Organic Lawn Care Basics
These eco-friendly lawn care tips will keep your yard looking green and healthy. Learn how to make a natural weed killer, practice pet-safe lawn care, and more.
Lush lawns seem to be a requirement of home ownership, especially in the suburbs. It unifies the neighborhood visually when one home after another is surrounded by a carpet of emerald green grass. Lawns make great places to play, relax, and entertain. And a great landscape—of which the crowning jewel is the emerald-green lawn—can boost the value of your home.
Unfortunately, great lawns usually are not very environmentally friendly. They require fertilizer, pest control, weed killers, and lots of water, plus a lot of labor on our part. Keeping the grass mowed uses fossil fuel—unless you use goats, a push mower, or an electric- or battery-powered mower to trim all those green blades. For all those reasons, it makes sense to invest in a lawn that’s actually green—one that thrives without synthetic chemicals. Here’s how to go about organic-based lawn care.
Prepare the Soil
If you’ve read anything about organic gardening, you know that good soil is fundamental to growing and maintaining healthy plants. The same goes for lawns. After all, with 3,000 blades of grass per square foot (according to the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History), you’ve got a lot of hungry plants to feed.
Start by aerating an existing lawn, which has probably become compacted over time from foot traffic. Do it by hand with a pitchfork (rock it slightly as you drive it into the earth) or a mechanical aerator that you push into the ground. This chore is easier, though, if you rent a power aerator or hire a lawn service to handle it. After aerating, top-dress your lawn with a thin layer of soil amendments to nourish the earthworms and microbes. Your trusty lawn spreader will work for spreading most commercial organic fertilizers and even homemade compost as long as it has been well screened to remove sticks, debris, and worms from the good stuff. Scatter amendments by hand if you don’t have a spreader. Then wait for Mother Nature to do her thing.
Editor's Tip: Topdressing once a year is probably often enough. But if you’re trying to bring an abused lawn back to life, topdressing several times a year may be helpful.
Choose the Right Grasses
If you’re planting a new lawn, keep in mind that lawn grasses need at least 4 inches of good soil in which to sink their roots. Add and/or amend the soil as needed, then aerate it to give grass seeds a better chance of sprouting. Use a mechanical seeder to plant a mixture of grasses adapted to your region. (That way disease problems won't affect every blade in your lawn.) Pay attention to growing conditions as you plant; almost all grasses prefer full sun, but a few, including fine fescues, tolerate some shade. Top-dress the newly seeded lawn by spreading coconut fiber, peat moss, topsoil, or screened compost over the surface. Keep the complete area consistently damp for 2 weeks. After 3 weeks, you should be ready to start mowing.
Editor's Tip: Remember that the best lawns don’t have to be all grass. Groundcovers or planting beds (neither of which have to be mowed) may make more sense depending on growing conditions.
Don't Cut Your Lawn Too Short
Tall grass is usually healthier grass. It grows longer roots, which access more water and nutrients. And because it has more leaf area, tall grass is also more vigorous than closely mowed grass. The taller leaves also shade out weeds. To engage in eco-friendly lawn care, note that grasses grow best when kept at least 3 inches tall.
Editor's Tip: No matter what height you let your grass grow, remove no more than one-third of the grass blade in a single mowing. Removing too much at one time causes stress.
Keep Your Mower Blade Sharp
The condition of your mower blade impacts the quality of organic lawn care. A dull lawn mower blade tears grass instead of cutting it, resulting in frayed grass that's more susceptible to disease. Sharpen mower blades at the beginning of the season and again during the season if your grass looks ragged after you mow.
Leave Clippings Alone
Create organic lawn food without doing any extra work. How? By leaving clippings from mowing (no more than 1 inch long, please): As they decompose, they add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. Plus, you don't have to rake as often. Contrary to popular belief, clippings do not contribute to the buildup of thatch. Clippings from an organic lawn are also a pet-safe lawn fertilizer because they don’t contain any noxious chemicals.
Editor's Tip: Using a mulching mower minces blades of grass so they decompose faster and benefit your soil more quickly.
Thatch is a nearly impenetrable mat (made of grass blades, roots, and rhizomes) that forms over the soil. A thick layer of thatch prevents water from reaching roots and serves as a welcome mat for disease and insect pests. If thatch isn't severe, aeration may solve the problem. Thatch that’s more than ½-inch-thick requires removal by a hand- or machine-powered thatch remover. (Use it on cool-weather grass in the fall and on warm-weather grass in the spring.) You’ll have a lot to rake up afterward. But don’t fret; it won’t be an annual chore.
Editor's Tip: If you haven’t used chemicals on your lawn, you can add the raked up thatch to your compost pile.
