Benefits of Organic Lawn Care
While achieving the results you want with organic lawn products may take longer than chemical products, there are practical, long-term benefits to using organic lawn care:
- Organic lawn care can create a healthy lawn that has more resistance to disease and pests.
- Organic lawns tend to need less water than lawns that use synthetic chemicals.
- Organic lawn products support the growth of microbes that improve the health and structure of the soil.
- Organic lawn care decreases the contact children, pets and wildlife have with synthetic chemicals.
Conduct a Soil Test
If you’re transitioning your lawn to an organic one, you’ll first need to strengthen the existing lawn. The soil provides nutrients for the lawn. One of the first steps to a healthy lawn is a soil test. This will give you an idea about the elements and micronutrients that exist in your soil. A soil test will also indicate what your plants need.
Read Test and Improve Your Soil for more information on soil testing.
Aerate the Lawn
Over time, soil becomes compacted from foot traffic, snow, heavy machinery and other things that apply pressure on the soil. This compaction prevents proper circulation of much-needed air, water and nutrients, and starves the roots. Aerating allows these essential elements to penetrate the soil to the grass roots, which promotes a healthier lawn.
Aerate in the early spring or fall for cool-season grass and in the late spring for warm-season grass.
Before you begin the aeration process:
- Rake up any leaves, twigs, etc.
- Make sure the soil is moist. Water your lawn a day in advance, or wait until the day after it rains.
A spike aerator is a tool that pokes holes in the ground, allowing air and water to reach the roots. It's best used for soil that easily crumbles. A plug aerator, which pokes holes in the ground and removes a plug of grass or dirt to decompact the soil, is usually more effective, especially on lawns with a lot of clay soil that easily clumps. The best time to use a plug aerator is during your lawn’s active growing season. Read more at Aerate Your Lawn.
Use Your Grass Clippings
Nitrogen is a good food source for growing grass, so don’t bag mowed clippings. Instead, keep the clippings on the lawn. As the clippings decompose and break down, they add nitrogen and organic matter to the lawn and act as natural lawn food.
While grass clippings are a natural and beneficial way to feed and fertilize the lawn, thatch (an interwoven buildup of grass, roots and other organic matter) could be suffocating the grass. Thatch is caused by the overuse of chemical fertilizers, soil compaction, overwatering or infrequent mowing.
Some amount of thatch is normal, about 1/2 inch or less. However, too much thatch indicates that the microorganisms in the soil aren’t breaking down the organic matter fast enough.
Read Remove and Prevent Lawn Thatch to find out more about thatch.
Fertilize With Organic Products
When it comes to organic lawn care, what you feed your lawn is important. Over time, soil will lose many of its nutrients. Fertilizing is a cost-effective way to help replenish important nutrients for a healthy lawn. Chemical fertilizers can make the soil acidic and harm the soil structure over time.
Organic lawn fertilizer adds organic matter to the soil, which stimulates microbial activity and improves its structure. Compost is an excellent fertilizer. Organic fertilizers typically release slower than chemical fertilizers. This slow release feeds the grass over a longer time period. Organic fertilizers also improve the soil health, maximize water retention and are better for the environment.
Top-Dress Your Lawn
Top-dressing your lawn with soil amendments provides a number of benefits, including reducing thatch buildup, improving the soil quality by reintroducing beneficial microorganisms, reducing stress on the lawn and it helps the soil retain moisture. Top-dressing is best done with compost, but you can also use manure, a mixture of compost and sand, or sand alone.
Before top-dressing, mowing the lawn and aerating are both good practices to consider. This helps the microorganisms and nutrients to penetrate deeper into the soil. Also dethatch the lawn if necessary.
To top-dress, spread the material over the lawn to a depth of 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Using the back of a rake, lightly brush the grass to get as much of the top dressing to touch the soil as possible.
Kill Weeds Naturally
Lawn weeds — such as dandelions, crabgrass and clover — can be relentless nuisances that overtake your landscape. Soil compaction, poor drainage and improper fertilization are a few reasons that grass weeds can develop.
In an ideal lawn, you want to prevent weed growth in the first place. However, once weeds sprout, the optimal time to attack them is when they’re young and actively growing. The safest and most environmentally safe way to remove weeds is by hand or with garden tools. It’s important to remove as much of the root as possible. When weeding by hand, pull the weed close to the base. Large, deeply rooted weeds may require a tool like a garden or weed fork.
You can also control weeds by using an organic weed and grass solution. Organic herbicides kill weeds without the use of synthetic chemicals. They contain active ingredients such as ammoniated soap of fatty acids and salt. Note that organic and natural weed killers are typically nonselective herbicides. They’ll kill grass and other plants as well as weeds. Make sure to follow the label instructions and apply carefully to avoid unintentional damage to your lawn.
You may be able to use household vinegar as part of your weed control plan with a recipe for creating a homemade weed killer: Mix a cup of salt and a tablespoon of dish soap with a gallon of white vinegar (5% acetic acid). If you choose to use a household vinegar weed killer, it may be best to limit it to areas such as the joints in driveways or spaces between pavers, away from your lawn and other plants. Applying the vinegar weed killer to young weeds with a spray bottle can cause the weeds to shrivel, but the vinegar mixture won’t affect a developed root system. Repeated treatment may be needed, and salt buildup from these applications can damage the soil. In addition, the DIY weed killer is nonselective; the acetic acid and salt will damage both weeds and desirable plants.
What are OMRI-listed products? The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is an organization that reviews products such as fertilizers and pesticides to determine their suitability for organic use. When shopping for organic plant-care products, look for OMRI-listed products displaying the OMRI seal.
When using lawn-care and plant-care products, always follow package directions for application and safety procedures. Wear eye protection and any other specified protective equipment as well as proper clothing.
Use Organic Pesticides
Weeds aren’t the only pests in the lawn or garden. As an alternative to synthetic pesticides, organic pest control products help control fungi, insects and spiders with active ingredients such as:
- Bacillus Thuringiensis: Also known as Bt, this bacterium kills some types of insect larvae — such as those of beetles, caterpillars and mosquitoes — when they ingest it.
- Neem Oil: An extract from the seeds of a tropical tree, neem oil can kill insects such as aphids, thrips, slugs and whiteflies. It can also help prevent some diseases caused by fungi.
- Diatomaceous Earth: Composed of the crushed exoskeletons of microscopic aquatic organisms, diatomaceous earth (DE) can kill hard-bodied insects such as mites, fleas and beetles.
- Mineral Oil: This oil suffocates insects and can disrupt the development of some insect eggs.
- Potassium Salts of Fatty Acids: This material combats soft-bodied insects and fungi.
- Essential Oils: Products that contain thyme oil, sesame oil, peppermint oil and rosemary oil can repel insects and make it more difficult for insects such as ticks, fleas and flies to find a host.
Keep in mind that organic insecticides typically require more applications than synthetic products to control pests.
Follow These Quick Tips for a Healthy, Green Lawn
- For a thick lawn, keep the grass tall to yield stronger roots. When mowing, set the lawn mower blades high, and keep the grass length around 2-1/2 to 3 inches.
- Dull mower blades tear the grass as opposed to cutting. Keep mower blades sharp.
- Don’t mow the lawn when it’s very hot outside.
- Don’t mow the grass when it’s wet.
- If possible, water the grass early in the morning.
- Only water the grass when needed. Water deeply and infrequently to help the roots grow deep into the soil.
- Aerate regularly to stimulate lawn growth.
- Read the labels on any lawn-care products. Look for words like “toxic,” “dangerous,” “hazardous,” etc., and avoid these products when caring for an organic lawn.