Thursday, September 13, 2007

Transitioning your lawn to organic

The prior owner of our house had one of those trophy lawns... you know the type. "Perfect," green, short, high-maintenance, and high chemical input. We've even had neighbors tell us how much they were impressed with the prior owner's lawn. If you live in a house with one of those "perfect" lawns, it'll probably take a little longer to get it looking good organically: your lawn is like a drug addict, and it'll take awhile from it to recover from its high-nitrogen, frequent-watering ways.

Compost quick-start to an organic lawn

How much you fuss with your yard -- and how quickly you can get it into good, organic shape -- depends in part on how large your yard is. We used this method on our 1/2 acre yard in Texas and, although it was a lot of work (and required a *lot* of compost), the lawn looked fantastic even when it was in transition from chemical to organic. We have close to an acre now, so I expect it'll take a lot longer (or require a lot more work) before our lawn recovers.

  • A garden fork (like a pitchfork, but with thicker tines).
  • Good-quality compost; I don't know if cotton burr compost is available around here, but that's what we've used in the past. Mushroom compost is also good. Look at nurseries instead of home improvement stores, and steer clear of the composted cow manure that you get in the big box stores: it's too heavy and muddy, and the quality varies too much.
  • Rake.
  • Water hose or sprinkler.
Stick the lawn fork in the grass and rock it gently back and forth to open up some holes. Repeat every few feet in the yard. This is going to accomplish several things:
  1. If your lawn has thatch, this is going to open up spaces in the thatch layer to allow water and nutrients to reach the soil.
  2. It aerates the soil: oxygen is important for good plant growth.
  3. It allows the compost to be applied further down to the soil where it's needed.
Next, sprinkle compost over your lawn. How much should you use? Even a little will help, but ideally you'd like enough to provide a 1/2-inch or so over the entire yard. Rake it in to work the compost down into the holes you just created with the garden fork, and to fluff up the grass so it doesn't get smothered under the compost.

Water it in. This step is optional, to get your grass looking better faster. Compost does not burn your lawn and you shouldn't have applied enough to smother the grass, so if you choose to wait for the next rain that's ok.


Whether or not you choose to start with compost, you can still maintain your yard without synthetics. The secret is to mow regularly, and keep your mower on the highest height setting. Longer leaves on the grass allow for deeper roots, which are more resistant to our summer dry spells. Mowing regularly also helps to keep weeds under control. If you need to water, water deeply (at least 1-2 inches) but not often -- maybe once/week during a dry part of summer. This also encourages deeper root growth.

Don't think "fertilization" . . . think "food". There are companies that make prepackaged organic lawn amendments, but you can't find any you can start in the feed store. We use cotton seed meal on our yard since that's something we've been able to find here in the St. Louis area. Alfalfa meal, coffee grounds, Mexican bat guano, or other amendments can also be used to provide nitrogen to your lawn. In the spirit of "food" not "drugs", I prefer to alternate amendments instead of using the same thing over and over. Most organic amendments won't burn if you use a lot or are not watered in, but be careful with bat guano because it's stronger and can burn if you use too much. As with any fine powder, wear a mask to avoid breathing it in.

You do not have to be careful about application rates when applying organic amendments since most don't burn, but a good rule of thumb is 25 pounds per 1000 square feet. This means that a 40-pound bag will cover 1600 square feet. Different amendments have different recommended application rates, but they all have a pretty wide range. You can find a fertilizer calculator here if you want to be more precise.

"Weeds" are an interesting subject for an organic homeowner. Nature always seems to thrive best with diversity, while monocultures invite pests and diseases. If you're going after a monoculture lawn (the traditional "perfect" one), you're probably not going to have the healthiest one. Mowing high and hand-pulling the worst of the weeds is often all that is required.

Corn gluten meal can be used to keep the weed population in check. Corn gluten meal works by preventing seed germination, so obviously it won't work on weeds that spread through other methods. In order to get the benefit from this product, you need to apply it at the right time, which is just as it's getting warm enough for weed seeds to germinate. If weeds are already growing in your yard then it's probably too late. It also takes a couple years of applying each spring before you'll see full benefit, since it doesn't eliminate 100% of weeds. Corn gluten meal is also a pretty decent fertilizer so even if you didn't get the timing right for the weeds you'll still get the benefit of the nutrients. If you can find an inexpensive source of corn gluten meal (perhaps at feed stores) then it's a low-risk thing to try, but if you can only find expensive prepackaged sources then the payoff might not be worth it.

Does this really work?

We rented a house for a year after we moved here, while we figured out where we wanted to buy. It was in a neighborhood full of well-maintained (but not organic) lawns: most people paid a service to mow & fertilize, and those that didn't housed guys who faithfully rode the lawnmower every Saturday morning. Our house sat vacant for a while before we rented, so although the yard was mowed regularly it obviously wasn't fussed with very much. The summer before we moved, imagine my husband's pride when the next door neighbor -- one of the faithful Saturday morning mowers -- asked my husband what was his secret, since our lawn always looked so good, especially considering that we rented!

We'll have more challenges with the new house, I suspect. Instead of the pretty green grass (I don't even know what type) we find in the shady areas, we have zoysia -- and drug-addicted zoysia at that -- all over the sunny parts of the yard. I'll keep you posted on our progress.

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