If your ground is hard or has spots where grass fails to grow, it needs aeration. Poking holes in your lawn improves drainage, breaks up thatch, stimulates lawn growth, and improves lawn health—all without using pesticides or fertilizers. Aerate when the lawn is actively growing (spring or fall for cool-season lawns, summer for warm-season lawns).
Overwatering is antithetical to eco-friendly lawn care, and it's not good for your lawn either. Water your lawn when grass takes on a dull green or bluish color, when leaf blades begin to fold or roll, or when footprints remain in the grass after you've walked on it. Water deeply and infrequently: You want roots to grow deep into the soil. (Healthy roots extend 6 inches deep or more.) Take weekly rainfall into account before setting out the sprinkler. Water based on the weather rather than your weekly planner.
Organic Lawn Care Calendar
Because aerating kills roots, it should only be done in the spring or fall when the lawn isn’t stressed by hot weather.
Spring and fall are also the right times to improve your soil’s structure with amendments, which helps grass roots make the best use of the fertilizer you’ll provide later. If you’re not sure what your soil needs, top-dress it with a thin layer of organic compost, which balances the pH and improves water retention in sandy soils and drainage in clay soils.
Feed your lawn with an organic fertilizer around Memorial Day (late May or early June). Apply a slow-release fertilizer that will produce nitrogen gradually; that way your grass can use it all summer long. If your grass is green and not stressed by drought, apply organic fertilizer a second time in early July (around Independence Day). Apply fertilizer the final time in early fall (around Labor Day). That last application will let your grass store nutrients in its roots, which means faster greening and thicker growth the following spring.
As for mowing and watering, you need to gauge timing based on the type of grass and how fast it’s growing. In other words, don’t plan your mowings according to an abstract once-every-3-days schedule. When the grass gets longer than 4 inches, mow it down to 3 inches. When your lawn is finished growing for the season, cut it down to about 2 inches to reduce mold growth during colder weather. Water deeply and thoroughly (but not too often) so the grass develops deep roots. Rule of (green) thumb: Aim for about 1 inch of water a week. Water early in the morning so you don’t lose as much moisture to evaporation. And if you’ve got the patience, water ½ inch then wait for 30 minutes or so before watering the second ½ inch. This gives the water time to soak into the soil, rather than pooling on top.
Finding an Organic Lawn Care Service
If you’ve got good organic intentions but you don’t have the time or energy to do it yourself, look for an organic lawn care service to do it for you. (Ask questions when putting out feelers because not all lawn care companies can provide the organic lawn care you desire.) TruGreen, for example, offers TruNatural, which uses 100 percent natural fertilizer to encourage healthy grass growth. Along with organic fertilizer, Lawn Doctor provides other green services such as power seeding, aeration, soil enrichment, and pH balance adjustment. Natural Lawn of America’s Natural Alternative Lawn program customizes solutions to help your lawn grow fuller and stronger without harmful pest or weed controls. See what you can dig up in your region of the country.
Organic Weed Control
The best thing about healthy, organic lawns is that they naturally defeat most weeds without help from you or a lawn service. For example, regular mowings at a higher setting and regular fertilization discourage crabgrass, which likes poor soil and sunlight. Ignoring the occasional weedy patch will help keep you sane without resorting to chemical warfare. Dig up the really unsightly weeds by hand or with gardening tools—the only foolproof way to get rid of them.
If you really, really hate using a hoe, try an organic lawn care product for killing weeds. Corn gluten meal (CGM), a by-product of corn processing, can be sprinkled on weeds to keep them from going to seed. CGM, which can be found at almost any garden center or online, controls weeds by inhibiting the root formation of germinating seeds. It has no effect on weeds that already exist. Avoid using CGM near where you’ve planted seeds on purpose because it doesn’t discriminate.
There are also organic weed-killing sprays, which depend upon fatty acids or vinegar to do the dirty work, that you can find online or at some garden centers. They provide spot control for annual weeds but are not always effective against perennial ones.
Do you have pets or small kids? Make a safe, homemade weed killer by carefully applying boiling water or spraying on pure vinegar. Let hot water cool before allowing kids or pets to step back on the lawn. For particularly stubborn patches, you may need several applications of vinegar.
Organic Lawn Fertilizer
So what is the best organic lawn fertilizer to use on your lawn? There is no single right answer because choosing a particular product requires an understanding of your soil composition—which is easy to do with a simple DIY soil test (or by working with a Cooperative Extension Office). For example, if test results show your soil is low in potassium, you’ll want to find a fertilizer that boosts that particular nutrient.
When shopping for an organic lawn fertilizer, look for labels that use terms like “natural organic” and “slow release.” If a product claims to be organic, but it has an NPK ratio bigger than 15, leave it on the shelf. Please keep in mind that organic fertilizer availability varies greatly by region. So do your homework, then visit your local garden center or talk with a Cooperative Extension Office agent to learn more about organic lawn fertilizers that are readily available and effective for turfgrass in your region.