.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Visit eartheasy.com, ohioline.osu.edu/lines/hygs.html and safelawns.org. Also check out The Organic Lawn Care Manual by Paul Tukey (This book is available through our affiliation with amazon.com for about $18.)